How Baidu Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Walled Garden
As anyone who’s used China’s largest search engine in the past six months has probably noticed, the top results for most queries are dominated by Baidu’s own family of sites: the question-and-answer platform Baidu Knows, the Wikipedia-like Baidu Baike, and — especially — the blogging service Baijiahao, among others.
Baijiahao is Baidu’s take on WeMedia, a platform for independent writers, bloggers, and journalists — some of whom produce valuable, insightful content; most of whom do not. When Baidu first launched the service in 2016, it was supposed to feature high-quality articles by well-known writers, but after repeated adjustments to its business model, it’s become just another content farm. Baijiahao writers are generally not directly paid by Baidu and instead earn money through advertising, a business model that incentivizes clickbait.
As the number of articles being published on the service has multiplied, concerns about content quality — and Baidu’s overall downward trajectory — have only grown. Last week, an article I published on the site’s increasingly frustrating user experience and gradual shift away from its original mission of search went viral: As of Jan. 24, it has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on the social media platform WeChat and millions more times elsewhere.
In my piece, I give a number of examples of how Baidu’s impaired functionality and overemphasis on its own ecosystem is harming users. In one recent instance, a friend of mine sent me a Baijiahao article that claimed the CIA had admitted Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with 9/11 and had apologized to his family, asking whether it was true. A quick internet search — I used Google — showed that this remarkable turn of events had first been reported by the satirical news site The Onion. But as of Jan. 22, the Baijiahao article my friend sent, which gave no indication that it was based on a joke, had already been viewed more than 400,000 times.
But despite the low quality and unreliability of many Baijiahao articles, I found that the search engine’s algorithms almost always feature them prominently. A Baidu search for “Brexit,” for example, returns the relevant Baidu Baike page, and then four of the next six results are hosted on Baijiahao. Of the top seven results, only two are from sites not owned by Baidu. Of eight first-page results returned by a recent search for “U.S. government shutdown,” half were hosted on Baijiahao, including the top two.
The visibility of Baidu sites in Baidu search results is not due to their superior quality. As of the morning of Jan. 22, four of the top five results for a query on China’s just-released GDP report were Baijiahao articles, yet not a single one of them contained the relevant data. Only the third-place result, a piece posted to China Economic Net, included the actual GDP figures. To be clear, these results are unrelated to my past search history: Prior to searching, I logged out of all Baidu services and opened a stealth window in Chrome.
As for everyday questions, when I searched for “How to buy high-speed rail tickets,” six of the top eight results were hosted on Baidu platforms. The official website of China Railway was the third page listed.
This wasn’t the case a year ago, much less five or 10 years ago. Baidu was hardly perfect in those days, but at least it was a real search engine and a real portal for finding things on the Chinese internet. If you asked it questions, it was possible to get worthwhile answers.
But now, Baidu is no longer a place to search for content on the Chinese internet, but an internal search function for the Baidu ecosystem. As I put it in my initial article on the subject: It won’t lead you to high-quality spiritual nourishment, but rather its own hoard of rotten content.
In that article, I note that Baidu had reached this point in part due to external factors: specifically the exit of Google from the Chinese market and the increasing fragmentation of China’s internet ecosystem. In 2010, after Google’s withdrawal, Baidu was left with no real competitors, and it functionally ceased trying to improve.
But the increasingly fragmented nature of the Chinese internet played an equally key role. The current state of affairs is the culmination of efforts by the country’s tech titans to carve up the market and build their own “walled gardens” of content. Influential social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo don’t allow Baidu access to their sites and data, for example, and even e-commerce sites such as Taobao keep Baidu from indexing their wares. This has left the company with little choice but to respond by developing its own, similar platforms and building a walled garden of its own.
The result is all “net” and no “inter-.” Chinese tech companies have almost uniformly adopted closed business models, greedily hoarding their data on their own platforms. Walled gardens are hardly unique to China, but I’m afraid the problem is particularly serious here. All we’re able to find on search engines these days are tattered remains.
Ultimately, however, the real reason for Baidu’s ongoing troubles is its poor business decisions, which functionally amount to drinking seawater to quench your thirst. Essentially, Baidu is no longer even trying to be a search engine. After the publication of my article, some blamed the company’s predicament on inferior technology and algorithms, but when Baidu was founded in 2000, its search technology was already good enough.
The problem is that they’ve adopted a wrongheaded business model: The company is trying to turn itself into a marketing platform. It’s placed all its hopes on keeping users who come to it for its search functionality inside its own walled garden, where it can profit off their views and clicks. Of course, this is hardly a sustainable business model. Over time, as it becomes increasingly hard for people to find what they’re looking for, they’ll just stop using Baidu altogether.
In its response to my article, Baidu admitted the importance of platforms such as Baijiahao to their business. “There are currently 1.9 million Baijiahao creators, including both authoritative media and information organizations, and large numbers of independent authors,” the company said in a statement. Of course, they naturally couldn’t admit that many of these “independent authors” are little more than profit-driven click farms.
Baidu’s current plight is unfortunate. A functioning, high-quality search engine is a necessity for users looking to access the broader internet. Without one, we’re left either blind and adrift in a sea of information, or trapped inside a walled garden, unable to see what’s on the outside.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell, editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman stands in front of the Baidu logo at an event in Shanghai, Nov. 26, 2015. Aly Song/Reuters/VCG)