SEO in China can be difficult.
Mainland China’s sluggish broadband connection speeds and Great Firewall (GFW) present marketers with a unique set of challenges. Only ~30% of Chinese internet users use a VPN, leaving the other 70% fully soloed behind the GFW. As a result, non-Chinese businesses often find that Chinese audiences are virtually unreachable. Webpages, analytics tools, marketing automation systems, landing pages, social media accounts, CRMs — if a business deploys these kinds of assets using a CDN or data center located outside the GFW, they usually won’t work reliably for audiences on the Chinese mainland.
Ultimately, this means audiences in places like Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing can’t access cornerstone digital marketing resources. As such, marketers working outside the Chinese mainland find themselves unable to raise awareness effectively, generate leads, and build the kinds of datasets they need to do their best work.
So how do we reach Chinese audiences?
The political and technological regulations that China imposes on its mainland network make it difficult to launch even a basic website behind the GFW. As such, effectively SEO in China involves a number of steps that are unnecessary just about everywhere else in the world.
To reach customers on the Chinese mainland in an effective, reliable way, marketers need to use native ad vendors, analytics resources, and software tools. They also need to leverage CDNs and data centers that have points of presence (PoP) on the Chinese mainland, inside the GFW.
GoConvert's step-by-step guide to SEO in China can help.
We’ve broken it into two parts: infrastructure and campaigning. The first part is based on Studio Hyperset’s launching a Chinese website checklist. The second is based on customer campaigns we’ve run on the Chinese mainland. Together, we hope this case study not only adds to the growing body of work concerned with Chinese marketing but stands as the clearest and most comprehensive Chinese sales and marketing guide available.
Learn how GoConvert helps customers launch marketing assets, conduct paid marketing campaigns, and track the ROI of marketing spending on the Chinese mainland.
Launching marketing assets on the Chinese mainland requires a number of different kinds of tasks. We’ve organized these into five categories below. While the categories aren’t strictly linear, you’ll find the process runs as smoothly as possible if you start at the top and make your way to the bottom.
Step 1: Hosting
First, you’ll want to set up a hosting account with a company that has data centers and CDN PoP’s on the Chinese mainland. We use Alibaba Cloud’s ChinaConnect service and, more often than not, serve customer marketing assets via a public IP address. (You’ll find more information about URL options below.)
Step 2: Administration
After setting up an account, your Chinese host will probably ask you to complete a “real-name verification” process. This involves little more than sharing your business entity’s incorporation information with your host. Unlike registering a .cn domain (which requires a mainland China-based business entity), this information can be from anywhere in the world. If you’re interested in learning more about this step, Alibaba outlines its real-name verification process here.
Set Up a Chinese Business Entity (Optional)
If you want to serve your site using a top-level domain (TLD) such as “yourdomain.com” or “yourdomain.cn” or a subdomain such as “chinasite.yourdomain.com,” you’ll need to create a legal entity for your business on the Chinese mainland. This would be the Chinese equivalent of a US incorporation or German “GmbH.” (Unfortunately, Hong Kong legal entities don’t count.) A Google search for “set up a Chinese business entity” or “incorporate in China” will uncover a number of vendors who can help with this process as well as some DIY “how to” articles.
Apply for an ICP License (Optional)
Once you’ve set up a business entity on the Chinese mainland, you’ll need to apply for an ICP license. The application and filing process is self-service, but the system is only available in Chinese. If this presents an insurmountable challenge for your organization, Alibaba offers an ICP acquisition service.
Register a .cn TLD (Optional)
Registering a .cn top-level domain (TLD) is optional, and doing so requires the registrant to have Chinese citizenship or a mainland Chinese business entity. Assuming you’ve registered a Chinese business entity and filed an ICP, you could just as well serve your China-based site from any valid TLD or subdomain (or, as we did, public IP address). However, some organizations may want to use a .cn TLD for branding reasons. If you’re interested in registering a .cn domain, a Google search will reveal a host of vendors.
SEO in China Insight
If you do use a TLD or subdomain to serve your China-based marketing assets, one source we like suggests:
Have your DNS resolve inside China. If you registered your domain and/or manage your domain’s DNS elsewhere in the world, requests for your domain will need to constantly enter and exit the Chinese national network. This will slow your mainland site speed considerably. To get around this, either register you domain with a Chinese registry like DNSPod or use a cloud DNS service like Alibaba Cloud DNS, DNS.com, or Amazon Route 53.
Step 3: Content
Stripe offers both WeChat Pay and Alipay integrations. Using Stripe’s Source API object, eCommerce vendors outside the Chinese mainland can check off all three challenges above. Mainland Chinese customers can purchase goods and services using their preferred, local payment method. Then, once the transaction is complete, the international vendor has immediate access to funds in his/her Stripe account.
Translate all site copy and SEO resources/meta tags into Mandarin using Simplified Chinese characters. Google Translate can help create a first draft. However, before launching your site, have a native speaker and/or localization professional review the translated copy to ensure it communicates clearly and reads comfortably.
Localize Social Media
Review this list of social media sites that are blocked in China and remove any outbound links, embeds, and other third-party features associated with blocked sites. If you’re focused on cultivating connections with a mainland Chinese audience, you can set up Chinese social media accounts and replace your Western accounts their Chinese equivalents: Facebook > RenRen, Twitter > Weibo, YouTube > Youku Tudou, &c.
SEO in China Insight
Curious about China’s Western social media equivalents?
Remove Non-Chinese Links
You’ll want to remove any outbound links to non-Chinese sites from your mainland site. Even if a Western site isn’t explicitly blocked, your mainland Chinese audience will often see performance issues and loading errors when trying to link out to sites based elsewhere in the world.
Scan Site for Sensitive Content
If your site contains certain keywords or other kinds of sensitive content — eg., offensive comments, political content, gambling, pornography — it’s more likely to be blocked by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). Before launching your site on a Chinese server, you’ll want to review it thoroughly and ensure it doesn’t contain this sort of content.
SEO in China Insight
“How do I know if my marketing resources contain sensitive content?”
Step 4: Development (Launch Prep)
Because of the GFW, Google Analytics can be unreliable on the Chinese mainland. Instead, set up a Baidu account and use their analytics platform. This article will help you get started with Baidu Analytics.
Now that you have a Baidu account, use their webmaster tools in the same way you would Google Search Console: to manage sitemaps, review indexing frequency, check for crawl errors, &c. This article will help you get started with Baidu Webmaster Tools.
Make sure your images are less than 50k, that you’ve minified your front-end code, and that you use caching mechanisms. If your organization can make do with a static site or landing page for mainland China (vs. a database-driven CMS), you’ll improve your page load time and harden your security.
Step 5: Development (Post Launch)
After you deploy your site on your Chinese server, you’ll want to test site forms, chat applications, and any other third-party integrations to ensure they’re working normally. Moreover, you’ll want to review these regularly to ensure they haven’t suddenly stopped working. Marketing automation tools, data tracking solutions, custom fonts and icon sets, embedded maps and videos, API integrations — these can put upward pressure on site load time and, if the connection is ultimately blocked, make your site render incorrectly or prevent it from loading altogether.
Again, if you aren’t located on the mainland or don’t have contacts there, it can be challenging to test a website from a Chinese user’s perspective. Doing so would allow you to identify and remove any problematic integrations. However, while they generally will not help you identify the root causes of laggy mainland load times, this article lists a few resources that will allow you to test your site’s mainland load speed. Like their Google equivalents, Baidu Webmaster Tools and Analytics should also help you identify any mainland performance issues.
Once we’ve set up our basic marketing infrastructure behind the GFW, we’re ready to conduct paid marketing campaigns aimed at customers on the Chinese mainland. In many ways, running paid digital campaigns on the Chinese mainland is no different than anywhere else in the world. We want to raise awareness, capture interest cost effectively, generate lead flow, convert new customers, and maximize ROI. However, when running campaigns on the Chinese mainland, we need to consider a few distinctive variables and work with some ad vendors that many non-Chinese marketers may be unfamiliar with.
We’ve organized the campaigning section of our Chinese marketing guide by funnel stage, and each section contains Chinese marketing guidelines relevant to that stage. Like the infrastructure section, the following stages aren’t strictly linear. However, you’ll likely find the guidelines flow most logically if you start at the top and make your way to the bottom.
How does GoConvert help customers sell and market to China?
By combining the self-sufficiency of an application with the expertise of an agency, GoConvert uses four actions to help customers quantify results, maximize ROI, and achieve their Chinese marketing goals.
GoConvert uses all available data resources — ad vendor data, social media intel, analytics, contact information, and other digital signals — to continually fine-tune our customers’ audiences. We always know whom we’re speaking to and how well we’re resonating with them.
GoConvert uses audience intelligence to build highly-relevant marketing collateral. This helps ensure content topics, social media channels, and ads align with known audience variables. Now, marketing spending has the potential to generate exponential returns.
Lead Generation & Nurturing
We use audience-specific marketing assets from the first section to generate a steady stream of leads for our customers. This allows them to nurture prospects along a well-defined conversion path and creates additional front-line intelligence we can use to fine-tune our various audience hypotheses.
Measuring, Analyzing, Reporting, Learning & Fine Tuning
We use engagement data and other digital signals to constantly learn from our marketing efforts and improve our audience models. This allows us to fine-tune collateral resources, improve lead generation, hone conversion workflows, and improve overall marketing efforts (on- and offline).
Chinese Ad Vendors
When running ads that target audiences on the Chinese mainland, marketers have a lot of vendor options. Generally, GoConvert uses low-cost initial spends to identify the highest performing channels. Then, once we find the channel or channels that deliver the best CTR, CPC, and lead/customer conversions, we steadily increase spending with those vendors.
Those You Know
Most marketers are familiar with these ad vendors. However, many don’t know they can be used to target Chinese audiences.
While it’s true that the GFW blocks most Western social media sites, these companies have set up partnerships with native Chinese companies that allow them to serve ads to Chinese audiences. This allows marketers outside the mainland to target Chinese audiences using ad vendors they’re familiar with and benefit from the powerful targeting and segmentation features that distinguish Western social media companies.
GoConvert automatically aggregates data from these vendors, which allows us to build powerful trend models for our customers.
China has quite a few native ad vendors. These include Baidu (China’s Google), WeChat and its parent company Tencent, and Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter). This article lists four other vendors, including Youku Tudou (China’s YouTube). Language barriers and high minimum ad buys can make these vendors challenging for non-Chinese companies to work with, but they do allow marketers to reach audiences on the Chinese mainland in native ecosystems.
When systems allow it, GoConvert automatically aggregates data from these vendors. When this isn’t possible, we manually import it. Either way, we’re able to use native Chinese ad vendor data to build effective funnels for our customers.
CTR & CPC
When SEO in China, it’s critical for marketers to track click-through rates (CTR) and the amount they pay per click (CPC). Luckily, no matter what ad vendor you’re using to raise awareness, these work the same way in China as they do elsewhere in the world.
And your goal is the same as well.
Fine tune audience data, and use that intel to improve the alignment of channels, messaging, and creative. This will maximize the number of clicks and minimize the amount you pay per click.
We call this the “virtuous gap.”
It’s marketing in its most harmonious state: putting sustained downward pressure on CPC (red) while simultaneously putting upward, even exponential pressure on CTR (gray). More often than not, the virtuous gap has positive collateral effects on lead flow as well.
By automatically aggregating marketing data, GoConvert helps customers build models like these, whether they’re marketing to audiences in China or elsewhere in the world. This helps our customers build powerful trend models, reveal actionable insights, and maximize the ROI of marketing spending.
Chinese Lead Generation
Generating leads on the Chinese mainland is a little tricky. While they can rely on some of the same resources they use elsewhere in the world, marketers need to take a few unique technology and privacy considerations into account.
Collect Leads Locally
Third-party, embeddable form solutions like HubSpot and Salesforce will generally fail on the Chinese mainland. If they appear at all, these forms usually won’t write data properly to servers located outside the Chinese mainland.
Even when we create our own forms with our own simple mail processing scripts, we find messages don’t reach our inboxes and/or those of our leads. Either server-level email processing fails or messages aren’t able to flow in and out of the GFW.
Third-party scripts, emails, analytics — it’s best to avoid forcing any data to enter and exit the Chinese national network. At best, the results are unreliable. At worst, data tends to get lost in the transition. It’s almost always best for marketers to treat their Chinese assets as independently-operating, siloed entities.
When it comes to lead generation, you’ll see your best results if you write all form data to a simple CSV file stored on your Chinese server. Periodically download the file, and import it to your CRM, email management solution, &c.
If you must use third-party forms and/or server-level email processing, the CSV can serve as a valuable backup and auditing tool.
Respect Data Privacy
For now, though, China’s guiding data protection policy document is titled Personal Information Security Specification. Unless you’re a “CIIO” — a “Critical Information Infrastructure Operator” who processes information related to national security, the economy, or “the public interest” (energy, transportation, or public services) — requirements are quite similar to Western laws such as CCPA and GDPR. By and large, if you operate in accordance with GDPR, you’ll be compliant with Chinese data protection policies.
Unlike GDPR, however, users consent to the collection of personal information in “implied” (vs. explicit) ways. In practice, this means that when a Chinese lead fills out a form, you don’t need to use a check box (or other mechanism) to get explicit consent to collect his or her personal information.
SEO in China Insights
“What makes Chinese data protection laws different from those in the West?” Two sources we like suggest:
China’s data-privacy law, Personal Information Security Specification, governs the collection and use of the personal data of Chinese residents by ‘network operators.’ The law was very much modelled on GDPR. However, there are some key differences, mainly a focus on national security and a balancing act between data privacy and economic growth in AI and ecommerce. (Read More)
While GDPR served as the primary model for the [Personal Information Security Specification], there are also important differences—particularly around what is meant by consent and other grounds for processing personal data outside of consent. The end result is a framework for personal data protection in China that looks more like GDPR than our approach in the United States or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum’s Cross Border Privacy Rules (CBPR), but it has a number of differences from GDPR intended to make it less rigid. (Read More)
Win Rate & ROI
When SEO in China, it’s critical for marketers to track both win rates (the percent of customers you convert vs. the number of leads you generate) and ROI of their efforts (the amount of income you generate for every dollar you spend). Luckily, these metrics work the same way in China as they do elsewhere in the world.
And your goal is the same as well.
Boost the ROI of your marketing efforts by increasing efficiency and decreasing waste, using actionable insights to keep ad creative and content well aligned with your audience’s interests, and bringing qualified leads into your funnel. This will help you build a returns-driven, holistically-healthy funnel.
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