Chinese search engines still no match for Google

By Fang Xingdong Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-17 22:58:01

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Recent news coverage of Google Inc's highly anticipated return to the Chinese mainland has spurred heated discussion about it among Chinese netizens. But even if Google does come back to the Chinese market, it will probably focus on business related to its Android operating system rather than its search engine business. For ordinary Chinese netizens, this might make it seem as if Google has not come back at all.

In the vastness of cyberspace, search engines were among the earliest functions that the Internet offered, and are still the primary tool for obtaining information. But Chinese netizens, the largest group of Internet users in the world, haven't been able to enjoy the world's best search engine services. China lacked an appropriate alternative English-language search engine when Google decided to withdraw from the Chinese mainland, and the quality of domestic search engines was not really satisfactory due to over-commercialization in the domestic market. As a search engine serves as a window to the global Internet, the window should not be a hindrance that stops China from becoming an Internet power.

The business model for search engines is that they don't produce content, but link to targeted sites from around the globe through processes like indexing and ranking. These processes are recognized as perhaps the most important bit of information infrastructure in cyberspace. Apart from having first-class technology, a search engine should also remain independent and impartial, and provide efficient and accurate search results.

At the moment, there is no better search engine than Google. But the company refused to abide by China's Internet management system, and it decided to withdraw from the mainland in 2010, leaving Chinese Internet users behind. In the past five years, a possible comeback has been investigated, but so far the company's China focus only seems to be on its Google Play Store for the Android operating system. Google still appears to be reluctant to reboot its search business in China, even though this is what would benefit the majority of domestic Internet users the most. The major consideration as far as Google's decision makers are concerned is the company's interests, rather than users' needs.

As information is integrated globally, Internet users need good sources of information and knowledge. Another reality is that the Internet is overwhelmingly dominated by the English language, and our academic studies and scientific research still depend heavily on English content.

The number of world netizens now exceeds 3 billion, and the number in China is roughly 700 million. According to data from W3Techs, a website that provides information about the usage of various types of technologies on the Web, the percentage of websites in the world using English as their content language is 54.1 percent, while 2.1 percent globally use Chinese. It is shocking that China faces such a bottleneck in content production.

To ensure that China's Internet users enjoy better search options, relevant laws and regulations should be implemented to restrict the over-commercialization of domestic search engines; and the fairness and neutrality of the search engines should be strengthened so that the search results they offer are not molded by commercial considerations. For instance, search results should not be allowed to be mixed with content from ad auctions. In this way a separation between regular search results and commercial ad content can be ensured.

If China's search engines remain an essentially domestic industry, it will always be marginalized. The nation should encourage more domestic search engine companies to spread their reach overseas, and offer systems and policies to promote this. The development of China's Internet sector has been sufficiently funded, and the industry is well equipped to attract top-notch employees around the world.

The biggest challenges will be in technology and costs, if Chinese search engines compete with English-language ones. Considering Yahoo and Microsoft's limited achievements in challenging Google's dominance, it's obvious that significant technological advancement will be needed in this area. Also, global deployment of servers and global market expansion will require a huge amount of funding, and even then the outcome will be hard to anticipate. It is a daunting endeavor, but technological innovation, great ambition and sufficient resources are essential.

The author is the founder of technology think tank ChinaLabs.

Posted in: Expert assessment

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