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The Great Chinese E-Commerce Gold Rush

The Great Chinese E-Commerce Gold Rush

With China’s recent announcement that it will allow fully foreign-owned e-commerce businesses to operate within its borders, the floodgates are open for direct access to one of the world’s great retail markets.

SEO is perfectly placed to be the cost-effective channel for testing the waters in this new China. Will we see the Western world impose its retail brands on a domestic market with decidedly different buying habits, or will we in the West need to get ready to adapt to the big-name Chinese success stories?

The Case For SEO In Breaking New Markets

With Google’s hreflang attribute solution, webmasters can execute new market site launches with no risk to their existing organic traffic, piggybacking on their existing SEO assets. Not sure how? Here’s a recap.

  1. Don’t have any Chinese language content? Not a (major!) problem.

    Start with a copy of your main language content elsewhere on your domain (subdomain or directory is fine). Use hreflang annotation and correct Content-Language declarations in your HTML to denote that this content is targeting English speakers in China. This will allow your site to show up in relevant search engine results in Google China and Baidu (which partners with Bing for its English language search results), giving you visibility for the majority market share in China.

    Don’t worry about this content being seen as duplicate and thus impacting your Google rankings outside of China. When correctly implemented, Google will ignore content intended for different markets that’s otherwise identical.

    If you think that English language content may not gain traction in China, then you may want to think again. English is the most spoken language on the internet, and the prevalence of English in China’s middle class is high. If you’re in charge of a reasonably sized retail site, you’ll have firsthand experience of the extent to which Chinese shoppers are willing to buy in a second language.

  2. Once you start capturing traffic from Chinese searchers, review your analytics to identify your least engaging pages, then start correctly localizing the content there for your market. Running a simple 4Q survey will help identify specific issues that users are facing.
  3. For bonus points, grab your Google Webmaster “Impressions” and “Clicks” data and zip them together with your landing pages to pick your most valuable pages (and SERPs) to improve.
  4. Launching with a new ccTLD? No problem! Correct use of a hreflang sitemap (or even on-page HTML) will allow you to piggyback on your other ccTLDs’ combined backlink profile.
  5. If you’re not able to do any of the above for technical reasons (yes, all e-commerce retailers, I’m looking at you!), then Google’s made it even easier to avoid duplicate content issues by allowing multiple locations to be assigned a single URL. That means there’s literally no reason* why you can’t go off and set some content to be returned in China today.


Except, obviously, for all the perfectly reasonable reasons you may have, such as distribution / fulfillment, brand strategy, PR implications of targeting China, trade issues, copyright issues, or even (I’m sure) more important technical changes that also take five minutes editing a master template file — though I genuinely have no idea what could drive more value here than, you know, China!

The Contenders For The Gold Rush

E-commerce is already kind of a big deal in China, and there are currently two titans fighting it out for dominance in that market: The Yahoo-invested Alibaba, and the young upstart

You may also be well aware of search-market-share-topping Baidu. Its e-commerce offering, built in partnership with Japanese company Rakuten, ended up failing — but a new venture with Tencent and Wanda looks like a major play for traction by some serious players.

Included in the Chinese government’s announcement about relaxing rules to encourage e-commerce business was a slew of policies including tax sweeteners for exports and state support for domestic retailers. So while there is added incentive to solve distribution and legal challenges and build trade from China, the already strong competition will be bolstered and competitive — and already understand the differences in doing business online in China versus other countries worldwide.

And of course, it’s important to note that Asian retailers are far from uninterested in breaking Western markets themselves. Alibaba (to take just one example) is undertaking a radical market change exercise at the moment, folding its 11 Main brand into New York-based OpenSky while rethinking its strategy to break into the US market (which involves enabling small businesses to retail more easily in China).

On the plus side for non-Asian retailers, there is plenty of emerging evidence that the much trumpeted UX differences in Asia are changing due to a trend towards Western brands and styling.

Two years ago, GfK released a nice summary of these trends which have largely continued through to today. In harder e-commerce terms, UX Mag’s summary of retail-centric trends also remains true today. These trends suggest that the issue of conversion — essentially a requirement to deploy radically different website experiences for the Chinese market — doesn’t exist to the same extent as it used to five years ago.

Of course, that’s a benefit that also works both ways, setting the scene for a fierce SEO battleground over the marketplaces in Asia and rest of world.