Question: Please help me understand how I can publish websites that show up in search results for Chinese customers to find and then use to purchase the consulting information I sell. Since China censors the Internet, how can this be accomplished?
Answer: Let’s start with some background: Baidu (BIDU) is the leading search engine in China, according to iResearch. In 2013, Baidu claimed more than 80 percent market share and 600 million users. Google (GOOG), which curtailed its mainland operations in 2010, rather than self-sensor results, now commands less than 15 percent of the search engine market in that country.
As you note, the Internet is subject to censorship by the Chinese government, which blocks many foreign Web addresses. It’s “even more so when money is to change hands and people have to pay in U.S. currency. Banking is also a government-controlled activity,” says James Chan, president of Philadelphia-based consulting business Asia Marketing and Management.
Given that reality — and the complex tax and legal ramifications of doing business in China—it is difficult, if not impossible, for a small foreign company to be seen on Chinese search engines such as Baidu, says Stanley Chao, consultant and author of Selling to China: A Guide to Doing Business for Small- and Medium-Sized Companies.
“For one thing, most people searching will use Chinese characters, so your foreign company name will never come up. Second, the local search engines are all about promoting local products and services, so local companies will get precedence,” he says.
Your best bet is to register your company in China and secure local Web addresses for your websites. “After that, it becomes much easier,” Chao says. “Then you do the usual marketing campaigns you normally would do in the U.S. to promote search engine hits.”
Unless you can travel to China and spend considerable time there getting your business set up, you will probably need to hire a Chinese agent to work on your behalf. That individual will create Chinese-language websites on Chinese servers for you and negotiate legal and other business matters on your behalf.
Another resource is Glogou, a marketing firm headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif., that offers help reaching customers in China and other parts of Asia.
Chan says that Asia Marketing and Management’s clients—U.S. manufacturers, publishers, and service organizations looking to sell products, technology, or professional expertise in China—typically pay in-country agents via wire transfers, credit cards, and letters of credit. “Our agents perform the role of business coordinator, they don’t handle financial transactions; customers in China pay in U.S. dollars.” A competent, bilingual agent can charge $2,000 or more per month, though many will agree to be paid on an hourly, project, monthly, or quarterly basis, he says.
“In the beginning stage of business development, a good agent may want to be paid on a monthly basis, plus commission, because he or she needs to live while focusing on building the business. When the business takes off, and commissions reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, most agents would waive the monthly payments and become our business partners. They prefer to be their own bosses,” Chan says.
The U.S. Department of Commerce runs a “Gold Key” program that helps link the owners of small and midsize U.S. businesses with agents in China and other world markets. The program costs $700 and can be accessed through a U.S. international trade specialist near your business.
Talk to that trade specialist about refining your business plan as well, Chao recommends, because offering services online in China is not going to be an easy sell. “China still relies on face-to-face business,” he says. “You can provide services, but you need to meet customers; you can’t just offer something online and expect them to pay via a credit card. Most small businesses in China do business via cash.”