Google Ends Censorship In China

On Monday, March 22nd 2010, Google announced its plan to end the controversial censorship of their search engine in China (Google.cn), which has been ongoing since the Google-China agreement in January 2006.  This announcement comes on the heels of several December 2009 hacking incidents which reportedly originated in China and targeted the Gmail accounts of many human rights activists. Chinese officials claim Google’s revocation of their agreement is a breach of the 2006 contract which stipulated censorship was a non-negotiable legal requirement to Google’s operations in that country.  Google, with its “don’t be evil” mantra, has faced opposition to its 2006 decision and now comes under some fire for violating their contract while intending to remain in China on their own terms:  they have now routed their Chinese mainland traffic to their “uncensored” version in Hong Kong (Google.hk), which, as a former British colony, is now a special administrative region and enjoys unfiltered internet access and other liberties.  It is unknown how long and how much of these search results will get past the “Great (fire)Wall” of Beijing.

To give a little more background, in January of 2006, Google entered into a hotly-contested agreement with the Chinese government to offer censored search results to Chinese internet users via Google.cn.  As China offers the largest internet market of 250 million users, Google claimed they were doing the most good by having a limited presence there and believed they would eventually help usher in a new era of unfiltered internet access to the communist country (see Google’s January 2006 Blog).  This contract was violated by Google following a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on Google and several individuals in mid-December 2009 (see CNN), which originated in China and involved 20 or more instances of hacking into the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.

Although Google is only used by 13% of Chinese internet users (whereas 77% of users access the web via the government-friendly engine, baidu.com), according to surveys, it claims its presence is important.  Perhaps this statement is from a business and revenue-generating perspective.  However, I typed the phrase “Tiananmen Square massacre” into Google and received over 1.3 million results.  I then typed that phrase into Baidu.com (which looks remarkably like Google, by the way) and received three results, none of which held any real information about the massacre itself.  Although Google.cn was censored for three years, it is unclear if any more of those relevant results came through.  Now, if you were to go to Google.cn, which redirects to Google.hk, you will see over 1.3 million results for “Tiananmen Square massacre”.   Interesting.

At this time, you can visit Google’s Mainland China Service Availability page to see up-to-date availability for Chinese users.  Google is aware Beijing can block Google’s access at any time, as they currently block YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and various blog sites.  It is likely China is weighing its options, as Google’s decision has further enhanced their poor international image, although the Chinese government is unlikely to cave into pressure based on the contract violations of an American company.

Google, on the other hand, is attempting to put pressure on Microsoft for still offering a censored, albeit, extremely limited presence in China (see Danny Sullivan’s Blog).  While most would agree Google has no business taking that position at this point, we are still watching to see whether or not the search engine will renegotiate its stance on China, especially in light of the potential for internet revenue and sale of Google phones to Chinese technophiles (see AOL News).  It is also speculated China will take their own stand against foreign search engines in favor of a “regional” internet, which may in turn spark a similar move by other dictatorial countries such as Iran and Venezuela, a move that would be very interesting for SEO agencies and advertisers.

Contributed by Amanda Finch, VP Operations

What’s All The Buzz?

Google’s new social networking baby, Buzz (see our Feb 12th article, “What’s the Buzz? Google’s Latest Platform to Outperform Twitter”), has made a stellar debut with online users.  Since its inception on Feb 9th, Buzz has already undergone several changes and improvements, thanks to the loud and clear feedback users sent to Google, much of which was in regards to Buzz’ lax privacy policy.  Despite these changes, Buzz’ popularity is already beginning to cause the online world to take note.

Since Google launched Buzz earlier this month, and following the many subsequent complaints that Google was not making it clear people had to opt-out of the public nature of their profiles, Google has made several changes to Buzz’ default settings.  After just two days of use, Google edited the checkbox allowing the list of followers to become public by making it “more prominent” so people will have an easier time seeing it in the first place.  They also made it possible to “block” followers or “unfollow” people, and have set it up so users will clearly identify their contacts who do not have a public profile.

After just four days of use, Buzz was further altered by having one of its major selling features, auto-following, downgraded to “auto-suggesting”.  When someone creates a profile for the first time, Buzz will generate a suggested contacts list with a check box next to each contact.  The user will then click the button that says “follow selected people and start using Buzz.”  In addition to the removal of auto-following, Buzz no longer auto-connects users’ public Picasa albums and Google Reader shared items, which it was previously set to do.  Another change includes a “Buzz” tab on Gmail which will allow the user to hide Buzz emails from Gmail or disable it altogether; there is also a link to accomplish this task on the set-up page.

A final change to look for:  people using Buzz before the Feb 11th update will soon be given a chance to experience the new start-up process in the coming weeks to better determine whether their contact lists are public or private.

How has all this controversy affected Buzz’ popularity?  Just two days after Buzz’ birth, it was already generating 55 posts per second, based on data from an early blog post.  Compared to Facebook (700 status updates per second) and Twitter (600 tweets per second), this is pocket change.  However, keeping in mind that both Facebook and Buzz offer many more “activities” for users than just a single “post” or “status update”, it is likely these two services see a lot more movement than these numbers indicate, whereas Twitter does not.

Furthermore, although Facebook takes the cake on sheer volume at the moment, it is possible users may eventually migrate to Google’s highly integrated complex of services (email, chat, photo sharing, social networking, and more).  Given Google’s near monopoly on search activity of 34,000 searches per second, compared to Yahoo’s 3,200 searches per second and Bing’s 927 searches per second (see Matt McGee’s By the Numbers article), it is not hard to foresee a time when loyal Google users will want to combine all their online activity in one convenient location.

For the typical Buzz user or someone considering using Buzz to promote a business, this is good news.  Google has made Buzz easier and more secure for the end-user, and has shown a quick commitment to responding to users’ concerns.  For all the companies on the Facebook bandwagon, there is now more reason to make Buzz the next logical choice for online marketing.

Contributed by Amanda Finch, VP Operations

A Facelift For Bing

As part of Microsoft’s continuing efforts to increase market share for newly created Bing, the company will be rolling out a new “look” for the search engine this week.  This new look will consist of a series of tabs above the regular search results indicating different result types based on images, videos, news, and more pertaining to the user’s search query.  5% of searchers should begin to see this tabbed view on April 1st, and the rest of us will notice it during the next several weeks.

The changes we will be seeing shortly were originally part of last year’s potential design ideas for how the soon-to-be-revealed Bing would look like.  Due to testing, opinions, and other factors, the tabbed look at the top was ultimately rejected, but now Microsoft believes implementing some of these discarded designs will actually help searchers find what they are looking for faster, and will better categorize the different types of search results that are available to make user interaction easier and more convenient.

In addition to the “tabbed” look, Bing has other changes afoot, including making their engine more social with the addition of Twitter feeds.  They will also attempt to make their category labels more prominent and structured.  These changes, which will possibly replace the “Quick Tabs” pane on the left-hand side of the results, are an attempt to reduce the 42% of Bing search queries that require refinements, according to Microsoft.  As Google’s algorithm still takes the cake on search result relevancy, Bing knows it falls short in providing its users with the most relevant results.  In spite of this deficiency, or probably because of it, Bing is making great strides to try to fill in the gaps where Google is weakest (see Titan Growth®‘s article on Google’s Dominance).

As Titan Growth® mentioned in their March 18th article on Bing market share, February 2010 showed a 15% increase in market share attributed to Microsoft since January 2010.  This significant increase is another healthy boost to the steady growth Bing has sustained since its creation last summer.  It should be noted, however, that this growth has not really been at Google’s expense; instead, it appears Yahoo! has seen a decline in market share during the same period.

As Bing and Yahoo! will be soon joining forces and strengths in the upcoming Search Alliance, changes, improvements, and the accompanying publicity will be a necessary factor to the Alliance’s success.  SEO agencies will need to remain on their toes for shifts in market share, as well as opportunities for business advancement as the search engines continually try to edge out their competition, and ultimately, it is the user who will benefit.

Contributed by Amanda Finch, VP Operations