WeChat, developed by Chinese internet giant Tencent, recently announced the setup of its search application department, triggering speculation that the mobile messaging app may be raising the ante on its “mini-apps” (小程序 in Chinese), local media is reporting (in Chinese).

The new search application department, formed by existing WeChat employees, will focus on the messaging app’s search business, reading recommendation engine, AI technology research and applications, as well as data platform construction and application.

The new department will be headed by Zhou Hao, who reports directly to Zhang Xiaolong, Tencent senior vice president and the “Father of WeChat”.

WeChat has already become a daily must for Chinese people, thanks to its dizzying number of practical features. According to Tencent’s 2016 annual results, WeChat gathered 889 million monthly active users, up 28% year on year.

Average time spent on WeChat rose to 66 minutes a day. More than 80% of those surveyed said they use WeChat for work, and 92% of respondents use WeChat’s payment function for offline purchases, according to recent reports (in Chinese).

Tencent officially launched the mini-app feature in January, enabling users to access mobile services directly in-app while freeing users from an endless loop of app installing and deleting. While it debuted to excitement from the developer community, it failed to gain much traction as the use cases were limited.

Users can find the mini-app option after tapping on the “discovery” tab on their WeChat app. In addition, they can tap on the search bar on their WeChat app and search mini-apps, official accounts, articles and Moments (朋友圈 in Chinese; a semi-private feed of updates shared between a user and his contacts).

Tencent has been doubling down on its search business to play catch-up with rival Baidu. It rolled out last month a search feature called “WeChat Index“, a Google Trends equivalent, on its popular messaging app WeChat, allowing users to track the dynamic change of keywords in 7 days, 30 days and 90 days.

The push into search business is likely to bring more traffic to WeChat and its mini-apps and enhance engagement with more users.

Sheila Yu is a Shanghai-based technology writer. She brings readers the biggest news from Chinese language tech media. Reach her at sheila@technode.com.

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