This guest article was written by Morten Fillipsen is Partner and Head of Asia with Mediagroup Worldwide. 

In a highly competitive industry, brokers across the board are seeing increasing acquisition costs through the traditional paid channels. As a result, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has become a key element of most, if not all, brokers’ marketing tool box. Except in China, where most brokers still rely on traditional paid marketing with a heavy focus on media deals.

But the Chinese market, although big and attractive, is also being crowded by brokers, and acquisition costs are significantly higher than they used to be when using traditional media channels. Although characterized by a longer payback time, SEO consistently reduces the acquisition cost of brokers when given the right attention and investment.

In this article I will explain a little about how search in China works, and give some input on effective SEO tactics.

Forget about Google

Probably the main reason why many brokers neglect SEO in China is that you cannot simply use the same Google approach that works in other countries. China is dominated by the local search engine, Baidu, founded in 2000 as very much a copy of Google – many things in Baidu are similar to Google, but certain important elements differ.

One of the major differences is how Baidu shows search results. At the top, Baidu offers the possibility of a brand zone to be shown when users search for brand related keywords. The brand zone will take up a considerable part of the above the fold space:

Baidu also offers related services, to name a few: a Wikipedia style encyclopedia (Baike), a Yahoo! Answers type Q&A function (Zhidao) as well as a Reddit-type bulletin board system (Tieba). If the searched keyword matches anything in these internal services, Baidu will typically display these above any other organic listing. So unlike with Google where the format is 2-3 paid links at the top followed by organic content, Baidu will shuffle it up and heavily promote its own resources before organic listings.

So in addition to the SEO efforts that should be done on your own site, it would be beneficial to build up your presence within Baidu’s own resources as well.

Turning our attention to your website now, I will highlight certain key points related to content SEO, technical SEO and legal issues.

Content SEO

Language: Everything needs to be in simplified Chinese: title tags, meta data, and content. Avoid roman characters, except in URL where preference is given to page names written in Pinyin (Chinese words written in Roman characters).

Content: Ensure all is unique, as duplicate content is penalized even more than what is seen with Google. It is not uncommon for other sites to copy your content word for word, so make it a habit to check for this regularly. Baidu also values content quality very highly, so each page should have at least 300 words of unique content.

Meta descriptions and keywords: Baidu, unlike most other search engines, still places a high value on meta descriptions and meta keywords, so make sure these are filled out.

Off-site SEO: Although they have improved in this area recently, Baidu has still been significantly behind Google in terms of evaluating inbound links. They have historically placed a higher value on quantity rather than quality in terms of inbound links, and as a result it has been possible to increase rankings through link building schemes. Expect improvement in this area, but inbound links will still continue to be valued highly.

Java, flash and iFrames: Keep your content in HTML, Baidu does not do well with java or flash and does not crawl within iFrames. Also important to keep in mind if your menu structure is java based, where having navigational links in the footer may be a solution.

Technical SEO

Simple structures: The crawling power of Baidu is not as sophisticated as Google yet, and as a result it favors simpler, flat-structured sites without too many clicks to get to the content.

Page load speed: As is known with Google, Baidu also places a high value on the page load speed of your site. Having your website hosted outside of China however will put you at a natural disadvantage, as the Great Firewall will significantly reduce the load speed. Using CDNs or even finding a way to host locally (see the legal section below) can help.

Image ALT attribute: Baidu only ranks images based on the ALT attribute, so make sure all images have these in Chinese.

Anchor text: Anchor text on links, internal and external, carry a high importance. Make sure all internal links have anchor texts, and if possible get external links to do the same.

Local domain: Baidu will prioritize locally hosted .cn/.com.cn websites the highest, then non-local .cn/.com.cn, and lastly all others. So even if it is not possible to host your website locally in China, it is highly recommendable to at least use a Chinese domain suffix.

Legal issues

Locally hosted website: If you want to host your website locally in China, and gain the advantage of higher page load speed and preference in ranking, you need to obtain an ICP (Internet Content Publishing) license. This is basically a license plate for your website, and it is only given to local companies (non-foreign owned) – even if your company is foreign-owned, there are options of renting an ICP license from a local provider. Most FX brokers are not eligible for this, as selling financial services would definitely not be approved – some have succeeded with content-only sites though.

Censorship: Censorship is quite heavy in China, and any page containing blacklisted words will cause Baidu to de-index the page or even the whole site. There are lists where you can look up a good portion of the blacklisted words, yet these have a tendency to change quite frequently (with new words added, rarely are words/phrases taken off). Also consider if your site is open for user comments, that you should be able to moderate this and remove comments that include blacklisted words.

In the above I have highlighted just a few key points on the Baidu SEO side. As with Google, SEO is a discipline that requires attention and hard work, but done right it yields a significant ROI. I hope to see more brokers focusing on SEO in their China marketing approach going forward.