Last week I had the opportunity to present some very preliminary results from our Chinese eye tracking study to a Chinese audience at Search Engine Strategies Xiamen. We’re still going over the results and preparing a final report, the highlights of which I’ll cover in this column in a few weeks. What I did want to do in today’s column is talk about our findings at a higher level. Doing this research made me realize that the typical user experience in one part of the world is not necessarily a typical user experience in another. Best practices don’t always transfer cleanly and neatly from one culture to another.
A Chinese puzzle
One of the reasons we decided to undertake the study was that China presented a puzzling situation. The juggernaut that is Google in North America has struggled in China. The homegrown competition, Baidu, has a 62% market share. Google has a 20% market share. And Google seems to be struggling to grow its market share. In fact, it’s been slipping single Google’s introduction into the market. I said before in this column that when it comes to the Western search experience, Google seems to represent the gold standard. In all our eye tracking work, Google has consistently presented a better user experience than either Microsoft or Yahoo. We wondered if the same was true in China? Did the Golden Triangle hold from one culture to another?
We conducted the study here in Canada with students who had recently come over for China to study English as a second language at a local university. We worked with Pavan Lee from Microsoft, a Chinese citizen currently working in the US, to make sure that we structured the study in a way that was sensitive to the Chinese culture and also to help us interpret the findings. It was a unique challenge to interpret eye tracking results when you have no idea what the content is that your subjects were interacting with.
In summary, we did the study and found that the scanning patterns are significantly different in China and that by all the metrics we use to judge user experience with search in North America, Google provided a significantly more relevant search experience than Baidu. I went over to China to present these preliminary findings, smug in my knowledge that we had some significant difference and ready to drop a bombshell that there was an inherent contradiction in the Chinese search market. Google provided a better user experience and, according to Western wisdom, it should be only a matter of time before this prevailed and Google’s market share started to climb. But like most things that translate from west to east, there are hidden levels of complexity here and the answer is not as plain as it might seem. As I talked to people in the Chinese Internet industry and saw for myself the Chinese culture, I realized that the Google metric for a successful user experience might not necessarily be the Chinese metric.
East meets west via the internet
First, I think we have to understand the basic philosophical difference between North America and China when it comes to interacting online. In the West, we become blasé about the level of information that’s available to us. In fact, it’s become a nuisance to many of us. We resent the amount of information we have to wade through to get to what it is we’re looking for. Excess information is something to be identified and quickly discarded, allowing us to zero in on exactly what is relevant to us at the given time.
I’m not sure the same is true for China. I believe Chinese online users approach content in a different way. For them, information is something to be treasured and browsed through. For a Chinese user, a page full of search results does not represent a nuisance to be dealt with. It represents a world of new opportunity that they never had before. A Western user would throw their hands up in alarm at a Baidu results page and the amount of affiliate spam and irrelevant results that they would be faced with. For the Chinese user, perhaps this isn’t a negative experience.
I think the difference in approaches to the Internet can best be summed up in a conversation I had with Deb Fallows, a US ex-pat currently living in Shanghai with her husband, journalist Jim Fallows. Deb sums it up this way. For the Westerner living in China, Internet access is a rather spotty thing. Any online browsing you do is constantly punctuated with denial of access to censored content. The access itself isn’t as reliable as it is in the West, with slower load times and more intermittent service. I noticed this when I was trying to access the Internet from my hotel room in China. For us, the Internet experience in China is definitely a glass half empty. But for the Chinese, the sheer fact that they can access any information at all is a tremendous leap forward from where they were. There’s an explosion of new opportunities that are presented to the Chinese and for them, any access to online content is a glass half-full. The same seems to extend to Chinese search experience.
Hot and noisy in China
Here’s another example of the difference in the online user experience between the two cultures, and the danger that comes when Westerners try to interpret the Chinese online market through our own eyes. Chinese websites tend to be loaded with graphics that blink, spin and scream at us in bright colors. To Western eyes, a native Chinese webpage is often an abomination in design, completely amateurish and awkward. Our assumption is that the design is this way because of the lack of maturity in the Chinese market and the fact that they haven’t progressed enough to adopt Western design standards. It’s like the Wild West days of the Web back in 1995 and 96.
But the fact is, the Chinese prefer a presentation is loaded with visual stimuli. They even have a word for it. Renao. Loosely translated it means “hot and noisy.” If you visit China, this manifests itself around every corner. In the cities, commercial ads scream for attention. A walk down the street is a sensual assault, a tsunami of stimuli that hits you on multiple levels. It’s not necessarily that the Chinese market is less mature than the West; it’s that what the Chinese user wants is not always the same as what the Western user wants.
As I said, as we finalize the report will be sharing the actual findings with you here in the Just Behave column on June 15. What I’m hoping to do in the next two weeks is talk to a few more people who have a better understanding of the Chinese culture and online market than I do to try to put more context around the findings. At this point, the findings are puzzling, but after a very brief glimpse into China, I’m finding that this tends to be the rule rather than the exception when Westerners try to understand China at any level.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.