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