Searcher Behavior In China

Attendees of Search Engine Strategies conferences in North America and Europe know that the searcher behavior panel has grown into one of the most popular sessions of the show. No surprise why: sophisticated search marketers have mostly mastered the tactical aspects of their craft, and in looking for a competitive edge turn to one of […]

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Attendees of Search Engine Strategies conferences in North America and Europe know that the searcher behavior panel has grown into one of the most popular sessions of the show. No surprise why: sophisticated search marketers have mostly mastered the tactical aspects of their craft, and in looking for a competitive edge turn to one of the least-understood variables of the overall search marketing equation—the needs of searchers and how best to satisfy them.

The Searcher Behavior panel at SES China offered some of the first research ever done looking at the needs of Chinese searchers. The results were fascinating, and in some cases surprising. While Chinese searchers shared many characteristics of western searchers, their behavior was also quite different—sometimes dramatically different—from their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

Gord Hotchkiss of Enquiro kicked things off by presenting findings from a new eyetracking study on the behavior of Chinese-speaking users who completed search tasks on market leading engines Baidu and Google China. In a nutshell, Enquiro found that Chinese users interacted with search results in vastly different ways than western searchers. Gord plans to write up a report of the study and its findings for Search Engine Land very soon, so I won’t steal his thunder. Keep an eye on the Just Behave column in June for the full details.

Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow of Pew Internet & American Life Project, has been living in China for the past eight months (see her hilarious At Home in Shanghai, a week’s worth of diary posts on living in China).

Deb has done several studies for Pew focusing on the user perceptions and attitudes of American searchers. She’s continued this work in China, attempting to understand who Chinese searchers are and they are and how they use the internet. Unlike Enquiro’s eyetracking research which looked at behavioral responses to search results, Deb’s research is based on user perceptions and attitudes. Using data from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC—the state network information center of China), and Guo Liang, a Chinese researcher at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, Fallows has assembled a fascinating portrait of internet users in China.

Contrary to the U.S., search is not one of the most common online activities in China. What are the most popular activities for Chinese internet users?

Get news – 93%
Surf the web – 86%
Listen/download music – 85%
Play online games – 84%
Use email – 69%
Instant messaging – 67%
Use search engine – 63%
Research products & services – 63%

These activities are very different than the most common activities of U.S. internet users:

Use search engine and email – tied at 91%
Find health info – 79%
Check the weather – 78%
Get travel info – 73%
Get news – 67%

“While searching is important, there are other things on the internet that [Chinese] users will do,” said Fallows.

Popular activities don’t always equate with the types of things users spend the most amount of time doing. What online activities do Chinese users spend the most time doing?

Emil – 56%
News – 54%
Search – 52%
Getting information (products, health services, gov etc) – 41%

This suggests that although search isn’t one of the most popular online activities, it’s still something that Chinese users spend a lot of time doing (indeed, Enquiro’s research found that Chinese searchers using Baidu spent two to three times or more longer examining search result pages than U.S. based searchers).

Deb thinks that Chinese users enjoy interacting with search engines. “People are very engaged with search engines on the Chinese internet, as much as anything as they do. And it’s something that will probably increase as time goes on,” she said.

What about the actual duration of time spent with search engines each week? Deb offered the following stats from the CNNIC January 2006 “17th Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China.”

2.2 hours searching for work or study info
2.0 hours doing email
1.7 hours searching for personal hobby info
.9 hours playing online games
.9 hours reading news
.7 hours chatting

These numbers are significant, as the average Chinese internet user spends 15 – 16 hours per week online.

“In the U.S. we’re used to people searching frequently, but we’re not seeing them spend a lot of time on search engines,” said Fallows. One possible reason that users are spending so much time searching is that they’re not finding relevant results as quickly as U.S. searchers. Deb also suggested that it could be due to slower internet connections that cause downloads of search result pages to take longer.

“People spend a lot of time on search results. I also suspect that there’s a lot more hanging around on discussion boards to discuss the results that they get,” said Fallows, noting a feature found on Chinese search engines that’s typically not present on U.S. search engines.

How about popular topics? By category, Chinese users sought out:

Entertainment – 68%
Work or study information – 56%
News – 43%
General knowledge – 43%

“This underscores that the state and interest of the internet in China is very heavily geared toward entertainment,” said Fallows.

How successful do Chinese searchers consider themselves to be when it comes to finding information on the internet?

14% say they usually find what they’re looking for
56% say they often find what they’re looking for
30% say they sometimes find what they’re looking for.

These findings mirror what Pew has found in the U.S. “This is a very strong result. That means that they have a pretty good sense of themselves as searchers and consider themselves successful,” said Fallows. However, “People have an inflated sense of themselves as searchers. Maybe people think of themselves as better than they actually are. They don’t really know how to handle search engines that well.”

Deb has an optimistic view of the future of search in China. “Search engine use will be increasingly popular,” she said. “People will search for more topics. Time is on the side of search engines and search engine users. People will search more and they will get better at it,” she said.

Deb concluded by offering a tip for search marketers in China trying to connect more effectively with prospects. “Try to think of yourselves as an internet user, because most of the people using the internet don’t have nearly as much sophistication as you do,” she said.

Next, Tony Fu, Research Director for Data Center of the China Internet presented findings from data collected in 2007 survey, trying to understand the opportunities for search advertisers in China. Fu spoke rapidly in Chinese, and the translators seemed to miss or garble most of his points, so I’ll try to report what I gleaned mostly from looking at his powerpoint slides.

Fu said that the search engines face a dilemma in China. They have more users than the popular portals (Sina, et al), but portals currently have greater advertising revenue. So there’s a big opportunity for search engines to capture some of that online advertising spend, if they can figure out how to connect more effectively with their users.

The usage overlap with users of search engines and portals is 100%, but Fu believes that search engines have greater potential, and he foresees an evolution as users migrate away from portals and toward search engines, a pattern that played out in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Fu thinks the current problem is that search engines aren’t tapping their full potential. He says they haven’t established effective ad measurement systems yet, especially when compared with the data provided to TV and newspaper advertisers in China.

Fu said that search engines have the advantage over portals going forward because search engine users tend to be more loyal than portal users. Furthermore, newcomers to the internet in China tend to start out with a portal, then migrate to a search engine as they become more comfortable navigating cyberspace.

The findings presented by all three speakers were fascinating, but only underscored how little is really known about searchers in China. Hopefully, all three of the panelists will continue this important work in understanding the mind of the Chinese searcher.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Chris Sherman
Chris Sherman (@CJSherman) is a Founding editor of Search Engine Land and is now retired.

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