Posted by: Paraic | July 24, 2008

Google in China (and Africa)

I’ve been attending the SIGIR’08 conference in Singapore this week.  A very good keynote address was given by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee of Goolge entitled, “Delighting Chinese Users: The Google China Experience“.  The talk was about how Google, over the past two and a half years or so has been trying to win over Chinese users; about being humble about users and not presumptuous; about how it’s so much more than just localisation of existing products into Chinese language, but rather understanding the fundamental differences of Chinese users and their use of the internet and developing wholly new features or products for the market.

Some of the differences he highlighted with respect to the Chinese market is that users are younger (average 25 versus 45 in the US), they access the internet from internet cafes or mobile devices (not home computers) and new users are coming online at a growth rate of 35% – so users are typically ‘new’ to the internet rather than seasoned.  From a language perspective, the challenge is the cumbersome entry of Chinese text (one of Google’s innovations he discussed is a new input method editor) which means users prefer click-based browsing to query reformulation (though he mentioned click-based browsing may also be partly attributable to their tendency toward wanting to ‘learn all about’ a given topic rather than navigate to a particular place), but also there is the advantage of the density of Chinese text – much more information is conveyed in fewer characters so you can show more information in a given area.

Also related to language, he observed that Chinese searchers often find that the information they are looking for (e.g. medical information) is not available in Chinese, so Google machine translation from English into Chinese is an important part of the offering.

All in all a very informative and entertaining talk (great ‘Chinglish‘ examples in comparing MT to human translation).

From this article at the New York Times, I see the same approach being adopted by Google in Africa.

“Africa is a huge long-term market for us,” Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said by e-mail. “We have to start by helping people get online, and the creativity of the people will take care of the rest.”….

….“A lot of people assume Google is trying to replicate in Africa what it has done elsewhere,” adds Mr. Kiagiri, who transferred last year from Google’s head office in California. “Sure, we want to bring existing products into this market. But we also want to organize information locally in a way we haven’t done elsewhere.”

This is the approach that Kai-Fu Lee outlined in China; hire local engineers and try to really understand the local situation (e.g. in Africa, mobile apps for low-end phones) and “empower local flexibility”.

[As an aside, Kai-Fu also mentioned that the name ‘Google’ presents something of a challenge to Chinese sepakers and, while not as bad as some other examples, they’re taking to the use of www.G.cn as their domain in China.]

Finally, on a related note, I see that a post on Google hitting 40 languages has been added over at the Google blog.

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