SEO/SEM in China – The Best Tools, not the Cheapest

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Ernie Diaz
Ernie Diaz
SEO/SEM in China – The Best Tools, not the Cheapest

SEO/SEM in China

For maximum reader value in minimum time, can we assume that you’re aware of what a massive opportunity the online China market represents? Good. Let’s also dispense with the assumption that because Chinese-made sandals at your local Walmart cost $3.99, your Chinese digital marketing program shouldn’t factor more than ten times that amount. China’s online ad market was worth $12 billion in 2012, with media kits doing their best to match the pricing of western ones.

Some good news: China also resembles the West in that SEO & SEM are the undisputed champs of digital marketing tactics, as long as bouts are decided by conversion rate and cost per conversion. And yes, China’s Facebook/Twitter clone, Weibo, could have been a contender. If Lebron James is your spokesperson, China’s social media sphere is yours to conquer. Otherwise…skeptics can Google some Weibo 101 articles and count how many times “brand” is mentioned, vs. “sales” and “conversions”.  Not a useless tactic, mind you, but highly overrated in terms of driving focused traffic.

So please envision SEO & SEM as two mighty pillars of reasonably priced reinforced concrete, propping up a sturdy off-ramp from Baidu to your website. Not from Google Hong Kong. Baidu is China’s digital twelve-lane Interstate expressway. Google HK is Route 66. It’s eventual obsolescence is government-planned, folks. Planned.

But here’s your leverage – best SEO practice for Google is even better practice for Baidu. As with most China vs. the West scenarios, China’s just a little behind the lead, six months to eighteen months, algorithmically. Only, Baidu is fine with that, as trying to overtake Google would burn so much unnecessary fuel, and is so unprofitable, as opposed to riding in its slipstream.

So for onsite SEO in China, it’s a small world after all. Quality content goes even farther to boost your rankings on Baidu than on Google, for the simple reason that quality info on the Chinese Internet is so much more meager. That’s why if you search for anything more meaningful than Jay Chou or L’Oreal on Baidu, then the first five results are almost guaranteed to contain links to one or all of the following: Baike, Baidu’s version of Wikipedia; Zhidao, the Sino-Yahoo! Answers; or Wenku, China’s Google Docs. Which leads to a down-and-dirty tip. Posting articles on these sites, and back-linking in the comments, will drive more quality leads to your site than even the most precocious Asian social media hipster could on Weibo, even with unlimited Red Bulls. That’s assuming you’re not a super-sexy western org. Beckham could certainly rely on social media to sell ab-blasters on the mainland.

Some qualifiers, though, lest sound SEO in China appear too facile. The foregoing tactics and principles of Chinese SEO success assume that:

  1. You have a stand-alone Chinese site, and
  2. The content on your site, from titles to tags, has been translated by qualified humanoids, not Google Translate.

We said that Baidu was a little behind, not that it takes the short bus. If you’re simply running a Chinese section of an otherwise English site, Baidu smells your lack of commitment a mile away, and leaves you in the sandbox (unless you have content that just can’t be found elsewhere on the Chinese web, e.g. “Japanese history book sale”.) Sustainable top rank content demands real Mandarin on a real Chinese site, not Google Translate in a cheongsam.

As for offsite SEO in China, keep our introductory admonition in mind – you get what you pay for. Those local, spiky-haired, “No problem!” SEO teams who promise big results for little money wear hats blacker than Oddjob’s. They’re in business to make profits, not to do sweatshop work in order to deliver insane value. And they’re not interested in making you a Rolex, when there are so many customers buying the cheap and cheerful Folex.

Sure there’s still value in China, but in arbitrage, not cheap labor. SEM pulls highly-qualified, conversion-ready eyes here, too. Bids on keywords that cost a bundle in the West, however, such as  “financial planning” or “legal services”, go for a fraction of the cost on Baidu.

A gentle warning: setting up that PPC account with Baidu can make tussling with the DMV enjoyable by comparison. Giving them the 5,000 RMB for set-up, no problem. Please submit company license and stamp. Now – promoting investment in your country’s biotech sector; where’s your Chinese medical license? You’re a for-profit organization? Please remove your About Us section, and move your logo to the bottom of the page. Bizarre mods to your site, inexplicable delays, and no discernible chain of command characterize the Baidu PPC set-up experience. You can theoretically attempt this process yourself, just as you can defend yourself on a tax-evasion charge – in a court where the rules are not written down, and change on the whim of a judge who answers to no higher power.

Nonetheless, even adding in the expense of professional in-country assistance for SEM, and paying for quality SEO in China, rather than a link-farm clown show, you’re getting in front of self-qualified leads nation-wide, for a fraction of the cost, hassle, and risk that setting up a physical operation in China would entail.  All things considered, the risk-to-reward ratio has never been better.

Ernie Diaz

Ernie Diaz

Ernie lives in Beijing, where he helps western organizations connect with Chinese markets digitally.