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Lessons for Indians from Google China

June 30, 2006 18:58 IST

Probably you guessed it already; yes this is about Google's stance in China. On April 12, 2006, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google; Kaifu Lee, vice president of Google China, and Johnny Chou, president of Google China, unveiled the new Chinese-language Google brand name at a press conference in Beijing.

The new brand name 'Gu Ge' or 'Valley Song,' draws on Chinese rural traditions to describe a fruitful and rewarding experience, according to Google. This innovative marketing strategy from Google of gaining popularity in the Chinese market with a Chinese name has not been overly successful as an overwhelming number of Chinese Web browsers ask: "Does the Chinese name for Google "Guge" befit the world's No. 1 search engine?

Some Google fans don't think it does. They have created an online petition called www.noguge.com to get the search engine to change its Chinese name. Reasons cited for the petition are the name is "weird," "unsophisticated" and could damage the "cool" image of Google in China.

"Google, we love you, but we don't love Guge," said the Web site, which has received 16,370 signatures till now and counting. Domestic media were quick to pounce on the "harvesting song," saying the Chinese name reflects the US-based company's lack of understanding of the local psyche. Guge in Chinese also means a valley song or a grain song.

The name Google came from the word "Googol," which denotes the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. "Google gives us an individualistic feel, yet Guge sounds traditional and rustic ... in other words, it's outdated," said a blogger on another Chinese website. Industry analysts also told Shanghai Daily that Google could have picked a better name. But Google China is unfazed by the commotion.

"Guge is not a substitute for Google, rather, it will complement Google," the company said in response to queries from Shanghai Daily.

"Names such as Gougou (dog dog) are unable to fulfill the responsibilities of a corporate, brand or product name, nor do they reflect fully our goals and mission," it said in reference to the more literal suggestions from net users.

A survey conducted last year by the China Internet Network Information Company revealed that more than half of respondents could not correctly spell "Google," a glitch, which the company hopes to rectify with the new Chinese name.

The statement also said the name aims to cater to users unfamiliar with English usage of the search engine. "It would be unfair to ignore their needs," it said.

Baidu vs Google

Google has been trying hard to attract increasing number of users in China and one of the key points in having this Chinese name strategy is to divert users from Bai Du, the most popular Chinese search engine.

For those of you who are not aware, a recent study from Alexa Internet states that Bai Du is the most popular website in the world. Baidu certainly looks like Google. There's an equally sparse white home page, decorated in simple primary colors, and centered on a plain search box.

Even Baidu's name and logo evoke Google. The name 'Baidu' references a line in a classical poem referring to a very large number, echoing Google's creative misspelling of Googol (10 to the power of 100). And in China, the Baidu logo, a dog's paw print, trades on a common local mispronunciation of the word 'Google' - which makes it sound similar to the Chinese for 'dog'.

A recent survey of urban Internet users shows Baidu well ahead of Google in China's Internet search market (with other competitors trailing far behind). But these figures give a misleading impression.

For example, Baidu's usage figures are boosted by searches for pirated mp3s, says Shanghai-based analyst Jim Sun, of Evolution Securities. This does not look like a tenable long-term business, and Baidu has already faced two lawsuits over the service.

Moreover, Google has considerably more high-income and highly-educated users than Baidu in China. This group holds a disproportionate share of wealth, is more likely to be able to buy items online with credit cards, is more likely to be within reach of product distribution networks, and is therefore worth much more to advertisers. While Google has been held back by a lack of local connections, recent deals with local partners have changed that.

Who is Kai-Fu Lee?

For many young people in China, Kai-Fu Lee (vice president of Google China) is a celebrity. Not quite on the level of a movie star like Edison Chen or the singers in the boy band F4, but for a 44-year-old computer scientist who invariably appears in a somber dark suit, he can really draw a crowd.

It is not hard to see why Lee has become a cult figure for China's high-tech youth. He grew up in Taiwan, went to Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon and is fluent in both English and Mandarin. Before joining Google last year, he worked for Apple in California and then for Microsoft in China; he set up Microsoft Research Asia, the company's research-and-development lab in Beijing.

Lee has been with Google since only last summer, but he wears the company's earnest, utopian ethos on his sleeve: when he was hired away from Microsoft, he published a gushingly emotional open letter on his personal Web site, praising Google's mission to bring information to the masses. He concluded with an exuberant equation that translates as "youth + freedom + equality + bottom-up innovation + user focus + don't be evil = The Miracle of Google."

Though Lee claims to be an idealist in his heart yet Google's conduct in China has in recent months seemed considerably less than idealistic.

In January, a few months after Lee opened the Beijing office, the company announced it would be introducing a new version of its search engine for the Chinese market. To obey China's censorship laws, the company agreed to purge its search results of any Web sites disapproved of by the Chinese government, including Web sites promoting Falun Gong, a government-banned spiritual movement; sites promoting free speech in China; or any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

If you search for "Tibet" or "Falun Gong" anywhere in the world on google.com, you'll find thousands of blog entries, news items and chat rooms on Chinese repression.

Do the same search inside China on google.cn, and most, if not all, of these links will be gone. Google will have erased them completely.

How Yahoo! failed in China

Google was not, in fact, a pioneer in China. Yahoo was the first major American Internet company to enter the market, introducing a Chinese-language version of its site and opening up an office in Beijing in 1999.

Yahoo executives quickly learned how difficult China was to penetrate - and how baffling the country's cultural barriers can be for Americans. Chinese businesspeople, for example, rarely rely on e-mail, because they find the idea of leaving messages to be socially awkward. They prefer live exchanges, which means they gravitate to mobile phones and short text messages instead.

Baidu, a Chinese search engine that was introduced in 2001 as an early competitor to Yahoo, capitalised on the national fervor for chat and invented a tool that allows people to create instant discussion groups based on popular search queries.

When users now search on baidu.com for the name of the Chinese N.B.A. star Yao Ming, for example, they are shown not only links to news reports on his games; they are also able to join a chat room with thousands of others and argue about him. Baidu's chat rooms receive as many as five million posts a day.

As Yahoo found, these cultural nuances made the sites run by American companies feel simply foreign to Chinese users - and drove them instead to local portals designed by Chinese entrepreneurs.

These sites, including Sina.com and Sohu.com, had less useful search engines, but they were full of links to chat rooms and government-approved Chinese-language news sites. Nationalist feelings might have played a role, too, in the success Chinese-run sites enjoyed at Yahoo's expense.

Piracy is allowed in China

Yahoo also was slow to tap into another powerful force in Chinese life: rampant piracy. In most parts of the West, after the Napster wars, movie and music piracy is increasingly understood as an illicit activity; it thrives, certainly, but there is now a stigma against taking too much intellectual content without paying for it. (Hence the success of iTunes.)

In China, downloading illegal copies of music, movies and software is as normal and accepted as checking the weather online. Baidu's executives discovered early on that many young users were using the Internet to hunt for pirated MP3's, so the company developed an easy-to-use interface specifically for this purpose. Almost one-fifth of Baidu's traffic comes from searching for unlicensed MP3's that would be illegal in the United States.

Google takes first step...

At first, Google took a different approach to the Chinese market than Yahoo did. In early 2000, Google's engineers quietly set about creating a version of their search engine that could understand character-based Asian languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

By the end of the year, they had put up a clunky but serviceable Chinese-language version of Google's home page. If you were in China and surfed google.com in 2001, Google's servers would automatically detect that you were inside the country and send you to the Chinese-language search interface, much in the same way google.com serves up a French-language interface to users in France.

While Baidu appealed to young MP3 hunters, Google became popular with a different set: white-collar urban professionals in the major Chinese cities, aspirational types who follow Western styles and sprinkle English words into conversation, a class that prides itself on being cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic.

By pulling in that audience, Google by the end of 2002 achieved a level of success that had eluded Yahoo: it amassed an estimated 25 per cent of all search traffic in China - and it did so working entirely from California, far outside the Chinese government's sphere of influence.

. . . and then vanishes from China

Then on Sept. 3, 2002, Google vanished. Chinese workers arrived at their desks to find that Google's site was down, with just an error page in its place. The Chinese government had begun blocking it. China has two main methods for censoring the Web. For companies inside its borders, the government uses a broad array of penalties and threats to keep content clean. For Web sites that originate anywhere else in the world, the government has another impressively effective mechanism of control: what techies call the Great Firewall of China.

Great Firewall of China

When you use the Internet, it often feels placeless and virtual, but it's not. It runs on real wires that cut through real geographical boundaries. There are three main fiber-optic pipelines in China, giant underground cables that provide Internet access for the public and connect China to the rest of the Internet outside its borders. The Chinese government requires the private-sector companies that run these fiber-optic networks to specially configure "router" switches at the edge of the network, where signals cross into foreign countries. These routers - serve as China's new censors.

If you log onto a computer in downtown Beijing and try to access a Web site hosted on a server in Chicago, your Internet browser sends out a request for that specific Web page. The request travels over one of the Chinese pipelines until it hits the routers at the border, where it is then examined. If the request is for a site that is on the government's blacklist  - and there are lots of them - it won't get through.

If the site isn't blocked wholesale, the routers then examine the words in the requested page's Internet address for blacklisted terms. If the address contains a word like "falun" or even a coded term like "198964" (which Chinese dissidents use to signify June 4, 1989, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre), the router will block the signal.

Back in the Internet cafe, your browser will display an error message. The filters can be surprisingly sophisticated, allowing certain pages from a site to slip through while blocking others.

Google vs the consors

Google posed a unique problem for the censors: Because the company had no office at the time inside the country, the Chinese government had no legal authority over it - no ability to demand that Google voluntarily withhold its search results from Chinese users.

And the firewall only half-worked in Google's case: it could block sites that Google pointed to, but in some cases it would let slip through a list of search results that included banned sites. So if you were in Shanghai and you searched for "human rights in China" on google.com, you would get a list of search results that included Human Rights in China (hrichina.org), a New York-based organisation whose Web site is banned by the Chinese government but if you tried to follow the link to hrichina.org, you would get nothing but an error message; the firewall would block the page.

You could see that the banned sites existed, in other words, but you couldn't reach them. Government officials didn't like this situation - Chinese citizens were receiving constant reminders that their leaders felt threatened by certain subjects - but Google was popular enough that they were reluctant to block it entirely.

Why was Google shut down?

In 2002, though, something changed, and the Chinese government decided to shut down all access to Google. Why? Theories abound. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, whose responsibilities include government relations, suspected the block might have been at the instigation of a competitor - one of its Chinese rivals.

Intimidation and "self-regulation" are, in fact, critical to how the party communicates its censorship rules to private-sector Internet companies. To be permitted to offer Internet services, a private company must sign a license agreeing not to circulate content on certain subjects, including material that "damages the honor or interests of the state" or "disturbs the public order or destroys public stability" or even "infringes upon national customs and habits."

One prohibition specifically targets "evil cults or superstition," a clear reference to Falun Gong. But the language is, for the most part, intentionally vague.

Government officials from the State Council Information Office convene weekly meetings with executives from the largest Internet service companies - particularly major portals that run news stories and host blogs and discussion boards - to discuss what new topics are likely to emerge that week that the party would prefer be censored. "It's known informally as the 'wind-blowing meeting' - in other words, which way is the wind blowing,"

Where is the 'blacklist list'? 

American Internet firms typically arrive in China expecting the government to hand them an official blacklist of sites and words they must censor. They quickly discover that no master list exists. Instead, the government simply insists the firms interpret the vague regulations themselves. The companies must do a sort of political mind reading and intuit in advance what the government won't like.

Last year, a list circulated online purporting to be a blacklist of words the government gives to Chinese blogging firms, including "democracy" and "human rights." In reality, the list had been cobbled together by a young executive at a Chinese blog company.

Every time he received a request to take down a posting, he noted which phrase the government had objected to, and after a while he developed his own list simply to help his company avoid future hassles.

As a result, Internet executives in China most likely censor far more material than they need to. The Chinese system relies on a classic psychological truth: self-censorship is always far more comprehensive than formal censorship. By having each private company assume responsibility for its corner of the Internet, the government effectively outsources the otherwise unmanageable task of monitoring the billions of e-mail messages, news stories and chat postings that circulate every day in China.

The government's preferred method seems to be to leave the companies guessing, then to call up occasionally with angry demands that a Web page be taken down in 24 hours. The government's filtering, while comprehensive, is not total.

One day a banned site might temporarily be visible, if the routers are overloaded - or if the government suddenly decides to tolerate it. The next day the site might disappear again. Generally, everyday Internet users react with caution. They rarely push the government's limits. There are lines that cannot be crossed, and without actually talking about it much, everyone who lives and breathes Chinese culture understands more or less where those lines are.

This is precisely what makes the environment so bewildering.

What's allowed? What's not allowed?

Google never did figure out exactly why it was knocked offline in 2002 by the Chinese government. The blocking ended abruptly after two weeks, as mysteriously as it had begun. But even after being unblocked, Google still had troubles.

The Great Firewall tends to slow down all traffic coming into the country from the world outside. About 15 per cent of the time, Google was simply unavailable in China because of data jams. The firewall also began punishing curious minds: whenever someone inside China searched for a banned term, the firewall would often retaliate by sending back a command that tricked the user's computer into believing Google itself had gone dead.

For several minutes, the user would be unable to load Google's search page. For Google, these delays and shutdowns were a real problem, because search engines like to boast about delivering results in milliseconds.

Baidu, Google's chief Chinese-language rival, had no such problem, because its servers were located on Chinese soil and thus inside the Great Firewall. Worse, Chinese universities had virtually no access to foreign Web sites, which meant that impressionable college students - in other countries, Google's most ardent fans - were flocking instead to Baidu.

Google's dilemma

Brin and other Google executives realised that the firewall allowed them only two choices, neither of which they relished. If Google remained aloof and continued to run its Chinese site from foreign soil, it would face slowdowns from the firewall and the threat of more arbitrary blockades - and eventually, the loss of market share to Baidu and other Chinese search engines.

If it opened up a Chinese office and moved its servers onto Chinese territory, it would no longer have to fight to get past the firewall, and its service would speed up. But then Google would be subject to China's self-censorship laws.

A carrot and stick policy finally won

What eventually drove Google into China was a carrot and a stick. Baidu was the stick: by 2005, it had thoroughly whomped its competition, amassing nearly half of the Chinese search market, while Google's market share remained stuck at 27 per cent.

The carrot was Google's halcyon concept of itself, the belief that merely by improving access to information in an authoritarian country, it would be doing good. Certainly, the company's officials figured, it could do better than the local Chinese firms, which acquiesce to the censorship regime with a shrug.

Sure, Google would have to censor the most politically sensitive Web sites - religious groups, democracy groups, memorials of the Tiananmen Square massacre - along with pornography.

But that was only a tiny percentage of what Chinese users search for on Google. Google could still improve Chinese citizens' ability to learn about AIDS, environmental problems, avian flu, world markets.

Google decided that - unlike Yahoo and Microsoft - it would not offer e-mail or blogging services inside China, since that could put them in a position of being forced to censor blog postings or hand over dissidents' personal information to the secret police.

They also decided they would not take down the existing, unfiltered Chinese-language version of the google.com engine. In essence, they would offer two search engines in Chinese.

Chinese surfers could still access the old google.com; it would produce uncensored search results, though controversial links would still lead to dead ends, and the site would be slowed down and occasionally blocked entirely by the firewall.

The new option would be google.cn, where the results would be censored by Google - but would arrive quickly, reliably and unhindered by the firewall.

Brin and his team decided that if they were going to be forced to censor the results for a search for "Tiananmen Square," then they would put a disclaimer at the top of the search results on google.cn explaining that information had been removed in accordance with Chinese law.

When Chinese users search for forbidden terms, Brin said, "they can notice what's missing, or at least notice the local control." It is precisely the solution you'd expect from a computer scientist: the absence of information is a type of information. (Google displays similar disclaimers in France and Germany, where they strip out links to pro-Nazi Web sites.)

Brin's team had one more challenge to confront: how to determine which sites to block? The Chinese government wouldn't give them a list. So Google's engineers hit on a high-tech solution. They set up a computer inside China and programmed it to try to access Web sites outside the country, one after another. If a site was blocked by the firewall, it meant the government regarded it as illicit - so it became part of Google's blacklist.

Google has learned it the hard way of how to operate in China sticking to  'Chinese characteristics' though agreeing to censorship from the Chinese government has spurred up a lot of international criticism saying that Google has compromised its motto of 'don't be evil'.

However, Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin has been quoted to say "We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference".

All this boils down to the fact that having a Chinese name could give a foreign company a more local appeal to its potential customers in China but more than that, to be successful in this booming economy one needs to respect, and understand the cultural nuances of this vast country, and properly and profitably utilise those for corporate success!

Good luck to Gu Ge. . . Indian companies willing to give their business a Chinese extension need to think differently and learn from the Google story.

The author is working for Nokia, Beijing, China and also runs his own consulting company www.cultureflections.com 

Chinmoy Mohanty