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SearchTHIS: Google in China

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Google in China Kevin M. Ryan

The Chinese government's restrictions on Google have come to an end. In a landmark release last week, Google agreed to the Chinese government's requirements to enter the country with Google.cn. Yahoo and MSN are already in China, along with many other portals, so why is this news?

Google agreed to government requirements to censor or filter search results and people are very upset about that. Well, some people are very upset about that. Many feel that Google has sold out in agreeing to block information according to what is and is not acceptable to the government of the People's Republic of China.

Call it selling out or just smart business. It doesn't make much sense to include results that are filtered or that the people's government has deemed offensive or unacceptable, does it? Nevertheless there is much confusion about search in China along with Google's chosen path-- and it's worth a look.

In the land of China
They ain't got hardly nothing at all, as Forrest Gump would say. The Chinese may be a little light on personal possessions by western standards but what they do have is a lot of people-- 1.3 billion according to Internet World Stats, and 111 million of them are online.

Then again, western standards don't really apply to China, do they?

Only about 8.5 percent of the Chinese population is online but that audience is about to experience a growth spurt. Compared to the American internet user base of a little over 200 million of our close to 300 million residents the Chinese audience represents enormous potential.

According to data from iResearch, search frequency growth represents as much potential in China as its audience. By 2007 there will be 800 million daily searches, shooting up from the projected 600 million in 2006.

The audience and search activity is growing fast but it seems the real issue facing search in China is two-fold: what types of content can and cannot be viewed, and the undying American desire to assign the responsibility of freeing said information to an American search engine.

"A" list sites only please
The reality in China is, there is no publicly viewable list of sites and/or search terms that are deemed acceptable. Pornography in its many forms along with any of the information contained in the Anarchist's Cookbook fall into the category of undesirable content.

The Chinese government encourages the use of cybercafés so that users can be individually monitored. Each content provider is asked to agree to self regulate in an effort to balance the obvious economic benefits the people of China will realize from the connected digital world but a precious few have endeavored to uncover higher levels of specificity in the Chinese filtering realm.

Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School provide some interesting, if not shocking, insights into which types of content are filtered in their report, "Empirical Analysis of Internet Filtering in China."

"We conclude that China does indeed block a range of web content beyond that which is sexually explicit. For example, we found blocking of thousands of sites offering information about news, health, education, and entertainment, as well as some 3,284 sites from Taiwan."

Zittrain and Edelman's research, while conducted in the 2002 -2003 time frame, further illustrates the problems associated with filtering systems. For example, requests for http://www.google.com/ were replaced with Openfind, Globepage, chinaren.com, search.online.sh.cn, fm365.com and a search system at Peking University.

Developing advertising nation

Despite our controversially altruistic approach to freeing the world's information it is important to remember that the business (that is to say the business of web advertising) is still trying to break out of the embryonic stage of development.

Cybercafés are great for monitoring web usage while providing an entry point for many, but they wreak havoc on an advertiser's ability to monitor unique users and target specific demographics. Multiple users are delivered via the same internet protocol address making it difficult or impossible to determine qualified ad spending.

Ad:tech Shanghai was a great wake up call for ad firms and marketers with a desire to jump into the billion strong populace. Top media firms like MSN and Sina noted that it was difficult to monetize popular site areas since advertisers placed a higher priority on viewing the ads in prime content areas over deep targeting potential.

Another related issue is the inherent lack of trust in the advertiser-site relationship. The idea of relying upon publisher-provided data is a challenge for would-be seekers of advertising revenue. The very notion of protecting intellectual property relating to technology in China seems laughable.

Filtering web results may be wrong from our perspective, but maybe an increase in search advertising platforms might just provide the building blocks necessary to take online ad spending to the next level.

Blaming Google is easy

The move into China along with agreeing to the terms required was predictable. If you want to play in China, you play by the Chinese Government's rules whether you agree with the rules or not. You can't bury your head in the search and pretend they aren't there, nor is it our prerogative to try and change them.

If you take nothing away from the situation in China, remember that the culture is very different. My previous statement would seem to be a foregone conclusion but it never ceases to amaze me that the same people who become very upset at any level of censorship often lead the charge for companies like Google to force the government to make a change.

Force the Government to make a change? Now aren't we being a bit ethnocentric? If they want to change, they'll change, who are we to tell them what is acceptable and what isn't? Hasn't telling people how to behave in other cultures gotten us into enough trouble?

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Mr. Ryan is managing partner at
Kinetic Results

2010 strategies revisited

Here is a brief assessment of 2010's obsolete strategies, as they stand in 2015:

Building a digital marketing department
By definition, marketing should be agnostic to media type, and so too should the strategist developing and implementing marketing campaigns. As such, companies need to conduct a skills assessment of existing marketing teams to determine who may need training or who may need to be replaced with talent that natively understands both digital and analog worlds. This obsolete strategy is still an issue for a majority of marketing teams that have not focused on integration and will continue to haunt slow adopters.

Designing a website via internal stakeholder committee
The primary reason for the lack of user-centered design is that most websites are built by a host of departmental managers who have far too much say on colors, fonts, images, and copy. The problem with committee-based design is that these representatives make decisions based on their personal tastes and preferences versus those of the site's intended user. While this approach is increasingly uncommon, it is still a very real issue due to the groupthink inherent in corporations.

Managing emarketing campaigns to impressions, clicks, or budget forecasts
The days of managing paid search campaigns to achieve a No. 1 position in Google, spending $50,000 a month on Yellow Page ads, or buying a 30-second Super Bowl spot -- and all the while not measuring the impact on revenue -- are dead. Instead, companies should be managing paid search, print, and broadcast advertising based on conversion rates, whether it be a target cost-per-action/acquisition or a related ratio. This is perhaps one of the most relevant obsolete strategies today, as it continues to be a prevalent issue in a majority of marketing departments.

Paying third-party vendors to represent your brand in social media
The most common excuses for outsourcing social media management include a lack of internal resources and a lack of proficiency with social platforms. The bottom line is that nobody knows your brand better than your employees, partners, and other advocates. Let them be in charge of spreading the good word, not a low-paid college graduate working from home. I wish this were less common than it is, but many brands still feel the need to outsource their voice in social rather than building the resources in-house (with guidance from experts like us, of course).

More 2013 strategies revisited

Doing black-hat SEO
Google has developed a detailed set of guidelines for search-friendly website design. If you follow their rules, you will be much more likely to rank for desired search terms. Bing and Yahoo operate on very similar terms: no IP-spoofing, redirects, hidden or duplicate text, etc. To boil it down, do good marketing and Google will reward you with higher rankings. Google's Penguin and Panda updates identified and penalized a significant number of websites for violating best practices, yet companies still feel the pull of the quick wins that black- and grey-hat SEO can supposedly provide. Big mistake. Play for the long game with compelling content, clean code, and the kind of site credibility and authority that can only be earned, not bought.

Renting email lists
With the understanding that building an email database in-house is still a highly effective sales and marketing strategy, companies continue to test new strategies to grow their list. Some of the more effective methods of building a house email list include: SEO, PPC, direct (mail) marketing, co-registration (email) with partners, contests (via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook) and most importantly, search marketing. This has not changed, and thankfully, fewer organizations are renting low-quality email lists that typically generate a high percentage of spam complaints. 

Sending unsegmented or untargeted emails
According to a November eMarketer study, only 5-10 percent of in-house marketers and agencies are using personalization extensively. This validates my concern that marketers continue to send out unsegmented or targeted emails, making this one of the most common of the obsolete strategies in use today. Spend the time to understand your email list by digging deep into the analytics and contact profiles. From there, create and target content based on indicated preferences, as well as demographic and psychographic information. Watch the value of each subscriber increase exponentially, with incremental effort.

2013 strategies revisited

Here is a brief assessment of the original obsolete strategies, as they stand in 2015.

Keyword-based search engine optimization
For the past few years, Google has pushed SEO professionals away from keyword-loaded text into a world of multimedia "contextual" content. This shift has continued to evolve since Google dropped keyword insights from analytics. New techniques have evolved to address the change, but the savviest marketers have adapted relatively easily by continuing to focus on producing timely, relevant, unique content, and digging deeper into analytics to measure the impact. This trend is only continuing to become more obsolete.

Creating content for content's sake
Per the previous trend, companies with limited knowledge, bandwidth, or budget continue to focus on quantity of content over quality, which is only hurting them in the long term. Successful brands will spend the time to research, develop, optimize, and syndicate content that matters to their constituents and works well across device types and screen sizes. As in the previous trend, this strategy will become almost totally obsolete in the coming year.

Untargeted retargeting
It would seem that 2014 was The Year for retargeting/remarketing. Although the technology has been around for years, it has only recently become readily available, accessible, and affordable for companies of all sizes and shapes. I expect 2015 will bring further explosive growth in this area, with a focus on mobile and video. Challenges around targeting, privacy, and relevance still linger, but the performance of retargeting ads still speaks for itself. In short, ignoring this strategy will be completely indefensible by the end of 2015 for serious marketers.

Avoiding landing page testing
Unfortunately, not much has changed over the past year or two in terms of landing page testing and optimization adoption. The companies that "get it" continue to invest and evolve their efforts, resulting in ever-increasing conversion rates. The majority of marketers, however, are afraid, skeptical, or unlearned regarding the benefits of landing page optimization (LPO). I believe a significant percentage of these remaining marketers will finally commit to testing, if not diving full-bore into LPO in 2015. Those who do not will focus on optimizing their unemployment checks.

More 2013 strategies revisited

Ignoring personalization and behavioral targeting
As mentioned previously, recent research indicates personalization is still largely manual and simplistic as of December 2014. That means marketers are using the same messaging for all buyer types, which reduces overall response rates. Personalization techniques and tools are affordable and easy to use, so there is no reason not to implement a segmented, targeted messaging campaign across your customer base, whether via your website or via email. As consumers become increasingly savvy, they will expect customized messaging, and 2015 will be a pivotal year for adoption.

Underestimating the power of video (and audio) marketing
I speak regularly about social media and search marketing and am a huge champion of multimedia content, especially video for marketing. I'm still amazed that the marketers to whom I present so often lack cohesive video (and audio) organic and paid content strategies. YouTube is still the world's second largest search engine, so what are you doing to get into that conversation? I expect more companies than ever will adopt multimedia strategies in 2015, rendering ignorance of the power of video obsolete.

Gaming online reviews
Most brands understand the power of social proof in the form of customer reviews. Unfortunately, too many brands are quick to "buy" or influence positive reviews. The result is the risk of being penalized by search engines, directories, and other review sites. The greater danger is consumers seeing through the charade and taking their business elsewhere. The short answer: create compelling and memorable customer experiences that will make them want to create and share positive reviews. Many companies are focusing on customer delight in 2015 and will bubble to the top as a result.

Obsolete for 2015

After scouring the web and talking with my team and peers, I feel like my 2010 and 2013 articles comprehensively covered the primary obsolete marketing strategies. Not being one to disappoint, I dug a little deeper to come up with the following strategies for 2015. Remove or modify these obsolete strategies if you're interested in job preservation, let alone growth and a nice year-end bonus.

Brand stuffing
The "Me" Generation may be self-centered due to technology and cultural mores, but there is less excuse than ever for brands to behave similarly. One trend I hope to see become obsolete in 2015 is what we at Anvil like to call "brand-stuffing." In essence, a majority of today's companies fill their social and other media channels with brand-centric messaging almost exclusively. Even the most compelling branded content usually seems thin and transparently self-promotional. Future-forward brands will focus instead on customer-centered content and messaging beyond product benefits and general engagement, which is our next trend. For best results, we suggest following the 80/20 rule, with 20 percent of content being promotional in nature.

Focusing on engagement in social media
In the first wave of social media marketing (1995-2009), marketers focused on gaining followers and fans. The second wave of social media (2010-2014) focused on conversations and engagement efforts. The third wave (2015 and beyond) will focus on two primary areas: conversions and brand narrative. Smaller companies, business-to-business organizations, and profit-driven corporations will focus more on conversion-based strategies and tactics that drive revenue. Bigger consumer brands will shift focus towards developing a brand narrative that helps consumers identify with the company and fit it into the picture a person has of themselves. Brands will focus from being "Liked" to being "Attached" to the consumer. For more insights, read this excellent article in Fast Company.

Building content for the big screen
We all know content is king, where search engines and social media platforms rule the digital landscape. Brands like Red Bull and GoPro have embraced the concept of being publishers (a.k.a. owned media), and sales have followed. One thing these elite brands have done well in this arena is design content for the small screen (tablets and mobile devices). Unfortunately, a vast majority of brands big and small are still focused on the standard computer monitor form factor, which receives an ever-smaller share of a typical consumer's daily attention. In 2014, U.S. adults spent 23 percent more time on mobile during an average day than in 2013, according to eMarketer. According to AdWeek, 79 percent of adults have their smartphones with them a whopping 22 hours per day. And according to a recent Harris Poll, 40 percent of purchases are directly influenced by smartphones. So what are your plans for mobilizing your content strategy in 2015? Consider the power of video, podcasts, and images. Multimedia is infinitely more engaging and shareable (and thus has a higher probability of going viral via mobile).

Remedial measurement
I'm still amazed how many companies rely on rudimentary metrics and analytics tools to determine the success of their marketing efforts. Social media is the primary driver of this simplistic analytical trend, as many of the relatively new platforms started with basic measurement capabilities, and marketers embraced these numbers. I believe the reliance on base-level metrics -- like number of fans, followers, likes, comments, or shares -- will go by the wayside in a big way in 2015, being supplanted by cross-platform attribution, relative metrics (e.g., likes per post), and conversion metrics. For more information, check out my articles "The 9 dumbest ways to measure social media" and "The social media metrics that truly matter."

In order for a business to succeed in this increasingly complicated and noisy digital world, marketers must let go of obsolete ideas and embrace the concept of continually testing evolving techniques and technologies. What worked yesterday won't necessarily work tomorrow. What's in your 2015 digital marketing plan?

Kent Lewis is president and founder of Anvil Media, Inc.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"New and old typing machines" image via Shutterstock.


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