Earlier this year, we all went through the “Google Leaving China” debacle. To review, a combination of frustrations had brought Google to reconsider its willingness to continue operating the Google.cn search property as they had previously agreed upon with the Chinese government. Google sought to renegotiate, while the government insisted that companies operating in China must abide by China’s laws. Set on no longer abiding by those laws and knowing they could not legally operate in China as a result, Google shuttered Google.cn and told Chinese internet users they can use Google search at google.com.hk.
Much has already been said of the ramifications surrounding this turn of events, of the potential good and harm it has done, to freedom and to mainland Chinese netizens. I won’t rehash them here. I do, however, want to take a look at how things are now, several months later, and revisit some of the things we had openly anticipated and feared.
The Chinese Government Hasn’t Blocked Google Since It Left…
In the days and weeks following Google’s unilateral decision to follow through on its threat to no longer censor Google.cn by dismantling it and redirecting to google.com.hk, many of us sat here nervously awaiting the Chinese government’s response. We were all waiting to see if the Chinese government would censor Google search completely for Chinese netizens by blocking google.com.hk and any other Google search property. We were waiting to see if the Chinese government would throw a hissy fit and “punish” Google by blocking more than just search but also many of Google’s other famously practical and useful services like GMail and its then-recently-released Google Buzz.
The Chinese government did neither, showing a measure of restraint widely unexpected by many of its critics. Others rationalized that any additional theatrics from the government’s side would only hurt the government more, by drawing more attention to their censorship policies, something that is begrudgingly assented to but still largely unpopular. To this day, Chinese internet users can still access Google internet search by typing in Google.cn and being redirected to google.com.hk.
Some of us, including myself, thought the Chinese government would revoke Google.cn domain name (it can directly control the registration for .cn domain names). Doing so would disrupt the Google.cn to google.com.hk redirect that gave some superficial semblance of Google still being available “in China”. As long as mainland users could type “google.cn” and reach an actual Google search engine, it would seem like Google was still available in China as usual. I figured if Google wasn’t going to play by the government’s censorship rules, the government may not opt to completely ban Google but it wouldn’t do Google any favors by letting them keep a functioning redirect to maintain that superficial semblance. I was wrong.
Maybe the reasons are technical. There remain quite a few non-search-related Google services1 tied to and still accessible under the google.cn domain name despite the top-level domain name itself being redirected to google.com.hk. Maybe revoking the entire domain name would cause too many problems for these remaining services. Maybe the government reasoned to eliminating the redirect would also draw more unwanted attention that wasn’t worth disrupting the superficial semblance Google is maintaining. Maybe they just don’t care as much as we thought they would.
But Baidu Has Gotten Stronger…
While Google hasn’t been categorically blocked and Chinese internet users are still free to use most of Google’s services (including — albeit still censored — internet search), one thing that everyone expected did indeed come to pass: Baidu benefiting from losing its only serious rival. A month following the end of Google.cn saw Google’s China marketshare drop nearly 13% while Baidu’s market share increased around 9.6%. While Baidu’s stock rose 14%, Google’s dropped 12%.
Part of Baidu’s increases here were due first to the uncertainty of Google staying in the mainland China search market and then to Google leaving. However, much of it is because Baidu’s services work just fine. In fact, they clearly provide enough utility for the majority of Chinese internet users to continue using them. It isn’t a stretch to acknowledge that at least some of Baidu’s success is actually legitimate, as a result of its own good decisions and positioning for available opportunities. It isn’t a stretch to also acknowledge that some of Baidu’s success is a direct result of Google not making good decisions and not being positioned for the same available opportunities. However much Baidu has benefited from offering pirated music, questionable government interference, or even any conscious home-team bias the Chinese market can be accused of, no company becomes so successful without at least some competency. You can blame market inertia or even market ignorance but no matter what you say, it will never change the basic fact that Baidu has thus far read and played its market more successfully than its competitors. Life isn’t fair.
Therefore, what I am about to say next is mostly me viewing Baidu through my own colored-lenses, which are admittedly heavily influenced by Google and how Google has treated me as an internet user. So no, I’m not being fair, but I am being honest.
And Baidu Is Fucking Garbage
No one fears Baidu seriously threatening Google’s dominance outside of the domestic Chinese market, but a good deal of people outside of Baidu and Baidu’s investors have good reason to lament Baidu’s success and any extra success at the expense of Google’s departure. Why? Because Baidu doesn’t just engage in ethically questionable business practices, but does so without any apparent sense of shame.
Google, of course, is far from a saint, but I’ll go out on a limb and argue that the average person actually has to dig to find any dirt on Google, the kind of dirt that has clearly negative impacts upon both the individual and broader society that depends on its services. In contrast, for Baidu, all it takes is a single search to see shady business practices that systematically mislead and exploit its users.
At the end of March, after Google’s departure, well-known entrepreneur Marc van der Chijs remarked:
One big difference between Baidu and Google is how the paid results are mixed with organic search results. Both sites insert paid results, but Google gives them a yellow background so that it’s clear that they are different from the normal search results. Baidu does not do that, they look exactly the same as normal results, except for the characters 推广（tui guang) after the ad. Normal results have 白度快照 (Baidu kuai zhao). Of course the average Chinese netizen probably does not know this.
This is nothing new, they have done this for a long time already. But what changed over the past few weeks, is that they now don’t sell 2 or 3 paid positions, but for some keywords up to 10 positions! For example, if you do a search for the Chinese word for game (游戏), the first 10 results are all paid results. If you look at the screen shot for the search I did, you only see paid results, both on the left and right side. Not one organic result pops up on the main page. [...]
I think that Baidu is able to do this only because it’s a quasi-monopolist now. With Google gone to Hong Kong they suddenly have the whole search engine market for themselves. If you are annoyed by their search results you don’t have a good alternative.
Two months later today, it is the same situation:
Every single one of those “results” (on the left side) are paid advertisements. While the advertisements have changed since March, there are still 10 of them nearly indistinguishable from the organic (ranked according to the search engine’s relevancy algorithms) results buried below them. Compare that to the paid advertisements that may be placed within Google’s results:
Notice the subtle but distinct background color difference, the explicit “Sponsored Links” disclaimer, and how the paid results are formatted differently from organic results, with the website URL coming before the description, and a noticeably shorter description length.
Yes, Baidu has the right to sell and insert as many ads as it wants to fund its service, make a living. Furthermore, to be fair, not all of the search results Baidu offers up are plagued with this sort of “advertisement posing as legitimate search result” phenomenon either. Just many of the most popular and basic keywords.
Last night, in a conference call with analysts, Baidu unveiled its response: A new system that more clearly separates its paid links from ordinary search results.
“We are doing this because we care. It is important to us. We want to be a responsible corporate citizen,” said Baidu chief executive Robin Li.
This conference call was from November…2008. Prior to it, Baidu had been “exposed” by CCTV, China’s state television broadcaster, for featuring advertisements just like those above that led to scam websites. Getting your money cheated is one thing, but imagine getting medical services from the unlicensed hospitals or ingesting any medicine from the unlicensed pharmaceutical companies that have paid their way to the top of Baidu’s search results. Imagine getting fleeced while having an abortion.
Nearly two years later, not only has Baidu not evidenced any “care” to be a “responsible corporate citizen”2, it has sold more of its search results to companies and scammers, is still regularly accused of manipulating or censoring its search results for companies suffering PR disasters, and has only become emboldened by Google’s departure.
I’m very understanding about the desire to make money. I’m not very understanding about the willingness to deceive people, to do so. Even if they’re fools. As such, I have little tolerance for the scam operations, deceptive advertising, and companies that knowingly facilitate others doing such for a cut of the profits, which is exactly what Baidu is doing, knowingly.
On one hand, I’m happy that my worst fears of Google being categorically blocked in China were not realized. On the other hand, I’m still deeply disappointed and aggravated by what I see as Baidu largely having free reign over the Chinese internet search market, and all because Google isn’t making any serious efforts to fight them for it.
No, I don’t like that Google has to self-censor to do so, but I don’t like the idea of Baidu getting away with all of these antics without a real competitor to challenge it, a competitor providing and promoting to Chinese netizens a different search experience, one where search results aren’t potential landmines. I don’t like that Chinese netizens aren’t being fought for by Google, and being educated in the process, educated that business can be done differently.
I felt that Google having an active, dedicated presence in China explicitly seeking to serve the mainland Chinese market and all its quirks and obstacles at least communicated good faith to Chinese netizens. Google was saying, “I’ll meet you halfway so we can play together”. It made the “Google alternative” less like foreign fruit only foreigners can enjoy and more a real alternative to Baidu, to Baidu’s search results, to Baidu’s shady business practices.
Yes, its selfish, selfish to think Google ought to compromise something it cares about for what I think is a greater good it can do right now for a lot of people I think need to see that it can be done. But that’s how I feel. A less censored and more free internet is definitely desirable, but if we can’t get everything we want at the same time, if we have to fight our battles one at a time, I do feel that a more transparent and less scammy set of search results contributes a whole lot of good towards furthering the development and sophistication of China’s businesses and consumers3. It just so happens that more sophisticated Chinese businesses and consumers would be the kind of troops needed in future battle for less censorship and more freedom. One step at a time.
True, by virtue of still being accessible within mainland China, Google in Hong Kong is still an “alternative”, but having left the Chinese market also — however unfairly or irrelevantly or inadvertently — communicated that their way doesn’t work in China, that their way doesn’t work for China, that their way doesn’t work with the Chinese people. It taught the people to lose hope, to resign themselves to Baidu, that Baidu’s way of doing things is the only way to succeed in China. That’s not true and good examples of it not being true are needed to remind people that its not true. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but the best way to counter the 没办法4 is to show someone there is a 办法5.
Google in Hong Kong is different from Google in China. With the former, its easy to say “well, Hong Kong is different” and it is. With the latter, there’s one less tired excuse.
Of course, it may even be short-sighted of me, to have placed so much hope and faith on an enlightened monarch, on Google being that “good” example. After all, Google’s motto is “Do no evil”, not “Do good” nor “Be a good example”, right? For all we know, Google might become fucking garbage the very moment it achieves incontestable global internet search dominance. Who knows? It could happen. They’re human, or Ozymandias.
Hell, is it even fair to ask a company to save a market from its less scrupulous competitors? From their own gullibility? That’s what governments are for, right? Hell, sometimes people should be allowed to suffer their own mistakes. Sometimes, that’s the only way they’ll ever learn. I’ve argued as much for a number of things. But if Google can be the “champion of freedom” for others, it can at least be a “good example of better business practices” for me, dammit.
Yes, this is all crying over spilled milk. It isn’t possible for Google to re-enter the Chinese search market now. It can’t re-enter until there has been enough change on the censorship to avoid further suspicion and resentment amongst Chinese users. Therefore, I’m more or less ranting and whining about what I wish had not happened, kinda sorta unfairly blaming Google for what fucking garbage Baidu was, is, and will foreseeably continue to be.
It is indeed paternalistic of me, but I do think Google still being around as a good example and solid competitor would have contributed to the faster development of China and the Chinese people, and toward mainstream norms and ideals that are shared with much of the rest of the world. This setback isn’t likely to change the overall direction of China’s integration with the larger dominant world community, but I still don’t like that people are getting conned now and Baidu is enjoying any success as a result. Many disagree with me on what Google should or shoudn’t have done, but with Baidu, I’m probably preaching to the choir.
- Such as maps, music, and translation. [↩]
- Okay, maybe that’s not true. It has probably created plenty of jobs for the Chinese. [↩]
- For the record, I don’t think this is a racial or cultural issue, as some are wont to declare. [↩]
- mei ban fa, there’s no way to avoid something or do otherwise. [↩]
- ban fa, a way [↩]