Screenshot of Baidu’s “tip” feature which appears in search results for certain keywords, cautioning against “diploma mills.” (Image credit: TechNode)

After a state education department in northern Shanxi Province warned students to avoid using search engines when seeking the official university application website, China’s biggest search engine Baidu said a statement on Thursday that it has taken steps to ensure accurate search results for college-related queries.

“Remember not to use a search engine to find the online application website. A search engine may misdirect you to an unofficial website which leaks personal information, and applications submitted to such websites are not valid,” the Shanxi Provincial Admissions and Exam Center (our translation) said on a document assisting Shanxi high school graduates with college applications.

The notice did not name Baidu specifically. However, the search giant commands 70% of China’s search market according to data from analytics provider StatCounter.

Baidu said on Wednesday it has ensured that provincial college admission websites are shown in an “obvious position” on search result pages since 2013, and that such websites were given verification icons “for free,” in a message from its official account on microblogging site Weibo. In China, college applications are submitted on a single website dedicated to students from each province.

Baidu also said it would publish a list of unaccredited “diploma mills” on Thursday to help fresh graduates discern those from universities certified by the government.

Then on Thursday, Baidu said that it had introduced a tip feature at the top of search results for certain keywords to ensure a “smooth” application process. When searching for unaccredited schools, a tip warning users about “diploma mill” institutions appears, a TechNode reporter observed Friday, including a link to a list of unaccredited schools from business news outlet China Economic Net dated June 17.

A company spokeswoman told TechNode on Friday that Baidu did not compile its own list but have been maintaining it since 2013. “Compared with other sources, this one from the China Economic Net is complete,” the spokeswoman said.

TechNode found a list with the same entries published in People’s Daily in June 2018.

The search giant has been battling to regain user trust over the past several years, with its share of the market dropping to 64% in May from 86% in August 2015. In 2016, a college student died following failed cancer treatments at a disreputable ward within a hospital listed at the top of Baidu’s search results, a particularly bleak outcome from what netizens see as a routinely poor search service that prioritizes paid results over relevance.

On Monday, Baidu launched a new feature that allows users to filter news search results to include those from only Baijiahao or all other media outlets. Before the new function launched, users complained that most of the search results on the first page were from Baijiahao.

In May, Baidu reported a net loss for the first time of nearly RMB 330 million (around $48 million) in the first quarter of 2019. Following its worst performance since listing in 2005, Baidu’s CEO Robin Li began restructuring its management team. At least seven top executives have left Baidu this year including president of new business Zhang Yaqin and senior vice president of the search business Xiang Hailong.

This article has been updated to include comments from a Baidu spokeswoman.

Rachel Zhang is a reporting intern in TechNode's Shanghai office. She is earning a master's degree in journalism at the University of Hong Kong and holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering....

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