Ralph Tegtmeier: igaming and the Chinese search space

Popular gaming industry wisdom has it that the Chinese are the world’s most ardent and inveterate gamblers. Brick-and-mortar casinos have known this for generations and it was blithely exploited by the Portuguese when they were running their Chinese colony, Macao: still one of the world’s most reknowned gambling hubs, easily comparable to Monte Carlo, Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

In the online world, things are a bit different, however. Not that the millions of gambling aficionados in the People’s Republic of China wouldn’t just love to pursue their passion via the Internet, because given the slightest chance they quite obviously will do so. But their government begs to differ: online gambling is forbidden in China and the authorities are going to great lengths to prevent it from happening.[1]

Not only do they maintain an army of human censors that keep monitoring the Web for content they feel they need to “protect” their citizens from.[2] Nor is their list of no-nos limited to igaming. First and foremost, this censorship is about political dissidents and activists, be they involved in promoting democractic reforms and human rights, freedom of speech and religion or ethnic minorities’ discrimination issues to secessionist groups. They are also targeting and censoring access to sites featuring what they define as being pornography and whatever else may find the Communist Party’s current disfavour.

They are, of course, also deploying increasingly more sophisticated algorithms aimed at automating this humungous sanitisation task. While only a couple of years back these efforts seemed fairly pathetic, they have really ramped up their standards recently so that it’s getting increasingly more difficult to counter their “Great Firewall”.

Does that mean the entire huge Chinese online market is hermetically sealed off the igaming industry? Not really: it’s perfectly possible to work your way around it all if you are willing to throw a commensurate amount of effort and resources at it. As we cannot offer an entire blueprint to work from within the confines of this space, suffice it to highlight a few peculiarities you’ll encounter when tackling the Chinese search space.

We’ll focus entirely on Baidu here: While it has admittedly experienced a dramatic slide in market share from 71.7% to 63.1% in 2013, with hot contender Qihoo jumping from 10.4% to 22.5%, it’s still the biggest and baddest boy on the block and, hence, your number one target for the Chinese market. (By comparison, Google – operating out of Hong Kong – sports a measly 1.6%, down from 11.25% back in 2010.)[3]


DIY Tools Required

At time of writing, there is no reliable let alone automatable rank checker available for Baidu. The ones pretending to be won’t scale and will only render haphazard results which makes them practically useless.

For our own “SEO Fire Dragon – Defeating the Great Firewall of China”[4] service, working in Simplified Chinese, we had to develop a proprietary rank checker tool that met our requirements. Sounds cool, eh? Well, the downside is that we have to keep it updated all the time to accomodate Baidu’s many bizarre tweaks and changes. If you’re running your own campaigns, you’ll require something similar in order to gauge efficacy, detect strategic and tactical weaknesses, reverse engineer Baidu’s ranking algorithms etc.

What’s more, rank checkers need to be scalable if you’re working with lots of domains (or keywords or, for that matter, clients). That’s typically the case with IP delivery (also know as “cloaking”), where you delivery one type of highly optimised page to the search engine spiders while either serving an entirely different one to your human visitors or redirecting them to another landing page altogether. This is critical when dealing with Baidu in order to compensate your campaigns’ inevitable attrition: when you lose one cloaked site to Baidu’s deindexing efforts, you’ll want to roll out another one (or, better yet, several) to replace it. This is only feasible with appropriately implemented automation.

Ranked – But Blocked!

One of the most disconcerting features in Baiduland is this search engine’s one-of-a-kind knack of ranking some of your pages quite well – with a really evil twist. So your page may sit comfortably in a no. 1 or no. 4 position for your targeted term on page one. Only when a user clicks the link, Baidu may pop up a window warning their client that this particular page is blocked because it features some malware! Obviously, this is another factor you will have to investigate lest you or your clients rejoice prematurely, celebrating stellar ranking results which, alas, aren’t quite what they seem to be.

Some Other Baidu Quirks

  • Baidu rankings can only be researched reliably via a local Chinese IP.
  • While you won’t necessarily need .CN domains to rank your sites, you will require a lot of Chinese hosting and local IPs to achieve any noticeable ranking.
  • Subdomains work quite well.
  • Keywords in pages filenames don’t hurt.
  • As with all other major search engines, link building is still the be all and end all of any search campaign. Regrettably, we cannot recommend any link building networks here because doing so in public will inevitably result in their immediate demotion. So think of it as a trade secret.
  • Baidu seems to be innovation happy to a fault – meaning that parameters keep changing all the time so expect to be scrambling to keep up-to-date.

So is there any hope left to make it in the Chinese search space, be it for political dissidents, humans rights watchdogs or igaming operators? Absolutely – see the results screenshot of a very tiny but typical subset of igaming results, anonymised to protect our clients’ interests.


[[Caption: Fig. 1. Achieving success in the Chinese search space is eminently possibly, provided you devote an appropriate amount of effort to it.]]

[1] Tom Simonite, “Academics Launch Fake Social Network to Get an Inside Look at Chinese Censorship” http://www.technologyreview.com/news/519066/academics-launch-fake-social-network-to-get-an-inside-look-at-chinese-censorship/

[2] Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E. Roberts, “Reverse-engineering censorship in China: Randomized experimentation and participant observation” http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6199/1251722

[3] Steven Millward, “Baidu down, Qihoo up, Google dead: 2013 was a year of drama for China’s search engines” http://www.techinasia.com/how-baidu-qihoo-google-performed-in-china-in-2013/

[4] For a more detailed overview, feel free to dowload our PDF file at: http://el.ly/FireDragon

This article by Ralph Tegtmeier (aka Fantomaster) was first published on SiGMAgazine issue 1.

Ralph Tegtmeier

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