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WeChat's New Search Feature Lays Another Brick in Its Walled Garden

And it may spell serious problems for China’s current search leader, Baidu

May 19, 2017

WeChat unveiled a new search feature for its app this week, one that seems intent on keeping its 938 million registered monthly users within the platform.

Top 20 Mobile Apps Among Android Users in China, Ranked by Reach, March 27-April 2, 2017 (% reach)

Instead of returning results indexed from the wider web, the new engine gives preference to items that can be accessed within WeChat or via its built-in browser. This way WeChat can draw on its trove of user data to, say, privilege content that has been widely shared by a user’s contacts.

The new search feature is just the latest step by WeChat, or Weixin as it’s known in China, to bolster its “walled garden” approach.

While users initially glommed onto the platform for its messaging capabilities, WeChat now offers a wide range of services and content, including ecommerce, bill payment, ride-hailing, photos, video and news. All of these functions are designed to keep users within its sprawling ecosystem of digital services.

In January 2017, WeChat unveiled miniprograms, also referred to as miniapps. These instant apps can be accessed for very specific purposes and then discarded, but without forcing users to download anything or—more importantly from WeChat’s perspective—take them outside of the program.

While miniprograms have yet to catch on in any significant way, they reflect an important aspect of WeChat’s thinking about its walled garden approach.

By directing searchers back within its program, the new feature continues WeChat’s long pursuit of eliminating the need for users to ever travel outside the app to the wider web.

That trend may portend trouble for Baidu, long the market leader in China’s search sector. eMarketer estimates Baidu will generate $6.62 billion in net search ad revenues worldwide this year, second only to Google.

But Baidu is now slipping on the search front.

The company posted its first-ever decline in quarterly revenues in Q3 2016, following the implementation of new regulations for search ads. The new rules were enacted after a scandal in which a cancer-stricken student died after relying on an experimental treatment discovered via a Baidu search. Baidu was widely criticized during the fallout.

Alibaba has now eclipsed Baidu as the top generator of net ad revenues in China, according to eMarketer estimates.

Baidu also faces another significant problem in that it is blocked by WeChat from indexing content published through its app, even when that content is on the wider web. That will make the company’s road even tougher.

Rahul Chadha

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