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Google's China Blues

Published: 21 Dec 2009 17:32:13 PST

Rumors have been flying about Google's future in China ever since the company's China head, Kai-Fu Lee, resigned in early September to start an incubator lab in Beijing. His departure seemed awfully abrupt.

Lee scurried to set up an office for his incubator, raise a fund and assemble a team from thousands of job seekers. Lee's PR reps in China and the Valley hyped his new project as his fulfillment of a dream to coach young Chinese entrepreneurs and support their best start-up ideas.

My venture investing sources in Beijing and Shanghai suspected then that there was more to Lee's departure than was being told. Maybe Larry Page and Sergey Brin want to exit China and Lee knew this, my sources speculated. Certainly, the rush to the exit door by Google ( GOOG - news - people ) staff in Beijing since September suggests that.

Indeed, Google has been trying to become the top search engine in China for nearly a decade, without success. Google hasn't said it is shuttering its local operations in China, but the company plans to power its Chinese search business from its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

Why did the mighty Google fail in China? For years, the company fumbled with inferior search results and unreliable service, not to mention censorship issues and that annoying upstart Baidu, which raced ahead with innovative technology that had a search algorithm for generating results that were more relevant in Mandarin.

To compete with Baidu head on, Google set up business on Chinese soil, recruited former Microsoft ( MSFT - news - people ) exec Lee, and began to gain traction. Lee hired more than 100 Beijing-based engineers and linguists. The effort moved the needle on Google's market share to 31% in 2009 from 21% in 2007But Baidu couldn't be crippled. The Chinese search company widened its market dominance of Chinese search to 64% from 58%. Not only was Baidu considered superior to Google for Chinese search, the team led by founder and CEO Robin Li proved nimble and innovative at introducing new popular features.

For example, Baidu began offering mobile search in China in 2006. It took Google nearly a year to catch up. Baidu also was first to use social media for conducing searches. It beat Google to the market with video clips too.

It shouldn't be all that surprising to see a big American brand being one-upped by a local competitor. Indeed, the story of a home-grown Chinese start-up triumphing over an iconic Internet rival is by now a familiar theme.

Just like Chinese search engine Baidu trumped Google, online bookseller Dangdang outsmarted Amazon in China with better merchandising skills while Alibaba-owned Chinese auction site Taobao took the lead from eBay ( EBAY - news - people ) by giving sellers a free listing of their goods and charging only for premium accounts.

In all three cases, astute local managers who were attuned to the culture and able to gauge consumers' buying and surfing habits on the Web were able to grab first place.

What helped was being on site to respond to China's fast-moving marketplace rather than in a faraway office on the other side of the Pacific.

But Google had the formidable Lee in China building a strong team. Still, the company's efforts proved too little too late to grab market share from Baidu.

Who could really blame Google for shifting gears? The censorship of the Internet in China has been a big enough headache for Google, let alone competing with Baidu. It was tough for top management to agree to Chinese government censorship in order to do business in China. Moreover, Google's standard, English-language site has continually faced blockages and search directs to other sites.

Google faces major challenges in China that are not going to disappear anytime soon. Stay tuned for the next chapter on Google's saga in China. I wouldn't be shocked to see Google retreat from China.

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