The Chinese market is an attractive one for any brand looking to expand its business. The country’s middle class is expected to reach 600 million by 2020, as urbanisation increases. Over half of its 1.38 billion people are now online, and this number continues to grow. The UK government has described China as the great economic success story of the past 30 years.
So it’s not surprising that many western companies are keen to make the most of the opportunities this vibrant and growing market has to offer. Establishing and maintaining an online presence in China would be invaluable for many different ventures – manufacturing, online gaming, application and software providers, and many more.
Unfortunately, launching a website that is accessible from China is far from easy. Anyone who creates a China-focused subdomain with translated content will find that they are failing to reach their target customers, no matter how well it is marketed.
The main issues to overcome are mandatory licenses, content issues, loading times, and cultural expectations.
Operating a website in Mainland China requires at least one license, and possibly more depending on the type of website it is.
Every website hosted in China must have an ICP Bei’an license, more commonly known simply as a “Bei’an”. This license allows the website to operate, and – without the license the site will be blocked.
There are other licenses that may be necessary depending on industry – one of the most common being an ICP license, required for any website that ‘makes money’. This mostly means ecommerce, but other websites may fall into this definition.
China is known for having strict rules about the internet, but this goes beyond just blocking Facebook and Google – both of which are inaccessible from Mainland China and have their own locally-grown alternatives. What is less well understood are the algorithms and criteria that are used to block what is seen as unsuitable content from web browsers in China.
Even if you have confidence that a website has no objectionable content, it’s easy to overlook ways that a website can fall foul of automatic algorithms or checking by censors. For example, photos of models wearing underwear or swimwear can be blocked thanks to algorithms that look out for nudity by measuring the amount of skin tone in an image. In one bizarre example, a meat producer’s website contained an image of a pig, which was incorrectly recognised as skin by the algorithm and was automatically blocked.
Careful scrutiny of content is needed. An image of a casino, for instance, may feature an example of what your company does well – but may be blocked as promoting gambling. It pays to be cautious around content – as with licenses, there is no right to appeal against a decision to block a website.
Once you’ve made sure that the website won’t be blocked, there are still some fundamental issues to address – will people be able to access it, and if they can, will they engage with it and share it?
Making your website accessible in China is trickier than almost anywhere else in the world, thanks to the combination of the Great Firewall and poor infrastructure. The length of time for a page to load is usually down to the distance between a user and the host server, and the speed of connection. But for China, even hosting in Hong Kong doesn’t solve this issue – data can add 40 to 50% to your load time compared to hosting within China because of the filtering process of the Great Firewall. Simply hosting within China isn’t a complete solution - while solving latency issues, poor connections between ISPs means that data from one part of the country may not be able to make it to another, and even within one city there might be huge differences in site speed.
This matters because Chinese web users have the same expectations as those anywhere else – if a site doesn’t load near-instantly, then they will quickly move on to another site. Even if they do stick around, they’re less likely to trust the website, and therefore less likely to trust the brand. Working with a partner who can make sure that content is delivered quickly to all parts of China is essential.
English-language websites increasingly conform to a few types. Lots of white space is fashionable, as are big images and “single column” designs where scrolling down reveals more information.
Simply translating such a website into Chinese won’t work, as cultural expectations are different. Chinese websites tend to have denser text than English language sites, to fit as many links and as much information on to a single page and avoid searching. Mobile sites are also vital – social networks such as WeChat are often used to share simple ‘single serving’ mobile sites that get across a single idea rather than a full website.
Designing and launching a website always takes longer than expected and this is especially the case for launching websites in China. But strict regulations mean that trial and error is impossible – getting the regulations around licenses and allowed content wrong could mean being blocked entirely, without any way to appeal the block. Getting it right first time isn’t just good advice, it’s essential.
By Alex Nam, managing director, CDNetworks Europe
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