Baidu’s traffic-grabbing non-microblog

Baidu, China’s largest online search engine, has left users slightly confused. On Friday, it tweaked Shuoba, a platform resembling Twitter which allows users to post 140-character messages, to no longer demand personal information such as their ID numbers.

While some online media jumped on the changes as evidence that finally Baidu was following in the tracks of Sina and other web portals to launch a competitive microblog, the company denies it. Robin Li, founder and chief executive (pictured), stubbornly insists that Shuoba – which means something like “Talk!” in Chinese – is not a microblog at all.

“We’re not a portal company. We’re not a traditional media company. Our expertise is not to manage content,” he said in a recent interview. Instead, he wants people to publish and link to social media from the main Baidu search box, which he hopes to transform into a “universal command box” where people can do and get whatever they want. This so-called box computing is Li’s one big vision.

Indeed, earlier this month Baidu added a feature where entering phrases that resemble empty banter of the kind commonly seen on Chinese microblogs (“It’s hot today”) will be identified as a possible microblog post and users can hit a button “post to Tencent”, “post to Sohu” or “post to Netease”.

So what’s the point of Shuoba’s separate platform? Well, perhaps the explanation goes like this:

Although Baidu’s market share in China has grown ever more dominant since Google’s partial retreat from the country, with 75 per cent of online search revenues and 30 per cent of all online ad revenues in the fourth quarter of 2010, Li remains wary.

Web portals such as Sina, which Baidu had stopped considering serious rivals a long time ago, have been reinvigorated by their wildly popular microblogs which are bringing them masses of new traffic, which they are expected to start monetizing next year. Shuoba may ensure that no traffic is lost from Baidu just in case users are not quite ready for Li’s all-in-one box yet.

Initially, Shuoba had required users to sign up with detailed personal information which was accessible to the police, in line with the government’s hopes to have more internet users appear under their real identities. But while that may have reassured the authorities that the sources of potentially “harmful” chatter could be easily identified, it clearly kept traffic away. Li is a deeply pragmatic businessman, after all.

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