August 10, 2015
5 Must-Knows About Entering the Chinese Market
Got an eye on launching your cause’s site for the Chinese market? Wondering how feasible it might be to localize for China and pick up a big user base? This quick guide should get you up to speed on five major China-specific web-industry challenges, and get you pointed in the right direction with tips and resources for further research.
1. Should I Host My Website Inside or Outside of Mainland China?
The short answer is this: if you can avoid hosting your website on a server based in mainland China, avoid it. As of 2015, the regulations governing web hosting and web content in China are arcane to say the least, so getting and staying government-compliant is a rough ride. Currently, most non-Chinese companies interested in serving the Chinese market choose to host on servers in Hong Kong.
If you can’t avoid it—say, if China is one of your primary target markets and it’s crucial that your web presence is lightning-fast and locally-hosted—dig in and get ready for a long, bureaucratic slog to get that site online. Currently, the #1 in-country host is Net.cn, owned by the giant, many-tentacled conglomerate Alibaba Group.
Every website hosted on a Chinese server must, by law, obtain an ICP (Internet Content Provider) license from the Chinese government branch responsible for such things (MIIT), and your ICP Number will need to be displayed on your website at all times. MIIT, via your web host, will assess your status as an individual or corporation, verify your identity, check your proposed website content for any sensitive political issues, and may ask to see your business license before issuing an ICP. The process typically takes about a month, and your web host usually helps handle your application. If you’re not willing to go through this, forget hosting on the mainland.
Will my website get blocked by the Great Firewall if I’m not hosting on the Chinese mainland?
It might. It might not.
There really isn’t any way to say for sure what’ll be allowed and what won’t—it’s all very arbitrary. My personal website is full of cussing and frank conversation about China, and I’ve never been blocked. But I’ve seen plenty of sites get kicked off the Chinese web for saying less.
Sometimes, an entire IP range gets blocked, and it’s possible for sites with no objectionable content to get swept up in a general crackdown—collateral damage. Certain non-Chinese blog networks are blocked automatically. For example, blogspot.com and wordpress.com are disallowed.
Naturally, some sites are more likely to be targeted for extinction. If your site contains many sensitive political keywords, if your site seems to incite protest, if you are on a .mil or sometimes a .gov domain, or if your site contains pornography and sexual language, congratulations: your site is block-bait, and when the spiders stumble across your corner of the web, your site may get the axe.
Will my website be slower if I host outside of mainland China?
Yup. Sorry. It will be slower. Maybe much slower, maybe only a little. It’s just plain physics. So, if you’re not going through the rigmarole to obtain an ICP license, it’s super important to keep your code clean and your image sizes down to make up for the excess server hops.
More about this
Feeling self-flagellatory? Check out my excruciatingly boring start-to-finish guide to the ICP licensing and China hosting process.
2. How Will the Great Firewall Affect My Company’s Website?
Your front-end code shouldn’t connect to Google’s API.
Google, with its marvelous panoply of services, is blocked in China. All the services. Every last one. Google Calendar. Google Maps. Google Fonts. Google Analytics. If you’re targeting a Chinese market, you’ll need to take care to build a site with front-end code that includes none of these things. Use Baidu Maps instead of Google Maps, self-hosted fonts instead of Google fonts, and ideally, alternative web-stat systems for measuring traffic.
You shouldn’t embed videos from Youtube or Vimeo
In China, there’s a big, sad, empty square where your Youtube video was supposed to load—both services, Youtube and Vimeo, are blocked. Instead, host your video locally or on Chinese video hosting sites Youku, Qiyi or Tudou. If you need to host a video that must be seen both inside and outside of China, the solution is to run a script that evaluates the user’s IP, then loads the appropriate video based on the user’s location.
You’ll have to SEO-optimize for Baidu
Baidu is China’s Google, its most-frequented search engine, and the rules are a little different. Your most knowledgeable online source for information about Chinese search engine optimization is SEO Shifu—take a peek at their blog for a look into the pitfalls and particulars.
You will need a China-specific social network presence
More downers: Facebook is blocked. So is Twitter. So is Instagram. Any outreach you’re doing via those channels won’t be effective in China. You’ll need to have a social marketing strategy specifically tailored for the networks which are used by your market. Which brings us to…
3. On Which Social Networks Does My Company Need to Have a Presence?
Unlike the West, where we suffer from social network fragmentation (some users on these networks, some users on those), China tends to have one dominate social network at a time.
Wechat, primarily a mobile chat and social sharing platform, has taken China by storm and now boasts around 500 million users. It’s China’s current network du jour and a WeChat account is a must-have for any company seeking to enter the market today. WeChat works very differently than most social platforms in the West, combining dozens of different features: a timeline, voice chat, even an onboard wallet that interfaces with lottery and train ticket purchasing systems. Companies may apply for an official WeChat account, a special account type that allows your company to run WeChat targeted mini-apps. Need some WeChat consulting? Speak to the boys at WalktheChat, who specialize in getting foreign companies acquainted with WeChat’s many vagaries.
Losing heavy ground to WeChat in the last couple of years but still immensely popular is Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. Your company can push mini-updates out and actively grow a following via this channel.
QQ is the original, oldest and most traditional of the Chinese social giants. Many people still use QQ and have individual verified QQ numbers, so opening a QQ account as a channel through which potential users can reach you is courteous.
4. Who Are the Major Players in eCommerce?
Online payment in China was a horrific nightmare only a few short years ago, but now? I’d argue that it’s more efficient than any system in the West.
Alipay / Zhifubao
Zhifubao is China’s answer to Paypal, but due to looser regulations and—frankly—just better design, Zhifubao is remarkably more effective and vastly more useful than Paypal ever was. In addition to all the standard payment options, users can instantly pay utility bills, even college tuition, via Zhifubao. If you’re accepting online payment, Zhifubao checkout support is crucial.
Just last year, WeChat launched their digital wallet, and the user base is growing fast. In its simplest form, WeChat Wallet allows users to scan each other’s personal QR codes in order to transfer money between accounts face-to-face, but some brick and mortar stores actually allow users to pay directly via WeChat at the register.
5. What are the Major Differences in User Expectations Between Chinese and the West?
The answers to this could fill a book, and as you fabulous user-centered folks know, if you really want to get into your visitors’ heads, a few bullet points in some blog post ain’t gonna cut it: you have to do the research. I know, I know, easier said than done when your target market is China. But dry those pretty eyes: local research firms like Apogee, based in Hong Kong, and Tang Consulting, based in Beijing, can help.
Still, I’ll leave you with a few of the biggest and most well-known potholes in the East-West UX split.
It’s difficult to imagine how utterly mobile-centered China is. Think about it: in the West, we got desktops, used those for a while. Later, the desktops had internet. Then we got cell phones, and then those had internet. But desktops came first. Not so in China. By the time China got online, cell phones were internet-equipped. The one-desktop-per-household era never happened, and because of this, mobile is seen as the original, the source, the center, of the online world. Your strategy should be equally mobile-centric; if it isn’t, if desktop is your focus, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
QR Codes and Screen-Scanning Behavior
Don’t diss the humble QR code: it’s BIG in China. Because mobile phones are the preferred browsing method here, all media—be it a print ad, a business card, or a desktop website—must provide users a way to quickly get that data into their phone. The method of choice is via QR code, and Chinese mobile phones often feature QR reading apps as one of their most valuable tools. Not only should your business cards and print collateral offer QR codes, your desktop website should feature QR Codes in either the header and footer that allow visitors to quickly load the mobile version of the site on their phones.
This ultra-likable dude named Dan Grover, who works at WeChat in Guangzhou, wrote an incredible post exploring some of China’s mobile app UI trends. You should give that a look-see.
Localization is more than just translating your content and calling it a day. It means understanding the digital environment of the market you’re preparing to enter and the cultural ramifications of your business decisions. But you knew that already.
Let us know if you have any other tech-in-China questions and we’ll do our best to get you sorted out.