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international student recruitment in China

Getting to grips with Chinese digital marketing can be a challenge for schools. Since a number of globally popular internet sites are banned by the government, the country has developed  an online ecosystem all of its own, with several domestic sites commanding millions of users while remaining virtually unknown outside of their homeland.

As a result, increasing your online search visibility in the country is a whole different ball game. With Google absent from the market, Chinese search engines like Baidu, Qihoo 360, and Sogou dominate, and schools need to familiarize themselves with entirely different search engine results page (SERP) outlays, SEO best practices, and paid search platforms.

In this blog, we look at the biggest players in the Chinese search market, and how schools should approach both paid search and organic SEO in order to achieve the best possible results.

Baidu: Using The ‘Google of China’ For International Student Recruitment

With a market share of more than 68.5%, Baidu is the ‘Google of China’ in more ways than one. Founded in 2000, the site originally replicated many aspects of Google’s design and approach, but its singular focus on the Chinese market meant that it was able to index and interpret Chinese language pages far more efficiently. As a result, Baidu quickly established itself as the country’s leading search engine, and was already far more popular than Google by the time its competitor exited the market in 2010.

While Baidu has a lot of similarities to Google, there are a number of key differences in how it displays results. The most noticeable is its tendency to favour paid advertisements and results from its own content platforms -such as its Chinese language wiki Baidu Baike and Q&A forum Baidu Zhidao- over organic results. This excellent breakdown of a Baidu SERP from Nanjing Marketing Group illustrates what this looks like for users:


Baidu international student recruitment search results

Source: Nanjing Marketing Group

Many schools can find this discouraging, as you look at the comparative paucity of space for organic results and wonder how you can find a way to cut through the noise. Nonetheless, applying SEO best practices can still help you improve your visibility and get real results on the site.

Some of these techniques will be similar to those you would apply to Google and other globally popular search engines, such as the strategic integration of keywords and the use of proper site architecture such as title and header tags. However, there are some noticeable differences in how Baidu indexes and ranks content. Here are few of the most important things to keep in mind when optimizing your site for Baidu:

Localize your domain name, website hosting, and language: Baidu heavily favours Chinese language content from Chinese sites, so schools looking to make headway in the market should look to create a Chinese language site hosted on a Chinese server. Having a .cn country code top level domain (ccTLD) will also greatly increase your chances of being ranked on the site.

Keep your site architecture simple: While Baidu’s indexing tool Baidu Spider actually crawls sites more frequently than Google’s, it is not as advanced. It cannot recognize images, as well as certain types of content such as Flash. It will also not crawl too deeply into a site that is too complex or hard to understand. With that in mind, keeping your site simple and easy to read is paramount to SEO for Baidu.

Example: Conestoga College has a Chinese microsite for international student recruitment in China. Because it is smaller and simpler than the school’s main website, it is easier for Baidu to index. The site also has a .cn ccTLD.

Conestoga College Chinese student recruitment

The clickability of your content is important– One thing you will notice immediately when you start using Baidu is that any links you click on the SERPs will open in a new tab, keeping the search results page open. Baidu actually uses this feature to measure the click-through behaviour of users, monitoring how often they return to SERPs and click different links to better determine the relevance of the content.

Keep your content fresh– Baidu places a much higher significance on the freshness of content than Google, which tends to value page authority more. Ensuring that you update your site regularly will be essential to ensuring you maintain a good position in search rankings.

Backlinks are more valuable– Baidu still places a much higher emphasis on backlinks than other search engines, so any links you can attract could significantly improve your results. Keep in mind that Baidu is more likely to favour links from Chinese sites than foreign sites too.

Meta Descriptions– While it has long been known that meta descriptions are not a ranking factor on Google, many experts believe that Baidu still gives them some weight, and optimizing them with keywords could be a factor in your ranking.

Another thing which could prove very fruitful for schools looking to optimize for Baidu is the rollout of the site’s Mobile Instant Page (MIP) project last year. Like Google’s AMP project, this is an open source platform for site owners to offer pages with faster load speeds for mobile users. During Baidu’s annual conference in Beijing earlier this year, the company reported that MIP pages had reduced load times by up to 80% and landing page click rates by up to 30% for more than 2,800 sites.

MIPs offer less flexibility in terms of structure and content than regular pages. However, considering many schools only offer simplified versions of their sites in China anyway, they would likely not have to sacrifice too much to create MIP versions for their pages, and could dramatically improve their results, given the predominance of mobile devices among Chinese internet users and the importance Baidu places on speed in their search rankings. Schools will find MIP plug-ins available for popular content management systems like WordPress, and can submit MIP pages to Baidu for indexing through Baidu Webmaster Tools.

What Paid Search Options Does Baidu Offer for Student Recruitment in China?

With the limited visibility that organic search on Baidu can provide, investing in paid search ads can be crucial for schools at all levels looking to gain a foothold in the Chinese market. Baidu Tuigang, the site’s paid search advertising platform, offers a number of potentially effective options for schools. Here’s a breakdown of the ad formats available:

Plain Text Ads– Baidu’s basic ad format is very similar to a Google PPC ad, and includes a title line of 50 characters and two description lines of 80 characters.

Sitelink Extensions– Baidu Tuigang users can add multiple links to their site in a single ad, which can be very effective in increasing your CTR, allowing you to give prospective students a few possible options to pique their interest.

Baidu search advertising

Source: Nanjing Marketing Group


Image Extensions– Baidu Tuigang users can add an image to an ad for no extra cost, although they do not necessarily show up in all searches. Nonetheless, the fact that it is free makes it a worthwhile option.

Multi-Image Ads– Baidu also offers a multi-image ad option, although this is more commonly used by businesses that are showcasing multiple products than schools.

Brand Zone Ads– This is a premium option which allows organizations to produce large scale advertisements that incorporate multiple images, video, and text, and occupy the top and right hand side of a Baidu SERP. However, the format is charged on a cost-per-time basis, rather than clicks, with brands paying monthly, and is very expensive, meaning it might not be a worthwhile investment for most schools.

This Brand Zone campaign from BMW will give you an idea of what the format looks like. Due to their expense, Brand Zone ads are often only purchased by large corporations.

Baidu Brand Zone advertising

Brand Starting Line– This is a scaled down version of Brand Zone ads which is priced from 15,000 Chinese Yuan (around USD$2,200), and may present a more affordable option for schools.

Shantou Ads– A Shantou ad replaces the description lines of a default text ad with multiple text links, and can be very useful for schools looking to generate leads from multiple programs, or those who want to drive traffic to a number of different pages on their website.

Baidu Shantou paid search ad

Source: Nanjing Marketing Group

Online Chat and Call Widgets– Schools can also include buttons in their ads that allow users to call or message their school directly from the SERP, which could be useful if you have Chinese speaking staff on hand to deal with direct inquires from prospective students.

Baidu paid search IM widget

Source: Webcertain

The biggest advantage of Baidu’s PPC formats over other search engines is that many of their ads are virtually indistinguishable from organic results, with only a small piece of text indicating that it is a promoted result. This can foster more trust from internet users and result in higher click-through rates. Baidu Tuigang’s targeting capabilities have also improved with the introduction of its ‘People Targeting’ feature last year, which allows users to select audiences based on search behaviour and interests. Baidu’s analytics tool Baidu Tongji is also automatically linked to your Tuigang account, making it easier to track the results of your campaigns.

Schools looking to use Baidu Tuigang will need to have a fully functional Chinese website and set up their account through an approved Chinese agency, making it more difficult to get started compared to other paid search platforms. Nonetheless, the rewards are there for institutions that put in the time and effort to create effective campaigns.

Beyond Baidu: Using Qihoo 360 for Chinese Student Recruitment

Chinese search engine market

Source: Dragon Metrics

While it is essential to include Baidu in your Chinese student recruitment efforts, it is worth noting that they are not the only search engine operating in the country. Their two largest competitors, Qihoo 360 and Sogou, have a 14.2% and 12.4% market share respectively, which given that China has a total of 731 million internet users, equates to over 90 million people each. What’s more, their popularity has been growing, especially after a medical advert controversy late last year damaged Baidu’s credibility among the Chinese public.

Qihoo 360 was originally an internet security company whose free antivirus software became extremely popular in China. Its branded search engine—sometimes referred to as 360 Search or Haosou—claims to be the most secure search engine available in the country, which has contributed to its growth in popularity, particularly given Baidu’s recent issues. Qihoo’s 360 Secure web browser is also the second most popular in China after Internet Explorer, with a market share of around 35%, and 360 Search is set as its default search engine.

Qihoo 360 Chinese Student Recruitment

One attractive aspect of 360 Search for schools is that its SERP layout is far less ad-heavy than Baidu, making it easier to get your school on the front page organically. Qihoo 360 has also publicly criticized Baidu’s paid search results for being too similar to organic listings, and strives to differentiate the two more in their own SERPs.

Because Qihoo 360 is relatively new to the market, experts still have a lot to learn about its search algorithm, but most advise that applying similar SEO practices to those that work on Baidu tends to be the best approach.

Qihoo’s advertising platform could also be an attractive option for schools. The company specifically targets small to medium sized- businesses for its ads, and often offers a far lower CPC than Baidu as there is less competition.

Like Baidu, Qihoo 360 offers default text ads, sitelink extensions, image extensions, multi –image product showcase ads, and a sub-menu format which is similar to Baidu’s Shantou ads. However, there are also a number of formats available which its competitor does not offer, including:

List Ads– This format is used to display multiple products with text only, and includes a title, an introduction to each product, and 4 or 5 pieces of product information.

Recommended Links– This is a series of links which show up in the title and description lines, and could be useful for schools looking to drive traffic to multiple pages.

Brand Express – Brand Express is a similar ‘takeover’ format to Baidu’s Brand Zone, and is also charged on a monthly basis, albeit with a lower starting price of 50,000 Chinese Yuan per month,  which is around USD$7,334.

Brand Sunrise– Like Baidu’s Brand Starting Line, this is a scaled down version of Brand Express, and displays a condensed version of the same information in the right-hand side of SERPs. Prices are negotiable but start at around 6,000 Chinese Yuan (USD$880) per month, less than half the price of Baidu’s equivalent service.

Qihoo 360 Brand Sunrise Chinese Paid Search Ad

The amount of marketing efforts you choose to devote to Qihoo 360 will depend on how popular it is among your targeted demographic, and you should attempt to do market research to determine whether it is worthwhile. Nonetheless, it can offer a more cost-effective alternative to Baidu for some schools.

WeChat Links Could Help Sogou Become a Major Player in Chinese Digital Marketing

Sogou student recruitment in China search

Even though it currently lags behind both Baidu and Qihoo 360 in terms of user numbers, there are a number of reasons why schools should be paying attention to Sogou. Most importantly, the site is part-owned by social media giants Tencent, who have given Sogou exclusive rights to display results from WeChat, making it potentially useful for schools looking to use the immensely popular social network for student recruitment in China. Sogou also partnered with Bing last year to develop English-language services for its site, signalling its ambition for international growth.

As with Qihoo 360, most of the SEO best practices which apply to Baidu apply to Sogou too, with experts affording particular importance to having a Chinese domain name and server, offering content in simplified Chinese, having a large number of backlinks, and optimizing your title and header tags.

Sogou also offers similar ad formats to other Chinese search platforms, including default text ads and sitelink extensions, which are both charged on a Pay-per-Click (PPC) basis, and Brand Zone and Right-Sided Brand Promotion formats, which are charged monthly.

One unique format offered is ‘Super Crown,’ a larger ad which is displayed at the top of SERPs and contains images, columns, sitelinks, and other components, and is charged on a PPC basis.

Sogou Super Crown Chinese paid search ad

Source: Nanjing Marketing Group


Sogou’s advertising options are usually cheaper than Baidu, although time will tell if the site’s increasing popularity—particularly among younger demographics—will drive prices up.

Schools should also keep an eye out for any further developments relating to the integration of Sogou and WeChat. Given the latter’s popularity as an ‘all-in-one’ app with multiple functionality, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tencent was looking to increase the functionality of WeChat’s own search engine in the future, and Sogou may well play a huge role in that.

While dealing with Chinese search engines can seem daunting, in practice it is not all that different from working with Google or Bing. Baidu, Qihoo 360, and Sogou all offer their own webmaster and analytics tools to help you track and measure your performance, although they are a bit more limited than what you may be used to, and many tools are only available in Chinese. However, Google Analytics is one of the few Google services which is not blocked in China and can be useful to provide additional insights.

Nonetheless, it is advisable that schools seek some help and guidance from regional experts in order to ensure the success of their Chinese digital marketing efforts, as the country’s unfamiliar online landscape always takes some getting used to, even for seasoned marketing and recruitment professionals. With a potential market of over 500,000 international students at stake, it is best to leave no room for error.

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