Searching for Information on the Web in China

I did not really think about the importance of searching the web. It seemed straight forward, just like a card catalogue library. You want something, there are available resources, you search those resources and find what you are looking for, or perhaps not. On Chinese social media there are a few other major issues to consider that, almost always, give you sub-optimal results.

Search Results are useful for China-internal content
There is Baidu search in China, their largest search engine. By all accounts this search engine is quite bad, where people in China often cannot find what they are looking for. Baidu is invariably only roughly effective in China, even though they have huge bots that scour the world’s web. I know this because I see it hitting my web sites on a daily basis.

A quick check on Baidu shows that while they scrape content from my sites, when I search for my own content, it cannot be found. In fact there are some Chinese citizens that ask me to search Google for something outside China that they cannot find. This is common.

Search Results are not ranked by usefulness or popularity
Google search results, arguably, have a page ranking that allows the most useful pages to bubble to the top. This is not quite the case in China. Political censorship is also heavily influenced. Further there is blatant commercialization of Baidu search results in which a company can pay Baidu for a higher page rank. Often these higher rankings are also not tagged as paid.

Many Chinese netizens have complained about Baidu’s untrustworthiness, but there is little they can do. There is only one Baidu, and all Chinese search engines, as well as all Chinese companies are subject to Chinese censorship.

Search Results on Chinese Social Media
Issues with search results also carry over to Chinese social media. You would think that if there are 500M people on a platform, that all of them would be equally findable, but on QQ where I hang out, this is not the case. In fact, I did some experiments where I put my location as Toronto, Canada, and guess what, no search results came back. In fact, on QQ you cannot find any foreigners on the platform, even though I regularly see them in QQ groups.

This search issue also extends to even the group names. If a friend tells you she is in a specific QQ group, you search for that name and, you will not be able to find it. In fact, Chinese people have known this for a long time, so they often screencap the front page of the group, which includes the QQ group number. Only with the QQ group number can you find the group.

Networking using Friends and people you know.
The lack of an accurate search facility in QQ groups and people leads to some unique behaviours. Friends and people you meet online are more important. If you find someone you get along with you need to save their QQ number outside of QQ so that if contact is lost through QQ, then you can contact them again. How is contact lost? China regularly deletes QQ groups without telling people why. There are no set rules other than “You have violated QQ group guidelines”. Thus, as QQ groups are deleted, individuals are again scattered to the wind and cannot quickly regather. This is an excellent tool against organization of any movement.

The result is that once you find a group of people you organize with, the QQ group must be thought of as transitory. The group will be deleted if there is any slight transgression of any rule, known or unknown, in the present or future. The group members, however know this and therefore keep their own records of member numbers handy, in the inevitable event that a group removal happens. Group removals are common. With a list, group members can somewhat quickly regroup and rebuild under another name, until that group is also deleted. The cat and mouse game continues.

Just as an aside it is also important to note that if you are in a group, the Chinese government can and does prosecute you for conversations within the group. There have been cases such as the late Dr. Li Wenliang, who first detected the Sars Coronavirus in Wuhan, where all the members of his chat group were interrogated by police. Such a privacy misuse of the group is very rare in the West.

Searching for new social media groups
You might want to type in a keyword or two to narrow down your search, but also note that there is an algorithm on QQ that does not let you see all the search results. I often wonder how the search algorithm has been altered. Is is biased towards smaller groups, more politically correct groups? It is difficult to say. Nevertheless, trying to find a group that you have lost is quite difficult. You need to know someone within that group or to have written down the group number. As for finding a new group, this is also quite difficult and very hit and miss.

The best thing to do when looking for a new QQ group is to know other people, get a recommendation and a QQ group number. The QQ name is not sufficient. It might be common knowledge to Chinese people, but QQ group names such as “Big Apple” and “Big apple” or even “Big aPple” are considered three different groups, run by three different people. When one is shut down, a completely different group could take a name very similarly to the recently censored group. This is common.

China and Chinese culture is unlike Western culture. The expectation that search is unbiased and logical does not exist. There is both government and company search algorithm manipulation that may prevent you from accurate search results. The best solution is to have a network of friends that can give you a recommendation. Over time even foreigners can adapt to this different social environment. Search is not all it seems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *