Screenshot of a consultancy listed on the second page of Baidu’s search results, displaying testimonials from students on the top row. (Image credit: TechNode)

China’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Public Security requested a meeting with the country’s biggest and second-largest search engines about official sites for universities and university applications on search results, according to a notice posted on the education ministry’s website on Wednesday.

The warning follows a recent notice from a provincial education department to students applying for college to avoid using search engines when searching for official application websites for fear of being misdirected to unaccredited schools or sham websites.

“We received complaints that when users search for college application information like ‘gaokao zhiyuan‘ on Baidu and 360 Search’s search engines, there are promotions for apps and websites which charge students high prices shown at the top of results, which violate regulations and heighten security risks,” the notice said.

Baidu told TechNode on Thursday that it appreciated and “firmly” supported the ministry’s comments and were continually adding tips to search result pages to guide users away from fake websites.

When asked about the frequency with which such promotions appear on search results, the spokesperson did not respond.

Gaokao zhiyuan” refers to the pool of colleges that students can apply to, the number of which varies by province. In China, the strategy behind selecting schools for their gaokao zhiyuan is crucial for students. If students apply for schools that are too far above their range, for example, based on their gaokao, or college entrance exam, scores, students lose the chance to study at a suitable college.

Based on a search using “gaokao zhiyuan” on Thursday morning, TechNode observed Baidu’s search results showed official application websites ranked at the top, but four of the 10 results on the first page were for the consulting services that the education ministry objected to in its warning. On the second and third pages, consulting services account for half of the results listed.

The same search on 360 Search yielded one consulting service result on the first page.

Consulting services for the gaokao zhiyuan has become big business in China. Consultancies offer recommendations for schools based on individual preference for type of program and the single application factor, a student’s exam score.

One such consultancy, Bai Nian Yu Cai, is a publicly listed company which earns half of its revenue by providing consulting services directly to high school students. It earned RMB 150 million (around $21.8 million) in revenue in 2018. However, the credibility of its service was cast into doubt after media reported that students paid for a big-data consulting service but received a few useless suggestions in return. Local media reported that similar services charge fees of anywhere between RMB 298 (around $44) to RMB 60,000 (around $8,700).

Business news outlet Caixin searched the same keywords in Baidu on Wednesday night, and a Baidu-owned education consulting platform, self-marketed as an “all-in-one” gaokao zhiyuan service, showed up on the first page.

Baidu’s reputation as a search service has long been criticized for its emphasis on promotions instead of results. Since going public in 2005, the search giant has reaped profit until this year. Search ads are an important source of its revenue.

Criticism for Baidu has reached a point where even state-owned Global Times reported calls for Google to return to China. Netizens attribute user dissatisfaction as the motivation for an incident at Baidu’s AI conference in Beijing on Wednesday where an attendee poured a bottle of water on Baidu CEO Robin Li’s head during his presentation.

Netizens voiced their approval of the man, identified by the police only by his surname, Cheng, by posting comments on a Weibo account associated with him.

The government began showing signs in June of intensifying scrutiny of misleading search results and ads targeted toward students.

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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