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China tech

Baidu faces popular backlash over promotion of sponsored sites

Chinese users slam internet giant for bias in search results

Baidu dominates China's search engine market, holding a share of over 80%. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

HONG KONG -- China's search engine Baidu Inc. is facing a wave of public criticism in the world's largest internet market as users question whether Baidu has abused its monopoly in a country where Google is absent.

The criticism was triggered by a blog post titled "Search engine Baidu is already dead," which accused the company of promoting its own sites -- in particular, a blog-style platform called Baijiahao -- instead of objectively returning the best search results.

The author also opened fire on Baidu's paid ad service, showing a screenshot of how his search on thesis writing tips led to sponsored websites advertising the services of ghostwriters.

The article went viral on Chinese social media, ranking as one of the most popular topics late last week on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-style Chinese microblog platform with more than 400 million active users.

"I wish Google could return [to China]," one Weibo account "Love You Xiaopi" wrote. Another user, "Li Cheng An Shao," called Baidu's search results "the perfect demonstration of how a company prioritizes profits over anything else."

Baidu denied the accusation, saying that less than 10% of its search results are from Baijiahao. Shares of the Nasdaq-listed company fell around 6% from the previous trading day to $160.39 on Tuesday when the blog post was published. The share price recovered on Friday.

The backlash comes at a time that Chinese internet users have fewer and fewer options to search for information on the internet. Google quit in 2010 after the Silicon Valley search engine declined to follow Beijing's censorship rules. The U.S. tech giant has sparked controversy more recently by revealing that it could return to China with 'Project Dragonfly', a censored version of its search engine.

On Thursday, Microsoft-owned Bing suddenly became inaccessible in mainland China. While the service was later resumed, Microsoft never explained the cause of the shutdown, sparking speculation over the future of the only foreign search engine left in China.

"I switched from Baidu to Bing a while ago and suggested my students do the same," said a teacher in Suzhou who only gave his surname Tian. The teacher who criticized Baidu on social media told Nikkei Asian Review that his search on the platform "often turned out to be a waste of time."

He added: "The fact that the blog post has been widely circulated, gives you a sense of how Chinese people feel about Baidu."

But such frustration is unlikely to shake off the dominance of Baidu in the Chinese search engine market, said Martin Bao, an analyst in Hong Kong with ICBC International.

"If you don't use Baidu, what's your alternative?" Bao said. "Other search engines, Bing included, have their problems, too. By many measures, Baidu is still the best option for Chinese internet users."

Baidu holds roughly 70% of Chinese search engine market share, according to statistics released in December by online database StatCounter, followed by Alibaba's Shenma (15.6%) and Tencent-backed Sogou (4.8%). StatCounter said that Bing has a market share of about 2% in China.

Yet still, the recent public outcry is adding to challenges facing Baidu, which has tried to rebuild public trust in its search services. In 2016, a college student died after trying "cancer cures" at a hospital which appeared as the top search result on Baidu. That sparked national criticism of the company's paid search services.

In response, Baidu began requiring every hospital and other health care related advertiser to show its service license, which has resulted in a decline in the number of advertisers as well as ad revenue from the medical sector.

Though often grouped together with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and social media titan, Tencent, as the BAT companies, Baidu has lagged behind the two companies in financial performance. In the July-September quarter, Baidu registered revenues of 28 billion yuan ($4.1 billion), roughly one-third of that of Alibaba and Tencent.

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