As an SEO Specialist in China, a lot of my freelance projects consist of performing website search engine optimization for Baidu: the most popular search engine in China. In 2019, Baidu is estimated to detain 67.09% of the search engine market share in China, followed by Sogou (18.75%) and Shenma (6.84%).
There are many differences between western search engines and Baidu, but when it comes to on-site optimization, Baidu’s ranking algorithm is not that different from Google and Bing. For example, all three search engines oversee the presence of keyword-rich meta tags and reward websites with unique content.
On the other hand, there are some consistent differences between Baidu and its western competitors, which are important to oversee and stress at when you perform an SEO Audit for a Chinese website.
Most of the difference between Baidu and Google comes from the weight that is given to each on-site factor in the ranking algorithm. For instance, Baidu is known to give a lot of weight on keyword usage in meta titles, meta descriptions, alt tags, anchor texts than Google and relies heavily upon content quantity and meta tags for achieving rankings. That’s why Baidu’s ranking algorithm is sometimes considered as an older and less-sophisticated version of Google’s algorithm.
In addition to the main on-page SEO factors, there are several other factors specifically related to Baidu and to the Chinese market.
In this article, I will cover the main ranking factors for Baidu so that you know what should be taken into account when you assess your website’s organic performance in Mainland China.
Ranking factors related to the Chinese laws and regulations
Web hosting in China
The first factor that will give you a ranking boost on Baidu is hosting your website on a server in Mainland China. If your web hosting server is located outside of China, it will most certainly be very slow or even unavailable to Chinese users.
Only Chinese web hosting companies are allowed to host data on servers in Mainland China. Therefore, you won’t be able to use your current web host, and you’ll need to choose a Chinese company to be your hosting provider.
Best practices: If you’re having an international website and you’re seriously looking to increase your rankings on Baidu, you should consider moving only the Chinese version of your website (for example http://www.yourwebsite.com/cn) to a Chinese web host.
An alternative, cheaper, and faster option is to host the Chinese version of your website on a server in HongKong or Taiwan.
Everything depends on how aggressive is your online strategy on the Chinese market.
The most popular hosting companies in China are Aliyun and HiChina.
Having an ICP License
In order to be allowed to host a website on a Chinese server, you’ll need a special authorization called an Internet Content Publishing (ICP) License.
The ICP license (or 备案) is basically a permit issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (中华人民共和国工业和信息化部) that is needed to operate a website in mainland China. According to Chinese law, all websites must clearly display the ICP number on their homepage.
If hosted in China and without an ICP license, your site can be taken down anytime: the Ministry can instruct your Chinese host to take the site down if its registration doesn’t appear in the ICP database.
There are two types if ICP license:
- ICP许可证 (xǔkě zhèng) ICP business license, also called ICP commercial license
- ICP备案 (bèi’àn) ICP individual license, or also called ICP personal record
In my experience, the rules regarding the exact type of ICP license your website would need are not that strict, and I’ve seen commercial websites applying and operating under an ICP personal record without a problem.
In order to apply for an ICP license though, you’ll need a Chinese ID card (for the individual license) or a Chinese company license (to apply for the business license).
If your company doesn’t have a physical entity, nor an official business representative in China, you can use the services of a third-party company who will apply for an ICP license under their own business license.
The average price for such a service is around 200 – 300 USD.
Using .CN domain name
Another important difference between Google and Baidu is the domain name.
Baidu is known to give a ranking boost to websites that are hosted on .CN domain (China’s country code). This doesn’t mean that you can only use .cn domains. You can see many .com or even .net domains ranking well in the SERPs, but in general, a .cn domain will help you to rank faster and many case studies show that Baidu strongly favors the .CN domain names. If however, for some reason, a .cn domain is not possible for you, .com and .net are also options.
A physical address in China
Displaying a physical company address in China may also improve the visibility of your website. It gives legibility to your business in China.
On-site SEO factors for Baidu
You won’t be surprised to hear that Baidu prefers websites with unique content and penalizes websites with duplicate content. Sometimes the duplicate content penalties given by Baidu are even harder than the penalties inflicted by Google.
Every piece of content on your website should be unique and you should pay extra attention to the pages that may usually pose duplicate content issues, such as taxonomies, category pages, etc. Don’t hesitate to apply the canonical tag on these pages.
You should also put in place actions that help you to prevent your website from having its content regularly scrapped by other websites, as content scraping is still a popular tactic in China.
Baidu is also considering the content quantity when ranking a website. Every website page that you would want to rank for should have at least 400-500 words. And many studies prove that web pages with long content perform better than pages with short content on Baidu.
Even though Google and Bing don’t necessarily say that the content length is a ranking factor, my personal experience shows that longer content is also an important ranking factor for the western search engines.
Chinese Language Usage
Baidu’s preferred language is Chinese simplified. All website contents, meta tags, and anchor texts should be written in simplified Chinese characters. Baidu prefers simplified over traditional Chinese and doesn’t consider Latin characters.
The use of Latin letters and words is only advised for the website URLs.
It’s also important to consider the specifies of the Chinese language when you optimize for Baidu. In the Chinese language, there are multiple dialects and multiple meanings to a single word. All your Chinese content should be written and proofreader by a native Chinese translator to ensure the correct words are being used.
Meta Title Tags
The meta title tag is one of the most important on-site optimization factors in Baidu’s ranking algorithm. Some even believe that Baidu gives higher importance to meta tags than Google. And among all meta tags, the meta title is probably the most important.
Optimizing meta title tags for Baidu is not much more difficult than writing meta titles for Google, but there are some important characteristics to take into account.
To rank on Baidu, your meta title should:
- be limited to 35 simplified Chinese characters: Normally a simplified Chinese character equals 2 Latin characters, that’s why the meta tags when writing in Chinese should be shorter;
- include the main keyword of the page (your targeted keyword): If possible, use the main keyword in the very beginning of the title tag, even if it may not look very natural;
- include your company or website name;
- use the underscore (_) or the hyphen (-) instead of the space, as words separator: surprisingly Baidu reads and understands the underscore as words separator.
Company or website name as a keyword
As mentioned above, one of the on-site optimization best practices for Baidu is to always include your website name in the title tag of each page. Ideally, it should be inserted at the beginning of the title tag of your home page and at the end of the title tag of all other pages, for example:
- Home Page title tag: website name_main product/service keyword
- Landing Page title tag: product/service keyword_ website name
- Blog Article Page title tag: article title_ website name
Meta Description Tags:
Unlike Google and Bing, Baidu still uses the meta description tags as a ranking signal.
Each meta description should:
- include your targeted keyword phrase(s)
- include your company or brand name.
- the meta description length limit is 78 simplified Chinese characters.
Meta Keyword Tags
The use of the meta keywords as a ranking factor by Baidu is disputed by a lot of China SEO specialists. Personally, I also consider that, similar to Google and Bing, Baidu has already depreciated the Meta Keyword Tag and I don’t use this tag.
However, you may still find a lot of articles advising you to use the meta keywords tag. If you decide to do so, avoid keyword stuffing and include only 3 to 6 keyword phrases in it.
H1 and other heading Tags
The H1 is probably the second most important tag in Baidu’s ranking algorithm (after the meta title). Each page should have a unique H1 tag containing the targeted keyword. The H1 should appear before any other heading tag. Keyword usage in the other heading tags is also important. And, of course, heading tags should be hierarchized.
Image ALT Attributes
Baidu’s spiders are using the content form the ALT attribute to understand what an image is about. Some SEO experts assume that Baidu’s image crawling is more simple than Google’s and the image alt text is your only shot to tell the search engine what the image represents and to rank for image searches.
In addition to writing a descriptive alt text, it is also recommended to include the main keyword in the image file name.
It’s important to regularly update your website and publish fresh content on it. That’s why many B2B websites have company blogs. A blog allows you to increase the internal linking to your main website pages and to put fresh content on a regular basis.
You can also submit your blog feed to Baidu and capture some organic traffic from their news feed 百度资讯.
Link Anchor Text
Another difference between Baidu and Google resides in the greater importance that Baidu gives to the keyword usage in the anchor text. Both internal and external link anchor texts are important to achieve high rankings on Baidu and both internal and external links should have descriptive anchor texts containing the targeted keyword.
In my experience, in opposite to Google, the exact anchor texts are widely used and preferred when you do link building for Baidu. For example, the general recommendation for Google is to diversify your anchor text and to keep a low number of exact anchor texts (between 3% and 10% of all anchor texts). In Baidu however, you can afford to be more generous when it comes to this ratio. Of course, this doesn’t mean to only build links with exact match anchor texts.
Flat site structure
Having a flat, easy to crawl website structure is also of crucial importance to rank well on Baidu. That’s why it’s not rare to see Chinese websites with heavy navigation menus or too many text links in the footer: this makes it easy for Baidu to crawl and pass link authority to the main website pages.
The breadcrumb is a nice little addition to the list of on-site SEO factors for Baidu. It is certainly not a primary factor, but similar as with Google, Baidu uses them to better understand the hierarchy of your pages and to distribute link juice.
Technical SEO for Baidu
Baidu does not use the robots.txt file. You can give your specific instructions using the .htaccess file instead. The existence of a robots.txt file (no matter if located in the root or somewhere else) may be confusing for the Baidu spider and it’s strongly recommended to not use robots.txt file at all.
The use of subdomains is not advised if you want to rank on Baidu.
While Google is considering the subdomains more and more as an integral part of the same website and they are a good solution in international SEO on Google, this is not at all the case with Baidu.
It’s not recommended to use subdomains at all if you do SEO for Baidu. Don’t place your blog or any other part of your content on a subdomain.
The use of multiple domains is not advised either. This means that you should host the Chinese version of your website on a separate domain name (preferably a .cn domain) and all other language versions of the site should be hosted on completely separate domain names.
I’ve also read that it’s not advised to link from the Chinese version to the different language versions of your website. I personally advise applying a no-follow tag to these links.
Site speed is a very important ranking factor for Baidu and Google. The slower your website, the lower your chances to rank well are. This is another important reason for hosting your site on a server in China, which will improve the page speed and your chances to rank on the Chinese search engine.
Do not use iFrames for any important content. Baidu spider is unable to read any element of a page within an iFrame.
Off-site SEO factors for Baidu
Surprisingly for some, I start the list of the off-site SEO factors with backlinks quantity and not quality. While Google’s algorithm is manly considering the quality of the backlinks your site receives, but Baidu is rumored to be less sophisticated when analyzing your backlink profile.
As a result, the number of backlinks is an important factor to rank well on Baidu and most backlinks strategies focus on building a high number of backlinks, even if they are of lower quality.
For example, directory submissions and content curation are still considered popular practices for building a high number of links.
On the other hand, the Chinese search engine is introducing more and more algorithm updates, and it’s clear that sooner or later the backlink quality will have a more important role when ranking websites.
My advice is to think in the long term and also consider the quality when you engage in link building on Baidu. Stay away from black-hat practices and risky backlink networks.
Of course, your backlinks should mainly come from websites written in Chinese simplified and you should prefer .cn domains.
Backlinks anchor text
As mentioned above, the anchor text of the backlinks is a very important ranking factor. It’s advised that it includes your targeted keyword(s) and a high number of exact match anchors is still acceptable for Baidu (at some extent, at least).
I hope this shortlist of ranking factors for Baidu is a good beginning to understand what you should focus on when doing SEO for Mainland China.
However, don’t forget that the online habits of Chinese consumers can be very different compared to other countries. For example, being present on Tmall.com, the main e-commerce marketplace in China is even more important than doing SEO for an e-commerce website.
Of course, there are many more differences and specifies to the Chinese search engine that I will be happy to discuss directly with you. Please, leave a comment if you have a question or contact me directly for a free SEO consultation!