Eight years later, Google Search won’t beat Baidu

Since Google Search’s exit from China in 2010, homegrown tech giant Baidu has absorbed most of the Chinese search engine market, dominating over 70% of its market share. With rumors that Google is making a return and a state media commentary welcoming its re-entry, Baidu’s CEO Robin Li appears confident about defeating its past rival again; “If Google decides to return to China, we will fight and beat them again,” Li said in a WeChat post.

Many – including the 86% of participants of an internet poll who indicated their preference for Google over Baidu – would encourage Li to reconsider his statement. Even when the two search engines are subject to the same level of control, one could propose a handful of reasons to choose Google Search over Baidu: the Chinese tech giant’s innumerable copyright infringements, blatant disregard for user privacy, and equivocal ethical standards have constantly put it on the spotlight of public outcry.

Be that as it may, it is likely that Google will not beat Baidu in the search engine sector if it returns. Prior to Google’s exit in 2010, Baidu had a significantly larger market share than did its American rival. In China, user acquisition follows a different set of rules than the US, making the turf war between Google and Baidu not a competition between product qualities, but localized marketing strategies.

Long before $99 Xiaomi smartphones became ubiquitous nationwide, China’s internet industry heavily relied upon internet cafés, where many Chinese consumers from lower-tier cities first accessed the internet. The company paid internet café franchises to switch the default homepage of their browsers to Baidu, whereby increasing its visibilities and successfully reached China’s new internet users, as Quartz’s Josh Horwitz concluded.

What accompanied this marketing strategy was the success of Hao123.com, an online listings portal owned by Baidu with a search bar that redirects users to Baidu’s search results. While Google subsequently launched a similar service known as 265.com, Hao123.com’s expansion was way more “aggressive” – it was constantly accused of unauthorized hijackings of browser homepages, and many considered it malware. In fact, if one entered “Hao123” into Baidu’s search bar, “how to remove hao123” would appear in the dropdown list.

Google did not follow Baidu’s path to success for two reasons. First, the company had made little effort building its visibility in less developed regions. At the time when Baidu had built a sizable sales team of four thousand marketers, Google’s China branch had only a few hundred employees, primarily operated through third-party partnerships, and did not even build its own marketing team.

The second was the significant discrepancy between Baidu’s ethical standards and Google’s. The latter is known for its Code of Conduct – the noble motto “don’t be evil” being the most often quoted line – which heavily influenced the corporation’s decision-making. In 2008, the scene in China would be better characterized as “when Baidu went low, Google went high.” As China’s internet industry was back then largely ruled by the law of the jungle, Baidu chose to acquire users by taking advantage of gray areas in China’s legal system, such as offering illegal mp3 downloads.

Eight years later, many of these principles still hold true: as a significant part of its penetration strategy, Baidu expends more than 10% of its yearly revenue on mobile carriers and smartphone manufacturers, which in turn pre-install Baidu’s mobile apps on brand-new Android phones. An inattentive user intending to load one Baidu tool on a Windows laptop but forgets to unselect a hidden box in the corner may end up having five Baidu apps installed and default browser changed.

Baidu has seen its fair share of backlashes, but Chinese users have always had other alternatives, such as the Tencent-backed Sogou, the runner-up in China’s search engine market and a version of Bing has been operating in China for years. There is little chance that Google’s return will change the established scene in China’s search engine sector, although Google might have a better shot in more technically specialized areas: artificial intelligence, news aggregation, autonomous driving, and of course, advertising.