Everyone knows about Google, the ballooning tech giant that may one day own our very souls. They already own YouTube. Then there's the ubiquitous webmail platform and forays into mobile phone service, smart homes, and other ventures.
But most of us met Google as a search engine. It wasn't the first search engine, but its plain white, no-frills interface took over the concept of search so that "Google" became synonymous with search— "I'll Google it." You know your brand is successful when it becomes the go-to verb for its service.
Other search engines exist, but Google dominates 91% of the market share in the US, with over 7 billion searches a year, leaving its nearest competitors Bing and Yahoo in the dust.
Of passing interest to consumers - and of serious interest to internet marketers - is the fact that the second largest search engine in the world, with over 1.5 billion searches per day, is one that most Americans have never even heard of. You may know how to Google something, but do you know how to Baidu something?
Built from the bones of Robin Li's 1996 search engine RankDex, Baidu Inc. (BIDU) was incorporated in 2000 in the Cayman Islands by Li and Eric Xu. From its headquarters in the Haidian District of Beijing, the managers operate one of the largest internet and artificial intelligence companies in the world.
Baidu offers over 57 web services, including Baidu Maps, Baidu Wangpan (cloud storage), and Baidu Baike (online encyclopedia).
But the core of Baidu is the search engine, which is the fourth largest website in the world according to Alexa internet rankings.
Well, you probably have heard of Baidu if you have spent any amount of time in China. Chinese people know about Baidu. It's easily the most popular search engine and web company in the former stomping grounds of the Qin dynasty.
The truth is, Baidu's popularity and ubiquity is limited almost entirely to China, because its indexing and algorithms strongly favor Chinese content and companies.
Consider the global footprint of Google vs. Baidu. Google, headquartered in the US city of Mountain View, CA, dominates 90% of the US search market.
Baidu, by comparison, has cornered 80% of the search market in China. Not quite as dominant as Google within its home country, but no slouch.
Now let's expand our focus to the entire world. Google dominates a whopping 92% of the worldwide search market - even larger than its US market share. Less than half of Google's revenue is generated from US-based sources.
Baidu's volume, by contrast, represents only 1.44% of the global search market, with 99% of its revenue generated in China. Basically, Baidu is a big deal in China, but nowhere else.
In many ways, Baidu is a snapshot of where Google was about five years ago, but with a distinctly Chinese bent. Here are some of the key algorithmic differences to be aware of when comparing Google and Baidu:
Google's service targets the entire world's worth of websites, indexing Chinese sites on par with every other site.
Baidu, by contrast, offers higher ranking to sites with servers located in China, as well as sites with content written in Chinese languages. This is sometimes referred to as "The Great Firewall."
It is fairly quick and easy to get a site indexed by Google, especially once a few high-quality backlinks are pointed at it.
Tighter internet regulations in China mean that Baidu usually takes several days longer than Google to index a site.
Google has state-of-the-art AI image recognition software that helps the search engine identify relevant images without relying on alt text.
Baidu, on the other hand, uses alt text and adjacent plain text to help identify images relevant to searches.
Duplicate content used to be a significant bugaboo for webmasters, but Google's algorithm has advanced to identify whether or not duplicate content has come from the same company, reducing the risk of a webmaster reusing content across platforms.
Baidu still penalizes duplicate content, and quite harshly.
Google's algorithm is extremely effective at identifying link spam, weighting powerful backlinks heavily despite their origin.
Baidu places more weight on China-based backlinks, but that emphasis leaves Baidu vulnerable to SEO manipulation through link spam.
Google's robust system of ranking penalization is very transparent. Webmasters can view their penalization and manual action status in their Google back office. It can be hard to come back from a Google ranking penalty, but it is doable.
Baidu SEO penalties are draconian and often represent a death blow to the site. It can take years to rebuild the site's rankings back.
Meta keywords used to be a big part of the Google search algorithm, but Google has adapted to ignore meta keywords. Only the meta description factors into Google's search ranking.
Baidu, by contrast, still uses meta keywords as a factor in assigning a ranking.
Licensing represents a major difference between Google and Baidu and is emblematic of the looser control the US holds on internet access. No license is required to get indexed by Google and start climbing the ranks.
Baidu will still index sites that have no license, but gives substantial ranking preference to webmasters who purchase an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license.
ICP licenses are issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), a governmental oversight bureau. In effect, in order to rank highly on Baidu, you need to register with the government.
There are two types of ICP licenses issued by MIIT:
To get an individual ICP license, a person must have a phone number and mailing address in mainland China, which Baidu will verify.
To get a business ICP license, a company must obtain a Chinese business license.
Two key Baidu algorithms are Money Plant and Pomegranate.
Money Plant has been compared to Google's Penguin algorithm and Yandex's Minusinsk algorithm. Money Plant lessens the power and signal of link farms, private blog networks (PBN), link-based spam, and platforms for public link trading.
Pomegranate is seen as an analog to Google's Panda algorithm, which is designed to down-rank low-quality content (stuffed keywords, etc.). Pomegranate goes a step further and down-ranks low-quality user experience (excessive ads, interstitials, pop-ups, etc.).
Other algorithmic similarities between Google and Baidu to be aware of include:
In response to the growing ubiquity of mobile browsing, Google has adopted a "mobile first" algorithm. The algorithm actually looks at the mobile version of the website first. If the site is not mobile-optimized or responsive, especially if relevant content is hidden in the mobile version of the site, Google will penalize the site's ranking.
This effect is even more pronounced in Baidu's algorithm. This is to be expected, considering mobile use is even more ubiquitous in China than it is elsewhere in the world (if that even seems possible). Mobile optimization is crucial to ranking competitively on Baidu.
Both Google and Baidu give preferential rankings to websites with fast loading speeds. A slow website is likely to get down-ranked by both search engines.
Note that for a site to load at a competitive speed on Chinese computers, it probably needs to be hosted on a server in mainland China.
Both Google and Baidu employ a system of recording backlinks that point at a domain as "votes" for the authority of the site. Additionally, the higher the ranking of the backlinks site, the more powerful the vote and the higher the ranking conferred by the backlink. While that basic principle applies to both search engines, each has different quirks and blind spots. For example:
Baidu assigns more weight to backlinks targeting the main page, while Google assigns more weight to backlinks targeted at sub-pages.
Both Google and Baidu have shown a tendency to assign their own web assets privileged places on search engine results pages (SERP). In the case of Google, this might include YouTube videos, as YouTube is now a property of Google.
Baidu shows an even greater propensity for this habit, often skewing results so that the top five SERP results are all Baidu properties.
Any webmaster that wants Chinese search traffic has to reckon with Baidu. It may be less than 2% of the market share, but it represents almost the entire market share of Chinese searches.
Baidu is not limited to crawling Chinese sites. It searches and indexes the entire internet. It just gives preference to the sites it finds based on different metrics. To optimize a site for Baidu, a different SEO strategy and possibly a different site-buildout strategy must be deployed.
Here are the key ingredients of an effective SEO plan targeting a high Baidu ranking.
First and foremost, Baidu gives preferential ranking to sites hosted in China. If you really want to get a boost on Baidu, consider a mainland-Chinese host and a .cn domain name. Hosting in China will also decrease the distance between the server and Chinese searchers, increasing the loading speed of the website. Loading speed is a key component of effective Baidu SEO.
If you can't host the site in China, or even if you can, consider using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) based in China. This cloud-based service creates localized distribution of content, further reducing the distance between the searcher and the site. The result is a faster-loading website, which helps your Baidu SEO significantly. CDNs can be expensive, but if you want to rank on Baidu, it could be necessary.
Another extra expense required for Baidu SEO is the expense of obtaining an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license. To get an individual license, you will need a Chinese phone number and address that Baidu can verify. To get a business ICP, you need a Chinese business license, which is yet another expense to contend with. However, without a Chinese ICP from MIIT, the site has little chance of ranking high on Baidu SERPs.
This is the official Baidu traffic management system used by Chinese webmasters. You can use it to perform speed tests, detect dead links; it also allows webmasters to communicate with Baidu, and offers access to search metrics for your site that can only come from Baidu.
Baidu ranks sites with Chinese-language content more highly. You will have the wind at your back if you target your Chinese SEO efforts to a website written in Chinese-langage text at the top level.
Baidu SEO benefits from a relatively flat site structure. The homepage gets the most juice, and as such sites that are nested close to the homepage will benefit the most from an SEO standpoint because more power will flow top-down from the home page to each sub-page.
Any backlink, especially a powerful backlink, will help the site's ranking on Baidu; even link farms and PBNs may help (although they may hurt your Google ranking). However, the best backlinks for Baidu SEO come from Chinese websites. Focus your backlinking strategy around Chinese sites for the best results.
More so than Google, Baidu uses anchor text to provide context to its mapping of the internet. For both backlinks and internal links, deploy anchor text that is descriptive of the destination website. This will contribute to the coherence of your site in the eyes of the Baidu algorithm.
Many webmasters and SEO experts no longer bother with meta keywords, since they don't factor into Google search rankings. However, they do factor into Baidu search rankings, so make sure to load the meta text up with relevant keywords.
Webmasters and SEO experts may also skip image alt text because Google uses image-recognition software to identify images and assign them relevance. However, Baidu lags behind Google in this function. If you want your images to lend weight to the site for relevant search terms, make sure to include those search terms in the alt text of your images.
As with Google searches, much of a site's traffic from Baidu will come from long-tail keywords, so make sure to research what long-tail SERPs Baidu searchers are getting, and optimize content for those keywords. It will be easier to rank for long-tail keywords than generic keywords.
If Google is tough on websites that haven't adapted to mobile web browsing, Baidu is positively merciless. It's good practice no matter what, but it bears repeating - make sure your site is optimized for mobile browsers! The site will flounder on Baidu otherwise.
Make sure Baidu can map your site in a clear and coherent way. Create a sensible map of internal links that the Baidu web crawlers can easily follow.
Baidu offers trust badges for purchase that are meant to certify the credibility of the site. There is no hard proof that this extra expense buys better ranking from Baidu, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it gives sites a big boost on Baidu SERPs.
With 1.5 billion Chinese people participating in a national and global economy, it's no wonder that Chinese web browsers are a rich target audience for enterprising website builders and entrepreneurs.
But the gatekeeper standing between websites and Chinese eyes is not Google, the way it is in the US and much of the rest of the world. The gatekeeper is Baidu. And while similarities between Baidu and Google abound, Baidu is distinctly Chinese in the way it maintains an insular, Chinese-centric focus.
Add to this various twists on SEO orthodoxy tailored to Google, and you have a whole different strategy that must be played out in order to capture some of the 1.4 billion Chinese who land on a Baidu SERP every day.
Targeting another major platform, with its own rules and a preference for its own national pedigree, adds an extra layer of complexity to the already-complex and unscientific task of SEO.
But the commercial and educational potential inherent in tapping into that Chinese audience is tempting for any aspiring business or key influencer. Want to get beyond the Great Firewall? Don't just optimize for Google. Optimize for Baidu as well.