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Vietnamese upstart Coc Coc gaining on Google

HANOI -- Google has been wildly successful at providing Western users with copious information in the blink of an eye. But for Vietnamese Internet surfers, the world's most popular search engine has been more difficult to navigate.

The lobby of Coc Coc's office in Hanoi

     Not only are there relatively few local search results, the Vietnamese language's tonal alphabet has caused transliteration issues for the U.S.-based search engine and the company's Web browser, Chrome.

     It was in these shortcomings that Vietnamese programmers Nguyen Thanh Binh, Le Van Thanh and Nguyen Duc Ngoc saw an opportunity while working in Moscow on another search engine project after graduating from Moscow State University.

     The three enlisted Victor Lavrenko, a veteran of Russia's Internet startup scene, as a partner and investor to develop a search engine and Web browser specifically tailored for the Vietnamese market.

     Lavrenko, now Coc Coc's chief executive, was able to put together a reported $100 million from Russian investors willing to bet the new venture could replicate the success of the country's Yandex search engine in besting Google on home ground.

The local advantage

The desktop Web browser from Coc Coc, which means "knock knock" in Vietnamese, has in two years surpassed the offerings from Microsoft and Mozilla to become the second-most widely used in Vietnam, after Chrome, according to U.S.-based Internet analytics company comScore. SimilarWeb, another analytics company, ranks Coc Coc's search engine as the second-most used in the country, after Google.

     "I can find a lot more local content in Vietnamese, such as where I might find the nearest bike shop or Vietnamese literature, on Coc Coc," said Thuy Hang, an international studies student at Hanoi University. "It is better for searching or writing emails in Vietnamese."

     Lavrenko puts the company's success in attracting users down to features such as an algorithm that delivers a wealth of locally based Vietnamese-language search results.

     The objective is to pre-emptively strike at Google before it establishes an in-country presence. "Google isn't going to give you information about a local banh mi or pho stand," said Lavrenko, referring to famous local street food dishes.

     The U.S company's only local representation so far is an office for its advertising arm, AdSense. In contrast, Coc Coc's management and its 300 Web developers and engineers are all based in Hanoi. While founders Thanh and Binh are still with the company, Ngoc has left but remains a shareholder.

     Coc Coc appears to be gaining ground on Google. In July, its search engine attracted around 51 million visits, up from 34 million in February, while Google saw a drop in the number of Vietnam-based users from 334 million hits to approximately 221 million, according to SimilarWeb.

     The Coc Coc browser's biggest draw has been its functionality. This includes a built-in Vietnamese-to-English dictionary that helps users surf English-language sites, and a language tool that automatically adds lingual tones to Vietnamese words with a claimed 90% accuracy rate.

     To tap Vietnam's 23 million smartphone users, Coc Coc is developing a mobile browser to challenge those offered by Norway's Opera Software and Google, which currently lead the local market. With smartphone sales up 25% to 3 million handsets in the first quarter and Vietnamese operators offering some of the cheapest mobile data rates in the world, a push into mobile could see Coc Coc significantly boost its user base.

Looking for sustainability

The question now is whether Coc Coc can generate sustained revenue growth and profitability. The privately held company does not release financial figures, but it claims its advertising platform has more than 3,000 paying clients, including Coca-Cola and the e-commerce site Lazada.

   However, a recent survey by Vietnam-based digital advertising agency Moore put Coc Coc's share of the online ad market at less than 4%, behind local platforms 24H, Admicro and FPT, as well as Google and Facebook.

     Still, local language innovation is helping Coc Coc to chip away at Google, said Patrick Sharbaugh, the Melbourne-based founder of the Asia Digital Life Project, a multimedia site that tracks digital trends in Asia. "The native language search is something even Google would admit is quite superior to its own," he said.

     While Vietnam has not blocked Google services in the way that China has, to the benefit of Chinese search engine Baidu, Sharbaugh and others do see quiet official support for Coc Coc.

     Notably, its Web browser is marketed as offering features that can help users bypass government blocks on foreign social networks. "To do the business they're doing and in order to provide unblocked access to Facebook, Twitter and WordPress ... they would have to be in very tight collaboration with the state," Sharbaugh said.

     But while Baidu may have quickly retreated, Google shows no signs of pulling back in Vietnam. Coc Coc still has a long way to go to achieve Lavrenko's vision.

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