Only in a small handful of locations is Google’s dominance as the lead search engine challenged to a meaningful extent, and of those such locations is South Korea.
South Korea’s search landscape is complex, driven by technology and infrastructure enabling users to be more online and active, and these complexities mean that simply translating your website into Korean, implementing Hreflang (which it doesn’t support) and depending on good old fashioned keyword-rich text and links.
South Korea is the world’s 7th largest e-commerce market, and with a population similar to that of England, it boasts an internet penetration rate of around 84% and around an 80% smartphone penetration rate, which is estimated to grow to 82% by 2021, with growth seemingly starting to plateau as the market saturates.
South Korea & Naver SEO Strategy TL:DR
- If your business focuses on local users and provides a tangible, user-facing service, i.e. courier, online florist, then users will likely use Naver for commercial terms
- Having a presence on, publishing content to, and linking back from Naver Blogs and Naver Cafe is essential to any strategy
- Use plain HMTL for key links and body links
- As well as producing great written content, for informational queries, it’s vital to produce YouTube videos – for both queries directly relating to your products, and those relating to the pain points your product’s/services alleviate
- Speed is critical, South Korea has great infrastructure so there is no excuse to be slow loading
- User interaction matters, so again, hit the Blogs, Cafes, and creating engaging content (written and video)
South Korean Search Landscape
Whilst Google has a roughly 60/40 split in terms of being the dominant search engine, Naver (and others) still have a role to play. A lot of users tend to use Naver for localized queries such as restaurants, entertainment, and services, whereas for broader informational searches users go to Google.
However, neither search engine has really captured the younger, millennial and generation Z audiences – with their preference being YouTube. Rather than looking for written content, actively searching for videos and video content, rather than written guides. For this reason, YouTube needs to be considered as a search engine in South Korea.
Mobile has the edge over desktop in South Korea, with around a 70/30 split.
This is where site speed comes into play, but predominantly from a user perspective. South Koreans are used to fast loading websites, given they have the fastest internet in the world with an average speed of 26mbps (double the US and UK averages), so if you’re not lightning fast, you’re going to suffer from poor usability.
An Overview Of Naver
Naver burst onto the South Korean search scene in 1999, and one of the key differences between the Korean search engine and Google is that Naver doesn’t crawl the entire internet and form indexes and shards of data.
Instead, Naver can be likened to a directory service, as businesses who want to rank within the SERP need to register with Naver and create accounts. Naver’s SERP instead is focused mainly on UGC (user-generated content), popular social media interactions, and paid listings.
Naver acts like it is a community platform, not a search engine, giving a bias to user-generated content, giving additional weight to web pages that are identified as blogs, community sites/forums, as well as pages from its own Naver Blog and Cafe. As a result, it is possible to perform a search within Naver and not see any “organic” search results at all.
There is an element of organic search listings within Naver, however, the best way to be discovered in Naver is to make yourself as visible in as many areas of the SERP as possible, and not rely solely on traditional organic results.
This means that if you just translate your content into Korean and approach Naver as you would Google, you will be setting yourself a glass ceiling for performance.
Naver’s SERP Layout
Whilst Google, Yandex, Bing, et al have classically been described as search engines, Naver, Baidu and Daum have been referred too as “web portals” — similar to old Yahoo on the Netscape browser, these are websites/directories that provide easy access to online content partially removing the need for users to conduct their own searches.
When a user does conduct their own search, the results pages don’t always contain “organic” results as previously mentioned, Naver does show bias towards its own assets and paid advertisements.
The elements highlighted on the Naver SERP above are:
- Vertical searches – like Google offers images, video, maps, etc, Naver offers links to its native assets such as Cafe, and the Knowledge IN.
- Related search terms – similar to the “people also search for” feature of Google, Bing and Baidu. However, the number of related searches on Naver can go as high as 20 suggestions, whereas on Google and Baidu it’s usually limited to 8.
- Paid ads section – this actually included 10 adverts on this SERP with 8 above the fold.
- New book releases – New book releases with the aggregation period being 24/12/2014 to 30/12/2018.
- New topics in the news (default view) and entertainment relating to the query.
Other features and common elements of a Naver SERP include Wikipedia content:
The Other section:
The Other section is important because it gives us direct insight into how Naver is handling the query intent:
If you enter a search query that has multiple meanings, you will expose the information of the knowledge base on the basis of many search criteria. However, it is extracted automatically from the document and is meaningful, and the wrong information may be provided.
The SERP then contained Posts, Blogs, recommended books from Naver Books, Questions & Answers powered by the Knowledge IN, organic results (finally), Naver shopping, a news section akin to Google News, and then more paid ads. This is a big SERP catering for a large number of different intents, and also shows how little “organic” results play a part in Naver. In fact, to find the three organic results on page one, you have to do a lot of scrolling:
As you can see, 13 seconds of scrolling before I get to three web results, and then further results of Naver shopping, a news feature, and paid ads before the bottom of the SERP. This is a lot of content for users to take in.
However if you search for an entity, such as Donald Trump (도날드 트럼프), the search results page looks a lot different:
- Related searches
- “People information” section – basic details about the person including date of birth, country, family, awards such as Forbes 2013 100 most influential celebrities list…
- Live Twitter feed (like Google!)
- Books, movies, and other media broadcasts information relating to the person
- Organic web results (above the fold this time – in this instance they were Donald Trump’s Tree Wiki page, his Facebook page, and the White House homepage)
- Trending news topics, with a shorter window of just 3 hours (in this instance it was a 2am in Seoul when I took the screenshot, showing news stories up to 23:30 from the day before)
In fact, there are more than 20 possible sections that can make up a Naver SERP, and order of the vertical search results on the Universal SERP depends on the search query used.
Daum’s SERP Layout
I think it would be fair to say that Daum’s search results are a lot more focused on users and local.
When I talk to people about Naver & Daum, I liken them to Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Coca-Cola is probably the leading carbonated drink product out of the two, but Pepsi to combat it’s rival diversified into things such as Pepsi Music, to increase its brand visibility.
To combat the changing search market in South Korea, Daum moved first into offering things such as music search, object search, barcode/QR code search and voice search across multiple devices.
Daum has also seen the greatest rise in local advertisers on the search platform over recent months.
Naver’s Search Algorithms
Unlike Google, not a lot is known about Naver’s algorithms and their volatility is monitored a lot less. That being said, we do know of two core algorithms used by the search engine, C-rank (also known as creator rank) and P-rank.
Creator Rank (C-Rank) Algorithm
Naver’s Creator Rank algorithm focuses on Naver UGC assets such as the blog and Café, and it attempts to determine the authority, popularity, and reliability of the content being shared. Initially focused on just Blogs, we know it was expanded to incorporate Café and the Knowledge iN in 2017.
|Naver Asset||Ranking Factor|
|Naver Knowledge iN (Q&A)||
The P-Rank algorithm was introduced by Naver in an attempt to make it’s search results (for organic) better confirm with global web standards being set by the likes of Google and Yandex. Using artificial intelligence (AI), the P-Rank algorithm analyses the SEO criteria of a website in order to determine its quality and relevancy.
A lot of this algorithm is explained in the native Naver Webmaster Tools, as well as in their Site Quality Guidelines. However, the key summary can be found in the table below:
|Crawlability of the site by the Naver Bot||Essentially, the better Naver Bot can crawl and access pages on your website, the better Naver may choose to rank them.|
|Level of on-page optimization||The clarity of title tags (40 characters) and meta descriptions (80 characters). It also mentions Open Graph mark-up as part of on-page optimization|
|Site structure||This is the HTML structure of the site, internal linking, correct use of the HTML attribute for links and images, and mobile usability. It’s also worth noting that South Koreans predominantly use Android, thanks to Samsung and LG being Korean companies.|
|Backlinks||Naver counts both the quality and quantity of backlinks to the site. Naver provides insight into the number of backlinks a site has in through its Webmaster Tools interface, in a similar fashion to Google Search Console.|
|Social media signals||Social media and UGC play a bigger part in Naver’s algorithm, so it’s important that your social media accounts and website clearly show a connection to Naver. This also means using|
Another component of Naver’s P-Rank algorithm is traffic, as in the more traffic the site gets, the more popular its deemed, and again, this has led to the growth of a click-farm industry attempting to influence SERPs. Whilst traffic isn’t confirmed, there are a lot of strong correlations to suggest it’s up there, but not necessarily a key component.
Naver prefers title tags to be 40 characters or less, and the meta description to be 80 characters or less. They also recommend for meta descriptions that:
The description tag on a page is a short description of the content of the page, which can be a short paragraph of one or two sentences. However, if you have more than one repetitive keyword, spammy keyword, or keyword that is not associated with your site, you may end up penalizing search impressions
Naver & Backlinks
Backlinks are a factor in Naver’s P-Rank algorithm, and Naver favors both quantity and quality.
Interestingly, backlinks from Naver’s own properties are also factored into this and also treat favorably. Another reason why creating and generating real and good content on Naver Blogs and Cafe is essential to your South Korean search strategy.
Naver Ranking Factors (Assumed & Correlative)
Based on ranking websites within Naver, as well as reading a number of studies, the below “ranking factors” can also be assumed due to strong correlations:
- CTR & SERP Signals – Now being called “on-SERP SEO”, how users interact with results on the page impacts their rankings.
- Keyword Relevance (Basic Matching) – simply, does the HTML document contain the keyword used by the user in the query, as well as related keywords.
- Content Freshness – time decay on content seems to play a larger role in Naver than it does in Google, which makes sense given the nature of other SERP elements, so it’s important to maintain and post regularly to a blog.
Naver Technical SEO Considerations
Naver’s user agent is called Yeti:
Yeti/1.0 (NHN Corp.; http://help.naver.com/robots/)
Yeti obeys robots.txt directives, and if you’re unable to edit your own robots.txt, you can make a simple version in Naver Webmaster Tools.
Link tags such as:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://example.com/”>
… are not supported by Naver. This can pose a number of issues, such as implementing canonicals.
Does Naver Use Hreflang?
Naver doesn’t support Hreflang – as it doesn’t support the <link> tag. This means you need to use the HTML meta language tag, as well as utilize a Korean site/alternate version only XML sitemap.
<meta http-equiv="content-language" content="ko-kr">
If you are implementing Hreflang through the XML sitemap, and you have versions for each territory, from experience, this will still work in Naver.
Does Having A Korean ccTLD Matter For Rankings?
From experience, you can perform well within South Korea on a .com domain, but if you’re trying to localize going with a .co.kr ccTLD won’t hurt.
South Korea Browsers
South Korea’s primary browsers have varied in recent years, with a shift from Internet Explorer towards Chrome. Internet Explorer is still used in corporate environments as many websites run by government departments, banks, and e-commerce companies still use ActiveX for anti-hacking.
On Desktop, Google Chrome has around a 71% market share, Internet Explorer in second with a share of 15%, Edge at 5%, and Whale & Safari at 3%.
On mobile Chrome still comes out on top but drops to 40%, with Samsung Internet rising to 25% and Safari to 20%. Whale also increases market share to 8%, and Puffin with 4%.
Launched in March 2017, Whale is a relatively new browser in what is an already crowded browser market. One of the browser’s cooler features, however (in my opinion), is “omnitasking” — a split-screen feature that lets you browse two sites in the same tab, with an adjustable divider. It also features a sticky sidebar, including an integrated “Belly”, similar to the pocket app or bookmarks, where you can quickly store webpages in the “Whale’s belly” for quick access later on.
Whale’s focus on design, which allows users to select their own skins and offers a slew of choices for clocks and tiles to view when opening a new tab.
Why is this important? If Naver continues to grow in market share and increase accessibility to Naver (as the default browser), more users will interact with Naver ahead of Google, so it’s important to have a Naver SEO strategy in place.
Naver’s Own Products
Much like Baidu, Naver has a number of assets that it uses to make up search results pages. These can all be leveraged to increase visibility, as not all search results in Naver always return “organic” search results.
This is like Wikipedia, and just as authoritative for Naver’s search results. Setting up a page for your brand/company in this Encyclopaedia should be a campaign default, like setting up a Google My Business or Bing Places listing.
The Knowledge IN is fed from a number of different sources, including the Encyclopaedia – but mostly from the Q&A section. This search is extremely semantic, so you need to approach the Q&A section like Yahoo! Answers (which is extremely popular in Japan).
When you register your website with Naver, you are automatically set-up with a Naver blog. Blogging and peer-to-peer communications in South Korea are extremely important, and Naver includes blog results as its own section within its search results.
Blogging on your own website may be enough in Google, but in South Korea, you need to publish unique (and quality content) on the Naver Blog too. Succeeding with a Naver Blog requires thorough commitment, a well-structured content calendar, and extensive keyword research.
Naver Café is a community-based platform that brings together members with a common interest in sharing knowledge and engaging in discussion on that topic.
A close equivalent is Reddit – each Café acts like a Subreddit, with its niche focus and community sharing.
Naver Webmaster Tools
Naver Webmaster Tools is a must if you’re operating in the South Korean market.
There are a lot of differences between Naver WMT in comparison to Google Search Console and Yandex WMT; and a lot of things within it are clearer. For example, it breaks down your website’s “web standards” into four clear categories and gives you clear messaging:
The messaging here is:
- Top banner: The website falls within the top 1% on Naver by adhering to web standards
- Far-left box: Site Crawlability, it’s good (actually says “it’s the best”)
- Middle left box: Content management (title tags, metas), not bad (this is why it’s a different color)
- Middle right box: Site structure, it’s the best!
- Site activation: this has two criteria, the web page production; document size, DOM response, internal links, and site reputation; the number of backlinks and unique linking sources the site has.
Unlike Google Search Console, Naver Webmaster Tools doesn’t include query data or organic performance information – it literally contains the base technical information about Naverbot accessibility and page crawl rates.
This is why you need to run Naver Analytics in parallel. I’ve written a guide on how to setup Naver Analytics, as well as how to interpret key information from the Korean dashboard.
Whilst both Naver Analytics and Naver Webmaster Tools are relatively basic, I believe they’re signals that show Naver that you’re preferring to use their technologies.
It wouldn’t be an article on Korean SEO without a passing mention of Daum. Once one of the major players in Korean search, Daum merged with Kakao Corp. in 2014 to form Daum Kakao but has since rebranded as just Kakao.
Even though Daum acquired Lycos in 2004, and still exists as a search engine product, Kakao’s business model is moving away from search with user application such as KakaoTalk (South Korea’s most popular messenger application), KakaoTaxi (basically Uber), as well as being South Korea’s first internet-only bank (in 2017).
Some sources still put Daum as having between 10 and 20 percent of the South Korean search market.
Prior to the Daum merger, Kakao was behind the social network “Path”, which was discontinued after serious data privacy issues.