SEO in the West tends to be laser-focused on Google and its algorithms, and for good reason: In almost all Western regions, Google dominates the search engine landscape. But in a select few areas of the world, other search engines reign supreme.
One of those is China, where Baidu outranks all other search engines by far. So if you’re looking to gain web traffic from some of the country’s over 1.4 billion residents, you need to acquaint yourself with Baidu, understand how it compares to Google and learn how you can optimize for its ranking factors.
Table of Contents
- What Is Baidu? A Brief History of China’s Top Search Engine
- Baidu vs. Google
- How to Optimize for Baidu
What Is Baidu? A Brief History of China’s Top Search Engine
Founded on January 1, 2000 by Robin Li and Eric Xu, Baidu’s search technology is based on an algorithm developed by Li in 1996. Used in the early search engine RankDex, that algorithm evaluated links between sites rather than keywords alone, a then-novel concept that would provide inspiration for Google’s 1998 PageRank algorithm.
Baidu pioneered the pay-per-click advertising model in 2001, and launched news- and image-based search engines in 2003. After its initial public offering (IPO) in 2005, the company’s shares quickly jumped in price.
In the subsequent years, Baidu debuted a number of new projects and initiatives. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Apollo, its self-driving vehicle platform. In April 2021, Baidu revealed that it expects Apollo to power one million self-driving cars within the next three to five years.
Today, Baidu unequivocally dominates the Chinese search engine market with a total market share of more than 75 percent:
Beyond search engines specifically, Baidu is one of China’s top five tech companies overall and earned over $16 billion USD in 2020 alone.
And as the company’s revenue, workforce and influence continues to grow, it is making numerous forays into new areas of research beyond search engines. In addition to its aforementioned Apollo platform, Baidu has developed technology to improve vaccine development for COVID-19, create more intelligent chatbots, train AI to replicate human movement and more.
All that is to say that while Baidu may not be a household name in the West, it’s nonetheless an incredibly powerful entity that controls the search landscape of the world’s most populous country.
Baidu vs. Google
In some ways, Baidu and Google are strikingly similar. Both companies are the result of highly advanced algorithms developed in the 1990s, are now among the top 100 tech companies in the world and both have a large suite of products outside the scope of internet search.
But the two companies’ search products have crucial differences:
Baidu focuses almost exclusively on China, while Google draws huge numbers of users from a variety of regions including Europe, Asia, South America and North America.
As of 2020, Baidu employs just over 40,000 people, while Google employs well over 130,000. And in terms of revenue, Google also comes out on top with its 2020 earnings exceeding $180 billion compared to Baidu’s $16 billion revenue that same year.
Moderation of Results
As a Chinese company, Baidu is subject to any and all content-related restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. This means that certain topics, especially those that could be perceived as controversial or inflammatory, are omitted from search results in an effort to comply with the government’s goal of creating a positive online ecosystem. While Google is no stranger to accusations of censorship, it is not required to engage in state-sponsored censorship and doesn’t filter out sensitive topics altogether.
Together, those major differences mean that SEO practitioners should only focus on optimizing for Baidu if they are committed to targeting residents of China specifically and are willing to comply with China’s strict content regulations.
How to Optimize for Baidu
If you’re ready to take the plunge and start optimizing your site for Baidu’s algorithms, start by asking yourself the most crucial question of all: Is your site ready for a Chinese audience?
At the very least, getting a site ready for a Chinese audience means translating it into Simplified Chinese, the standard written form of Chinese used throughout mainland China. How you do so is up to you, whether you already have colleagues or employees fluent in Chinese, or you opt to hire a professional translation agency.
Whatever you choose to do, just be sure to avoid automatic translation tools such as Google Translate at all costs. While such tools might suffice for casual conversation, they’re not advanced enough to meet the high content quality standards required to attract site visitors in a competitive landscape.
Once you’ve completed the process of translating your site content into Simplified Chinese, you can move on to optimizing it for Baidu’s algorithms.
If you’re not fluent in Chinese, this is where things start to get murky: Baidu doesn’t cater to international users, so it provides little to no SEO-related documentation in other languages. As such, non-Chinese-speakers must rely on third-party sources to determine what will help sites achieve higher rankings on Baidu’s SERPs.
In the course of our own research, we’ve found the following to be true for Baidu SEO:
Metadata Keywords Matter
If you’re familiar with the best SEO practices for metadata like meta descriptions, then you already know that—with the sole exception of title tags—Google doesn’t use meta tags as ranking factors.
With Baidu however, it’s a different story: Their algorithms aren’t tuned to devalue metadata as a source of keyword information, so the keywords you use in your meta tags will be taken into account. As such, remember to add relevant keywords to all your meta tags (without keyword stuffing, of course).
It Pays to Be Mobile-Friendly
When optimizing your site for Baidu users, remember that many may come across it on mobile devices. After all, Baidu offers a flagship mobile app which achieved more than 500 million monthly active users in December 2020.
So, it’s important to ensure your site is mobile-friendly. You can do so by:
- implementing responsive web design;
- placing your most important content above the fold (that is, above the point at which users have to scroll down);
- increasing page speed;
- creating a user-friendly navigation system;
- adding a search bar to your site;
- limiting pop-ups and other intrusive elements;
- adding breaks to long blocks of text to increase readability;
- using a legible font; and
- using Baidu’s mobile adaptation tool to specify the relationship between your desktop and mobile site (unlike with Google, it’s fine—and even preferable—to have the two be separate).
Leverage Chinese Social Media
While not exclusive to Baidu alone, it’s still critical to remember that China has its own set of popular social media websites completely separate from those in the West. The most widely used include WeChat, Weibo, Douban, Tencent QQ and Baidu’s own Tieba, so any of those would be a great place to start.
The same basic principles of Western social media marketing apply to the social content you create for a Chinese audience, so always strive to:
- create unique content for each social media platform;
- make it easy for users to share your content;
- engage with users as often as possible;
- promptly respond to users’ questions and concerns; and
- link back to your site when appropriate.
Familiarize Yourself with Baidu’s Webmaster Tools
Just like Google, Baidu has a suite of tools designed to help SEO practitioners and site administrators make the most of Baidu’s search engine. But unlike Google, that set of tools is only available in Chinese.
If you’re not fluent in Chinese, the good news is that a Chinese-American SEO agency called Dragon Metrics has created a guide to help you use and understand Baidu’s Webmaster Tools platform. This guide includes detailed step-by-step instructions for filling out each field:
Once you learn how to use Webmaster Tools, you’ll be able to help your site achieve its full ranking potential.
Want More Traffic from China? Baidu Is Your Friend
If you’re considering expanding into the Chinese market, you can’t afford to ignore Baidu’s overwhelming dominance of mainland China’s search engine landscape. So while learning how to optimize your site for Baidu may involve a steep learning curve for non-Chinese-speaking SEO pros, the rewards are well worth the effort.
Remember, Google isn’t the only search engine in the world, and optimizing for others like Baidu can help you take your audience from local to global.
Featured Image: Shutterstock / April 2021
Screenshots by author / April 2021
Dragon Metrics / February 2016