Last month, Bytedance launched a new search engine as it seeks to expand beyond news and short video.

Toutiao Search is a search feature contained within the popular Bytedance news aggregator Jinri Toutiao; it can also be accessed from a web browser. Initially, it was just a simple search bar at the top of the Jinri Toutiao app and only crawled through articles published on the app. Now, its search results also include links from around the internet.

Its evolution is similar to that of WeChat’s search feature, which also evolved from a simple in-app search function into a general search engine that includes links outside of WeChat in its search results.

The Chinese search engine market remains largely dominated by Baidu, which held a 76.7% share in August, followed by Tencent-backed Sogou with 10.7%, according to web analytics company Statcounter. Google, though blocked in China, is ranked fourth with 3.2% share of the country’s search engine market.

WeChat’s search engine and Toutiao Search are not considered standalone search engines and thus are not included in the report, but many Chinese internet users turn to these in-app features when hunting for information.

A closer look at the four search engines (Toutiao Search, Baidu, Google, and WeChat search) shows that Toutiao Search has aims beyond WeChat’s “walled garden” system, which only retrieves results within Tencent’s ecosystem. Toutiao Search appears to be heading in the direction of a standalone search engine which returns results on everything published on the internet, in direct competition with Baidu and Google.

In focus / ByteDance #15

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TechNode’s ByteDance newsletter, one of the first in-depth looks in English at the now-giant upstart startup, was published from March 13 to Oct. 23, 2019.

How useful are they?

Assessing a search engine’s usefulness can be a matter of opinion, so we decided to approach the comparison using inquiries about general knowledge and destination searches.Our test began with a search for “What is the capital of Canada?” (加拿大的首都在哪里?) A pretty easy query, we thought. Ideally, “Ottawa” should appear at the top of the search results.

The results show that Google and Baidu are good at providing direct answers in their search results—both returned the Chinese word for “Ottawa” (渥太华) as the top result.
Toutiao Search also returned “Ottawa” as the top result—in a format similar to Google’s Knowledge Panel, complete with an image at the top of the page—but the results were not as explicit as those from Google and Baidu. WeChat, however, returned a list of links to mini-programs and articles within the app, of which some excerpts contained the word “Ottawa.”
Next, we tested how the search engines performed regarding places of interest. In this test, we searched for “Italian restaurants in Beijing” (北京意大利餐厅). We wanted results that provided information that most users would find useful: a list of restaurants with addresses, photos, and reviews.

Google returned a list of top-ranking Italian restaurants identified by locations on Google Maps. However, the usefulness of these results is limited because few users in China can access Google and even fewer will add to the listings or leave reviews.
Baidu, Toutiao Search, and WeChat all linked to articles recommending the best Italian restaurants in Beijing, which means users are still a few clicks away from an answer. Baidu also included a list of restaurants based on information from Baidu Maps following a regular article link and a search ad.

The rankings

Next we probed the issue of search neutrality, a principle which says that the primary directive dictating results rankings should be relevance.

In a search for the “Cybersecurity Law of China” (中国网络安全法), we decided that the most relevant links should be an article that briefly introduces the law from an online encyclopedia, and a link to the full text of the law published by a credible organization, such as a government agency.

Google yielded articles about the law on both Wikipedia and Baidu Baike (Baidu’s online encyclopedia), as well as a link to the full text published by the China Securities Regulatory Commission, an institute within the State Council of China.

Baidu offered links to the Baidu Baike page and an article about the law on a site for law professionals, followed by search suggestions surrounding the term.

WeChat’s top result was a link to a page about the law on the mini-program developed by Sogou Baike (Sogou’s Wikipedia equivalent), followed by articles published recently on WeChat.

Toutiao Search, however, only offered links to articles that had been recently published on the news aggregator app in the top-ranking results.

The online encyclopedias returned by the search engines offers a glimpse of each platform’s search neutrality practices.

Wikipedia is widely considered one of the most credible online encyclopedias. In most Google searches, a relevant Wikipedia entry is positioned in the Knowledge Panel at the top of the first page of results, even though Wikipedia has no ties to Google. Meanwhile, entries from Baidu Baike and Sogou Baike, often appear as the top-ranking result for Baidu and WeChat searches, respectively; those online encyclopedias are subsidiaries of the two businesses.

In keeping with this practice, Bytedance recently acquired the Chinese online encyclopedia Hudong Baike, a move widely seen as securing an in-house resource for Toutiao Search results.

Search ads

Total search neutrality is not achievable in an advertising-adjacent business. Online advertising contributes the lion’s share of revenue for both Google and Baidu, and is also a major source of both Tencent’s and Bytedance’s earnings.

A search for “stock investment” (股票投资) brought up ads on Google, Baidu, and Toutiao Search. WeChat’s search results for the same term appears to be ad-free, at least for now.

Google’s search results featured one ad followed by a number of videos from YouTube, a Google subsidiary. Baidu showed two ads while Toutiao Search displayed three. All three search platforms displayed ads above regular search results.

Ads on Toutiao Search do not look like Google’s or Baidu’s ads, which are set off in a separate box and labeled as advertisements. Instead, Toutiao Search seems to be simply displaying ads based on the keywords searched, pulled from the Jinri Toutiao platform.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. He writes a monthly newsletter tracking...

Tony Xu

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com