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2018-12-10 10:29:20

Chinese web giant Baidu has once again been accused of deceiving consumers through its search engine — this time for leading users to unofficial electronic visa agencies.

Yan Feng, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said he was overcharged after applying for a Turkish visa on a site he found via a web search on Baidu, Beijing Youth Daily reported Monday. When Yan searched for the term “Turkish visa,” the top two links in Baidu’s search results led to the same third-party website offering e-visa services for the country. But the website is not affiliated with the Turkish government — a fact noted in a small disclaimer across the bottom of the page — and ended up charging Yan more than double what he would have paid on Turkey’s official e-visa website.

Baidu told Beijing Youth Daily that the visa agency’s website was marked as an advertisement to avoid confusion with the Turkish government’s official website. When Sixth Tone searched Baidu using the same keywords as Yan on Monday, the website in question did not appear in the top results. Baidu hadn’t responded to Sixth Tone’s request for comment by time of publication.

As a for-profit company, Baidu’s bidding system for ad rankings helps to generate revenue while allowing clients to promote their websites on the search engine. Baidu charges clients each time users click on advertising links, which are labeled as such in light-colored text to the right of the links.

Zhang Tingting, an employee at a multinational firm in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone on Monday that she was bombarded with visa-related advertisements while applying for a Malaysian e-visa last month. But she was able to distinguish them from organic search results after being warned by a friend. When Sixth Tone searched for the term “Malaysia visa” on Monday, the top 5 results on Baidu were all ads.

“Baidu’s ‘advertising’ [label] is small and placed on the bottom right, which is so easy to miss,” Zhang said. “Advertisements are OK, but can’t Baidu list them after the official websites?”

Recently, Baidu has been repeatedly criticized for prioritizing profits over the interests and well-being of its users — especially those looking for health-related information on the search engine.

In September, Baidu apologized after a user complained that the search engine had led her to receive questionable health care treatments costing over 10,000 yuan ($1,450). In 2016, Baidu was accused of not being strict enough in vetting the credentials of hospitals advertised on its site following the death of a student who had used a controversial cancer treatment advertised on the search engine.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: VCG)