Amid the flurry of punditry and posturing that has surrounded Google's decision to pull its search business out of China and its accusations of hacking by the Chinese, there's another story. Non-elite Chinese people don't find Google's search (or its other services) useful. Google has failed to gain a foothold in the Chinese market because Google hasn't paid attention to making it easy for Chinese customers to use its search engine or its tools.
The best "on the ground" explanation of how Google has screwed up in China, comes from Tricia Wang's blog Cultural Bytes. Tricia is an ethnographer who has been working with urban migrants in China. In her fascinating blog post, entitled: "My Suggestions for Making Google Services more Relevant for Non-Elite Chinese Users (Involves Some Ethnography)", Tricia points to three reasons why the Chinese don't use Google:
1. They don't know how to find it (or pronounce its name)!
"People didn’t even know how to correctly pronounce and agree on the pronunciation of the name “Google.” When I was with a group of 5 youth, I asked them if they used Google, instead of getting an answer we launched into a 10 minute conversation trying to figure out the correct name.....people were unsure of how to type in the name “Google” on the computer keyboard......IF youth did get to Google’s site successfully by either typing in the name correctly or going to Google.com, Gogle.COM, or Guge.COM/CN, it would usually be on their 5th or 7th or even 8th try - that is if they hadn’t given up yet and by then it was just clear that they were doing it because I had asked them to show me how to get to the Google site. It was quite obvious that going to the Google site was never part of their internet routine"
2. They feel a sense of identity and nationalistic pride in using Baidu (the native Chinese search engine)
"Part of Baidu’s success lies in its successful marketing campaign against Google, using nationalism as one of their publicity strategies. It’s been working well. The campaign is so effective that netizens associate the use of Google with being unpatriotic....Another way that Baidu has had an advantage over Google is that Chinese and Hong Kong TV programming will show screen-shots of Baidu when they refer to the internet. Most recently I watched a a show on the Phoenix Channel (Hong Kong based) on January 22nd that showed several screen-shots of how Baidu helped a kidnapped child reunite with his biological parents after 12 years of separation. There are so many stories that talk about how the internet, as symbolized by Baidu, has helped citizens in everyday life."
3. Google doesn't understand their messaging culture
Google Hasn't Made an Effort to Understand How Normal Chinese Use the Internet
"Youth didn’t see how any of the services offered by Google were easier to use than the ones that they were already using. This is because Google operates in an e-mail paradigm while other services operate in a messenger paradigm..a youth asked me, ” how do you leave pictures and messages for others?” I would say, “just send them an email.” But here’s the thing - youth don’t have to send emails when they are using MSN Messenger. There’s a major disconnect in communication culture. Messenger-like services don’t operate on an email paradigm. QQ and MSN users can go to a friend’s MSN Live profile or QQ box to leave a message or post a photo. You can check on each friend’s page to see their last update."
While it's true that Baidu has received preferential treatment by the Chinese government and on the airwaves, it's also clear that Google has itself to blame for not coming up with a name that people can remember. You would also think that a company as rich as Google could have invested in observing the habits and norms of its target audience in China. Tricia Wang's observations and insights are incredibly valuable. Too bad Google didn't do some ethnography of its own in a market as important as China!