The REAL Reason that Google has Lost China


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Amid the flurry of punditry and posturing that has surrounded Google’s decision to pull its search business out of China and its accusations of hacking by the Chinese, there’s another story. Non-elite Chinese people don’t find Google’s search (or its other services) useful. Google has failed to gain a foothold in the Chinese market because Google hasn’t paid attention to making it easy for Chinese customers to use its search engine or its tools.

                            Image: from Tricia Wang

The best “on the ground” explanation of how Google has screwed up in China, comes from Tricia Wang’s blog Cultural Bytes. Tricia is an ethnographer who has been working with urban migrants in China. In her fascinating blog post, entitled: “My Suggestions for Making Google Services more Relevant for Non-Elite Chinese Users (Involves Some Ethnography)”, Tricia points to three reasons why the Chinese don’t use Google:

1. They don’t know how to find it (or pronounce its name)!

Tricia writes:

People didn’t even know how to correctly pronounce and agree on the pronunciation of the name “Google.” When
I was with a group of 5 youth, I asked them if they used Google,
instead of getting an answer we launched into a 10 minute conversation
trying to figure out the correct name…..people were unsure of how to type in the name “Google” on the computer keyboard……IF youth did get to Google’s site successfully by either typing in the
name correctly or going to, Gogle.COM, or Guge.COM/CN, it
would usually be on their 5th or 7th or even 8th try – that is if they hadn’t given up yet and
by then it was just clear that they were doing it because I had asked
them to show me how to get to the Google site. It was quite obvious
that going to the Google site was never part of their internet routine”

2. They feel a sense of identity and nationalistic pride in using Baidu (the native Chinese search engine)

“Part of Baidu’s success lies in its successful marketing campaign
against Google, using nationalism as one of their publicity strategies.
It’s been working well. The campaign is so effective that netizens
associate the use of Google with being unpatriotic….Another way that Baidu has had an advantage over Google is that Chinese
and Hong Kong TV programming will show screen-shots of Baidu when they
refer to the internet. Most recently I watched a a show on the Phoenix
Channel (Hong Kong based) on January 22nd that showed several
screen-shots of how Baidu helped a kidnapped child reunite with his
biological parents after 12 years of separation. There are so many
stories that talk about how the internet, as symbolized by Baidu, has
helped citizens in everyday life.”

3. Google doesn’t understand their messaging culture

Youth didn’t see how any of the services offered by Google were
easier to use than the ones that they were already using. This is
because Google operates in an e-mail paradigm while other services
operate in a messenger paradigm..
a youth asked me, ” how do you leave pictures and messages for others?”
I would say, “just send them an email.” But here’s the thing – youth
don’t have to send emails when they are using MSN Messenger. There’s a
major disconnect in communication culture. Messenger-like services
don’t operate on an email paradigm. QQ and MSN users can go to a
friend’s MSN Live profile or QQ box to leave a message or post a photo.
You can check on each friend’s page to see their last update.”

Google Hasn’t Made an Effort to Understand How Normal Chinese Use the Internet

While it’s true that Baidu has received preferential treatment by the Chinese government and on the airwaves, it’s also clear that Google has itself to blame for not coming up with a name that people can remember. You would also think that a company as rich as Google could have invested in observing the habits and norms of its target audience in China. Tricia Wang’s observations and insights are incredibly valuable. Too bad Google didn’t do some ethnography of its own in a market as important as China!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patricia Seybold
With 30 years of experience consulting to customer-centric executives in technology-aggressive businesses across many industries, Patricia Seybold is a visionary thought leader with the unique ability to spot the impact that technology enablement and customer behavior will have on business trends very early. Seybold provides customer-centric executives within Fortune 1 companies with strategic insights, technology guidance, and best practices.


  1. The same can be said about most American Internet users before they became familiar with the technology. And non-elite people usually have a longer learning curve than “the elite” for some things. Without strong empirical evidence, I think identifying unfamiliarity, nationalism and alternatives as Google obstacles does not support the argument.


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