Googler Kai-Fu Lee gave a keynote talk yesterday at SIGIR 2008 on "The Google China Experience".
The Google China experience has been fraught with difficulties. As Kai-Fu said, Google was expecting that their search engine could succeed in China with the same interface and approach that had worked so well elsewhere, but was "humbled" by the lack of uptake.
Why did a Google that had worked well elsewhere not succeed in China?
Kai-Fu argued that two unusual features of Chinese internet users, their youth and their language, appears to explain the difference.
While showing examples of sites that did succeed in China, Kai-Fu argued that the young, novice, hurried average Chinese user is looking less for navigation or one authoritative sources of information and more for entertainment and broad surveys of information.
Google China was optimized for finding the one site you need to go to, as it is elsewhere, but, Kai-Fu said, according to eyetracking studies and log data, Chinese users tend to be much less task-oriented, read much more of the page, and click many more links than US users.
So, Google started to offer up more opportunities for exploration and discovery -- by being much more aggressive with query suggestions and universal search, for example, and by adding browse links to the Google front page rather than just having a stark page with just a search box -- rather than just trying to give a quick answer and let people move on.
Kai-Fu suggested that the Chinese interest in browsing and exploration also may have roots in the Chinese language itself. Chinese is slower and more work to type than other languages, but more compact to read. This seems to cause a preference for clicking over typing and a preference for pages dense with information over the sparsity Google tended to favor in other countries.
One curious question that Kai-Fu raised was whether these preferences will remain true over time. Expert internet users tend to be more task-oriented than novice users. Google China has had much more success in gaining market share in China among expert users.
It may be the case that, as people gain more experience with the Web and what is available on the Web, their behavior shifts from browse to search, from exploration of what is out there to finding the information they know must exist.
Update: Paul Heymann at Stanford Infolab posts an excellent summary of Kai-Fu Lee's talk, as well as notes on other talks at SIGIR.