Marketing in China: How Consumers Search Online to Start Their Purchasing Journey With Baidu & Social Media

Given that the B in BATX, the traditional shorthand for China’s Big Tech companies, stands for Baidu, it’s understandable that many in the West prioritize the biggest search engine in China when they want to promote their brand, products or services there. 

Baidu plays an important role in the consumer journey, but it’s not the same role that Google plays in the West. Rather, to get into the sight-line of Chinese consumers, it’s essential to have a strong presence on social media and e-commerce sites.

What is Baidu?

The Baidu logo

Baidu is the biggest search engine in China. Being visible in Baidu, or SEO (search engine optimization), is important. It’s just that it’s not as important as Google SEO is in the West because of differences in how and when search engines, social media and e-commerce sites are used in mainland China.

Why is Baidu SEO needed in China? 

In case someone is looking for your brand, you need to be findable on Baidu so that it’s clear that you are a real, legitimate company with a fully functional corporate website. It is suggested to get an ICP (Internet Content Publishing License) in China that could improve your Baidu SEO performance by speeding up the loading time. The site should clearly present your company, explain what it does and lay out your brand history. It should also clearly direct Chinese consumers to your physical store locations within China (if any), your key social media accounts on WeChat, Weibo and your stores on Taobao or Tmall.

It’s also good for your brand to have a presence on Zhihu as this helps your Baidu rankings and your credibility. Earning consumer trust is paramount in the Chinese market and ranking well on Baidu with your brand’s flagship website is part of it.

Let’s compare the typical patterns for rational, non-impulse purchases in the West and in China.

Search Engines in the West: Google and Amazon

In many places in the West, Google, the dominant search engine, and Amazon, the dominant e-commerce platform, are used at different stages of the decision-making process.

When people are at the beginning of their process in the West, they usually use Google.

For example, someone may be trying to decide whether or not to buy an electric toothbrush. They’re likely to start out searching on Google to see if dentists recommend electric toothbrushes and to find opinions from people who’ve switched to electric toothbrushes. If those results confirm that electric toothbrushes are a good idea, they’ll probably do several more Google searches to check on brands that popped up during their original search or find lists of recommended brushes based on performance, price, battery life etc. They might also look on Quora, Facebook or YouTube for more recommendations and promo codes or discounts.

During this process, ads for electric toothbrushes will pop up on the results page as will the flagship websites of various brands.

Once they’ve done this, they’re likely to move on to a search on Amazon, whether they intend to buy the toothbrush online or not. This gives them a chance to see which brands are the biggest sellers, gauge prices and read reviews from buyers. From there, they will either look for the item in a local shop or buy it online. In some places in the U.S., people may soon be able to buy items at physical Amazon stores, as it expands into brick and mortar outlets.

Search Engines in China: Social Media, E-commerce and Baidu

In China, people connect to the internet overwhelmingly on mobile phones and they spend a lot of their day on social media apps. WeChat, Weibo, Red, Douyin and e-commerce sites like Taobao and Tmall are where people are likely to encounter new brands, products and services online for the first time and may also trigger their product buying process.

They’re likely to check shopping recommendation apps like Red, look for information and recommendations on WeChat, check influencer/KOL recommendations on Weibo, look for opinions and unboxing videos on Douyin and then check on e-commerce sites to see price comparisons and reviews from customers. They might even go directly to Taobao or Tmall as their first step. At each step along the way, they’ll encounter ads and will also be looking hard for discounts, coupons, giveaways, lucky draws, live streaming sales and more.

They might use Baidu or Zhihu (China’s version of Quora) at some point to check the company’s history or to find the answer to a very specific question, but these sites are unlikely to be the foundation of their product research. Baidu has only recently started to take action to remedy its lag in certain areas, like live streaming.

Consumers usually won’t be doing this kind of search to check out your company unless they already found out about it from somewhere else. That somewhere else is usually social media.

How do Chinese Consumers Use Social Media & E-commerce Apps to Research Products?

1 WeChat

The WeChat logo

WeChat is used by brands to make private groups for brand fans. In the West, most companies build their private traffic databases through email lists, membership programs or VIP clubs. In China, this is done through private groups on WeChat where brands communicate directly with customers and fans. They give them exclusive deals, coupons, the latest brand news, product previews and the group moderators, who are brand employees or KOCs (key opinion consumers), fill a customer service role. Although they don’t compare to the kinds of offerings available on huge online shopping sites like Taobao and Tmall, WeChat also has mini program stores where brands can sell items and a built-in wallet that customers can use to make purchases.

2 Weibo

The Weibo logo

Weibo is used to track the trendiest topics and products. This is where people often learn about new products and follow influencers to see what they’re wearing, eating, drinking and what beauty products they’re using. Topics, brand names, product names and more can be found easily by checking keywords, similar to Twitter.

3 Red / Xiaohongshu

The Red logo.
The Xiaohongshu logo.

Red tracks trends for lifestyle, beauty, foreign products, new products, and more. Since it’s a shopping recommendation app for women, most of its users are female. This is a strong app when it comes to looking for recommendations as site users write posts called Notes detailing their reviews and experiences and also post videos, demos, before and afters and in-depth instructions for products.

4 Douyin

The Douyin logo
The logo for China's version of TikTok.

On Douyin – the original TikTok, but for China – KOLs can add links to Taobao and Tmall for short videos and can also have Douyin stores. For live streams, this isn’t allowed and only links to Douyin stores are allowed. It has strong appeal among Gen Z and showcases new trends and products

5 Taobao

The Taobao logo

This is Alibaba’s huge online marketplace for reasonably priced items and good deals. It has built-in social media, live streaming and payment features. The closest comparison in the West is Amazon.

6 Tmall / Tmall International

This is Alibaba’s huge online marketplace for big brands to set up their flagship stores. Tmall International is especially for foreign brands although many large Western brands that already have stores in China are on Tmall as well.


Baidu has its role, and is expanding its services, knowing that it’s lagging in areas like live streaming, but it’s not the same role that Google plays in the West. It’s much more important to be present and searchable on social media and e-commerce sites. It’s important not to forget that there are other strong search engines in China and rivals like Bytedance, which is increasing its search capabilities and has very influential apps like Toutiao, Douyin (and TikTok) and Xigua Video, are also becoming big competitors

For more insights on digital marketing in China, try our online China Digital Marketing Masterclass or if you’re looking for training for your corporate marketing team, we can create masterclasses tailored to your desired topics and specific needs. Contact us to find out more or  schedule a consultation

You can also check out our range of FREE resources including reports, mini-books or blogs for more China-related insights.

3.9/5 - (16 votes)