Google, China, and Chinese College Students - Part III

By Brian Glucroft

[Previous posts for this series: Part I; Part II. Also see correction below.]

A speech which was seen by many in the US as a strong step in the right direction or even as not strong enough was in fact a gift to the Chinese government.

Before Hillary Clinton's speech, for many Chinese students the conflict was between Google and the Chinese government.   After the speech, it was Google / US government vs the Chinese government -  US interests vs Chinese interests.   Concerns this might be the case were earlier expressed on this site here and here.

An analysis of Clinton's words misses the point.  Most of the students didn't know them.  All that mattered to the students was that the US government had aligned itself with Google and now "Google" & "US government" were synonymous.  The existence of such a close partnership was not at all a stretch for Chinese students to believe since they were already very accustomed to a blurry line, if any, between government and business in their own country - often associated with corruption.

The newly perceived relationship was critical.  Many Chinese students assumed that for any disagreement between the US and Chinese governments whatever the US was advocating was not only beneficial to itself but was also detrimental to China.  The idea that the US could be advocating something that was good for both the US and China or possibly that was even more beneficial for China was not considered a possibility.

Finally, there were a small number of students who still had positive feelings for Google after Hillary Clinton's speech.

However, many of them became disillusioned at another point - when Google chose to move redirect its servers to Hong Kong. [Correction: the post originally said that Google had moved its servers out of mainland China to Hong Kong. In fact, it redirected some of its mainland services to servers in Hong Kong. For more information, see the author's site.] They believed, often with strong emotions, that Google had given up.  The same student quoted previously expressed the feelings best:

"The Chinese government won and Google lost.  Not only did they lose money and the China market, but they also lost their spirit.  I cannot understand why they made this choice.  It's not like Google...

It makes me feel sad and I think it is ridiculous.  They lost the battle in China and the Chinese government won.  Baidu is also a winner...  Google made a really stupid decision...

When they first came they said 'We're Google.  We're the biggest and the best at search.' Now they gave up."

The message students saw in Google's action was that if "big, powerful, idealistic" Google could not make things change, then how could they?

So, where do things stand now?

Recent reports suggest that Baidu continues to increase its strength over Google (though see here for a different perspective).  The initial decline in Google's reach was not surprising given that many of Google's previous supporters did not hold it in as high regard as they once did.

But why the possible more recent decline in relationship to Baidu?  There are several possibilities but two are particularly worth highlighting.  The first reason is some students may have continued to hold out hope that something could still happen.  After additional time without any significant events, except possibly Google's maintaining its license in China, they became convinced Google was never going to meet their expectations.

The second reason is more subtle.  There has been a variety of research conducted on how factors such as brand image, visual design, etc affect the impressions people have of technology's usability and usefulness.  It's a complex problem, but some studies do show a connection.  For example, under certain conditions users will rate the usability of technology higher for a more visually-pleasing design than a less visually-pleasing design, even when the interaction design is held constant.

In a similar manner it is possible that the Chinese college students' drastically changed views of the Google brand caused them to perceive Google's services as less usable or useful than before.  There were hints that this was the case.  A once supportive but now disappointed student's comments responding to whether she still used Google may be particularly telling:

"Yes, but many of the things I see in the search results aren't the things I really want.   I think it is not like the normal Google.  I can find things in the results, but the reality is I can't find the things I really want."

Did Google's search results really change after the servers move to Hong Kong?  Certainly in some ways since they were now no longer self-censoring the results.  Only Google really knows the extent those changes may have had, if any, on whatever searches that college student used.  Regardless, if students were perceiving Google as less usable then reduced usage would not be surprising.  Such a pattern may play out over an extended period of time, especially if many students had previously been highly satisfied with Google's services.

Whatever the realities may be of any recent change in Google's health in China, significant challenges remain for them to regain their previous strength - both in terms of business and the perceptions of Chinese students.

Some final personal thoughts...

To me, the two most striking aspects of what I found were the very high hopes some students had for Google to help bring about change in China and the impact of Hillary Clinton's speech.  James Fallows was prescient in his first response to the speech when he wrote:

I have the sense while listening that this is an event and a statement that will be studied and discussed for quite a while.

I believe what he wrote still holds true and also that the speech's impact is still being felt today.

But what about the future?  One important factor is that despite Baidu profiting greatly from Google's decline in China, no company has taken the place that Google previously held in many students' minds.  Many of Google's previous users may now be using Baidu more, but it still can't address some of their key needs or aspirations.

Based on this and other research I've done, I believe there are huge opportunities for technology based services in China that could not be met by any of the existing Chinese companies in their existing form.  For non-Chinese companies to take advantage will require patience, a deep understanding of the Chinese market, and a willingness to adapt for their users.  While Google is uniquely positioned in some regards, it will need to take particular care to mend and expand the previous relationships it had with its users in China.

Finally, the findings show the extreme importance of understanding one's audience and how costly it can be otherwise.  Whether it is the users of your technology or the people you're trying to influence, the views held by those in another culture are likely especially different from yours in very key aspects -- even if they passionately believe in much of what you say and do.  Their perceptions are what will most guide their choices - not your definition of "reality".

Understanding those perceptions takes effort and time.  Doing so will benefit companies such as Google, countries such as the United States, and the people these companies and countries are ultimately trying to reach - in this case, the Chinese people.

Based in Shanghai for over four years, Brian Glucroft has worked as a researcher in the user experience field for online services, electronic devices, and software companies, including Microsoft China, and has a new blog at Isidor's Fugue.