One of the first talking points that comes up when I’m helping a brand expand into the Chinese organic search market is that of web design, and how much the typical Chinese website differs from a Western site.
The common discussion points that always come up are:
- The website looking busy and cluttered
- Pages opening in new tabs and windows
- Font sizes and content display
It’s not uncommon for a Chinese website to look busy, and cluttered with lots of links and calls to action. A lot of the time I’ve seen this written off to cultural differences, which is in part true, but what triggers me is when the Chinese rationale is compared to the Japanese rationale.
寂しい – I’m lonely, because I’m not with you.
In Japan, there is the concept of sabishii. This carries a number of meanings, including the way of saying I miss you and I’m lonely because I’m not with you.
However, since the dawn of the internet it can also be applied to websites with little content and lots of white-space (something we would likely call modern and clean design in the Western world). Japanese users tend to not trust sabishii websites.
This is not the same reason as to why Chinese websites are similarly busy and cluttered.
Is Chinese web design really “complicated”?
To someone who isn’t used to it, yes, a Chinese webpage might look complicated and overwhelming — but the reality is that it isn’t, it’s just that we’re not used to processing what we’re seeing and, being honest, we’re not understanding the language being used and that makes it harder to process.
The Chinese language ranges from single pen stroke characters, to some with more than 60 pen strokes, whereas the Latin alphabet we’re more accustomed to at most uses maybe 2 strokes.
Mian Zi (Face)
Chinese culture differs a lot from the Western world, and has been heavily influenced by ancient teachings — one of which is Confucius’ teaching of collectivism.
Face is something that can be given (给面子gěimiànzi), lost (丢脸 diūliǎn), or fought for (爭面子 zhēng miànzi), and is measurable and quantifiable to anyone with the right cultural and contextual knowledge to assess it.
China is a collectivist society, with focus on social recognition and standing (face), and maintaining face in all aspects of personal and professional life is important.
So how does this translate into Chinese web design?
How companies are perceived by society is extremely important, as society’s endorsement can often define their values.
This is why it’s commonplace to cram in as much content as possible on a website (and individual pages) to give the impression (to the user) that the company is doing well, has a great culture, and has plenty to offer them.
(I recommend reading more about Mian Zi, as it can influence a lot of other Chinese consumer behaviours and your overall strategy needs to be aware of it – this is a great article to read and understand it further: https://www.china-mike.com/chinese-culture/understanding-chinese-mind/cult-of-face/)
Why are there so many links on the pages?
There are two convincing arguments for this, and again both relate to the Chinese language and not “for the internal linking benefits”.
Simplified Chinese & Literacy
The Chinese language has changed and evolved since Simplified Chinese was introduced in 1952 in a bid to increase literacy rates in China.
Due to the complexities of the language, and that it’s still technically “under development”, Baidu and other popular web portals in China such as QQ and Hao123 started to use “well written internal linking anchors” to aid Chinese users in the early days of the internet, and this has heavily influenced Chinese user behaviour — and has even filtered down the Children’s websites such as 4399, so it doesn’t look as though the trend will change in the coming years.
Baidu have processed more than 200-character combinations for the term “weather forecast” on its own.
This is also why a lot of Chinese domains include numbers and short letters, as it’s impossible to misspell a number or something simple like QQ.
The importance of clearly written internal linking anchors (and large numbers of internal links) is important, as for example, Baidu have processed more than 200-character combinations for the term “weather forecast” on its own.
This user behaviour influence has also led a lot of websites in China to be designed for clicking and not internal searching. This isn’t so much of an issue now as keyboards in China use Pinyin.
This means that a user will search using shortcuts rather than full phrases, and then choose from a list. For example a user can type BJ for Beijing or NY for New York, and then select the correct query:
Because of this, some search patterns can be restricted — so it’s important that you perform accurate keyword research with native Chinese speakers (and those with knowledge of your topic/vertical).
Why does everything open in a new tab?
It’s recommended that when a user clicks on an internal link, the content opens in a new tab and not the same window — this is to support user browsing behaviour. But what caused this behaviour?
Not too long ago (within the last decade), Chinese internet averaged in the region of 700/kbps, whilst at the same time the UK averaged 3,812kbps and the US 4,684kbps. It was slow.
As a result, users would read content and click a link, with the expectation of reading more of the page’s content whilst waiting for the other to load, so they’d likely open multiple links/tabs and browse them sequentially.
As of now, China have improved the internet speed situation a lot with a global average of 81.35mbps (more than the UK current at 53.95mbps but less than the US average of 104.43mbps). [source]
User behaviour however hasn’t changed all that much, especially when they’re accessing websites that aren’t native to China as there is still a noticeable latency in loading.
China and web fonts
Chinese typography is very limited as it needs to accommodate in the region of 4,000 individual characters.
This means there are no “fancy” fonts available, and it’s highly likely China was saved from Comic Sans.
Also from an accessibility standpoint, I hesitate going smaller than 14px for font sizes on main body copy due to the complexity of some of the alphabet characters — and not everyone in China will have large monitors.
User experience and Chinese SEO
Like with any modern search engine, user experience factors into organic search performance. It’s dangerous however to take broad brush strokes with the Chinese market and make pages unnecessarily busy and cluttered for the sake of it, it’s more about what the site does and the value it provides a Chinese user, not how it looks.
It’s more about what the site does and the value it provides a Chinese user, not how it looks
This is why it’s important to speak with an international SEO consultant, experienced in Baidu (and the Chinese organic search market) to avoid making mistakes in Baidu (as it’s a very, very different search engine to Google).