Google on Thursday began helping users in China navigate the country's strict censorship systems by highlighting search terms that will likely result in page errors, as part of an update to the company's search engine. But the new feature could be arriving too late to help the search giant improve its presence in the country, according to one analyst.
The Internet giant said in a blog post, that while the company has found no problems with its search engine, users in mainland China have complained that the service is "inconsistent and unreliable." Part of the problem results from queries of certain search terms, which can result in error messages and prevent users from accessing Google search again for a minute or more, according to the company.
To address the problem, Google engineers reviewed the 350,000 most popular search queries in China, and identified specific terms that can trigger errors. Now when users type in queries in the company's search engine, the service will highlight certain characters or phrases with the potential to "break" a user's connection to Google. Users can then choose to revise their search query.
"By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China," the company said in its post. Users, however, can ignore Google's warning, and leave their search query unchanged.
Google originally had its own search engine for China, at Google.cn, which was required by the Chinese government to provide censored search results. The site, however, provided a less error-prone user experience.
The company, however, decided to make a partial exit from China in 2010, following ongoing tensions with the Chinese government. This resulted in Google shutting down its Google.cn search engine, and instead redirecting users to the company's Hong Kong search page.
But while Google's Hong Kong search engine does not censor its results, certain queries will still bring up errors as a result of Chinese government censors, which effectively block out results for certain sensitive political topics. Google's blog post, however, also noted that using everyday Chinese characters such as "river" and "week" could also lead to page errors.
Because of the frequent problems on Google, many Chinese users have looked elsewhere to make their search queries, said Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.
"I think if they introduced this a year ago, it would have been more helpful. But at this time, the user base and traffic (for Google) has shrunk significantly," he said. "The user experience has degraded so sufficiently that (users) don't even use it anymore or as frequently."
In the first quarter of this year, Google had 16.6 percent share of China's search market for ad revenue, according to Beijing-based research firm Analysys International. Internet data analytics site CNZZ.com, however, shows that Google's user share in the country is at 6 percent.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.