Getting online in China

The Great Firewall of China means European businesses are struggling to make an impact in the region.

The idea that the Chinese market is emerging is an idea that firmly belongs in the past – while online gaming is worth $22 billion, the construction market is worth a staggering $2 trillion.

Cross-border ecommerce sales – consumers from China buying goods from outside China – is expected to reach just under a trillion US dollars in 2016. Outbound tourists from China reached 120 million in 2015, and they spent $104.5 billion around the globe.

Internet usage and access in China is growing, despite the restrictions in connectivity the region faces. Even though the Great Firewall of China can block certain types of content completely, making websites inaccessible and cause long load times, according to China Internet Watch, there were 667 million internet users spending around 25 hours a week online in 2015 – and this is only set to grow further. Combine these trends – the necessity of digital commerce and the rise of China as a viable target market – then suddenly European businesses need to carefully scrutinise how their brand presents online.

Making a mark in China

Many companies from outside China – ranging from B2B to B2C and from ecommerce to e-learning and gaming - have built and are building websites that appeal to the Chinese market.

But the Great Firewall means these sites may not be having the impact that was hoped for, even when accompanied by all of the right marketing and SEO investment. And when a website is not delivering the right results, it's tempting to look at SEO, the content, the aesthetics, and so on. But what many businesses should be checking instead is web performance.

Views of Chinese users

In fact, the performance of European brands’ websites in China is rarely up to scratch. While a Chinese user believes that a website should load within five seconds, the average European website takes just over half a minute to load. And when asked, 75 per cent of Chinese users said that within the last week, they have had to wait an unacceptably long time for a European website to load.

This poor performance is damaging European brands reputation in China, with users saying that European brands appear to not value Chinese custom, it makes them seem unreliable and they even associate poor load time with the website being insecure.

Overcoming the challenges

So what can European brands do in order to improve the performance of their websites in China? First and foremost, it’s important for European brands to understand how their website is actually performing from within China. How long does it take to load? How long does it take until a user can interact with the website? Has any content been blocked – and if so, which content? Understanding how a European brand’s website is performing in China will give an indication of what it is they need to do to improve their performance.

Secondly, you need to understand the reasons behind the performance issues. There are three factors that cause latency for European brands’ websites – the first is the distance from Europe to China, and the second is the Great Firewall slowing down websites, and the third is the latency caused by China’s internet infrastructure. Usually, distance is the factor that impacts performance the most, as the number of exchanges between the origin server and the end-user adds to the loading time. But the Great Firewall even causes websites delivered from Hong Kong into China to suffer slow loading times - in fact, the Firewall’s filtering process slows websites down by up to 40 per cent. Within China, you have to tackle in-country latencies due to the country’s complex and fragmented network.

But understanding the network infrastructure in China is only half the battle - you also need to understand the regulations, licenses and authorities to ensure your website stays up and running. Having the right licenses in China is vital – get this wrong, and your website can end up blacklisted with no way to appeal the decision.

Finally, it is important to ensure the content on your website isn’t causing issues either. Popular websites like Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, so if your website has a sidebar of widgets for these social media sites, this will cause issues. It’s also important to check the images you have on your website – while an image might not be seen as risqué, automatic algorithms can mistake innocent images and blacklist your website.

Climbing the Great Firewall and delivering great web performance

European brands are currently not doing enough to make sure that their websites are accessible in China – and this is having a negative effect on sales and reputation. Arguably on European brands as a whole. Online is how consumers in China will discover and engage with brands based in Europe, so a disappointed potential customer is unlikely to be won back through other channels.

To have a hope of reaching this market successfully, a fast-loading website, accessible across the whole of China is unsurprisingly key – but surprisingly overlooked.

Alex Nam, Managing Director, EMEA, CDNetworks

Photo credit: karen roach / Shutterstock