GUANGZHOU -- Last June, a website promising Chinese students it could get them into university "through the back door" featured prominently among the results of Baidu, China's top search engine. But the site was a phishing scheme that put students' personal data at risk and swindled them into paying for phony plans to get into school.
The Baidu incident followed one the previous year, in which users seeking medical information complained that they were tricked by a hospital into seeking ineffective treatments. The hospital's name, which resembled that of a famous university hospital in Shanghai, appeared near the top of Baidu's search results. A Baidu representative subsequently expressed "our deep apology to those who were misled."
Incidents such as these have increased consumer skepticism about Baidu. In both cases, the fraudulent sites are thought to have bought their way to the top of search results by paying more money to Baidu than the sites they were impersonating.
It has also led a growing number of Asian internet users, especially younger ones, to turn away from search leaders such as Baidu and Google. Put off by floods of advertisements and micro-targeted results, they are now looking elsewhere for alternative sites such as ByteDance of China and DuckDuckGo of the U.S.
Look no further than Zhao in Shanghai, a 29-year-old Chinese-language teacher who only gave her surname. She said she deleted the Baidu search app from her smartphone in mid-August as she was frustrated by the way the app presented search results.
When Zhao used the app to search for information on a romantic film recommended by a friend, there were a couple of useful hits at the top. But these were followed by endless rows of "personalized" recommendations of other films, and links to paid video streaming sites -- information that was barely related to what she wanted to know.
"It was clear that Baidu listed these streaming sites near the top because the operators had paid for it," Zhao said.
Despite this, Baidu remains China's top search engine, with a market share exceeding 70%, according to Forward Industry Research Institute, a Chinese research specialist.
However, ByteDance, best known for its TikTok video-sharing app, has a search engine of its own and is challenging Baidu's dominance. ByteDance launched its new business by taking advantage of the search function that is integrated into its Toutiao news app. The company has not disclosed how its search engine works. But, said an executive at a Chinese advertising agency: "Its selling point is that results are not affected by the amount of ad fees advertisers pay. And it's clear the company sees Baidu as its key rival."
One Guangzhou office worker who recently began using the ByteDance search engine praised it, saying: "Search results that seem to be ads or ad-like are less than half" the number of Baidu's.
"The excessive amount of ads on Baidu is undermining user convenience," said Liang Zhenpeng, an IT industry analyst. "Other search engine operators still have an opportunity to enter the market."
Google, which commands a 90% share of the global search market, has also alienated some of its users. The U.S. company can determine roughly where users are, based on the IP address of their devices, and makes educated guesses about users' preferences and interests based on their search history. It then uses this data to tailor the results it shows.
While these functions appeal to advertisers, some users find the targeted results off-putting. Critics say Google tends to narrow the scope of results as users perform multiple searches, thereby limiting the search engine's role as a provider of varied choices.
The number of searches performed on Google fell 8% on the year in the three months to June, while the comparable figure for DuckDuckGo, a rapidly growing search engine developed in the U.S., rose 49% over the same period, according to data marketing company Merkle.
An IT engineer in his 30s in Tokyo has recently begun trying out search engines other than Google. "I don't like it when I feel that someone is reading my thoughts ahead of time," he said. The engineer's favorite search engine is now DuckDuckGo.
"We don't track you," is the company's credo. The search engine is popular because it displays results based solely on the search terms entered. Previous searches have no effect on what shows up in subsequent searches. Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo's founder and CEO, believes too much tweaking of search results produces biased thinking.
In addition, more young people are abandoning search engines altogether. Instead, they find what they need using other tools. For example, when searching for restaurants, many internet surfers now look at review sites or use specialized apps instead.
Baidu and Google have spent years establishing seemingly unassailable dominance in search. But the balance of power appears to be shifting.
Another driver of this change is voice search. Smart speakers, car navigation systems, smartphones and other gadgets have voice-recognition capabilities that enable easy-to-use, hands-free search. This will bring information technology ever deeper into people's lives. U.S. research company Gartner predicts that by next year, 30% of all searches will be done through interfaces that do not require a screen.
This will likely change the way search engines work. Until now, users have mostly typed in search terms and selected from a list of results on a screen. But with smart speakers or other hands-free interfaces, results are also given verbally. That means the search algorithm must select the most relevant options. It will also require different sorts of algorithms than those currently used by search engines.