July 14, 2011 was the day that many Chinese website owners called “Grey Thursday”. For some, hard-earned search engine rankings turned to nothing as their websites were de-indexed completely. So-called ‘garbage websites’ being hit the hardest. It caused quite an uproar, but all webmasters could do was pray and watch as the chaos unfolded.
The Sun Storm wasn’t only a way to punish black-hat SEOs. The purpose of Sun Storm, which is part of the broader “Operation Sun” that began last year, is to deal with shanzhai brand websites. “Shanzhai” is a term used in China to describe knock-off goods and a “shanzhai brand website” is a website that sells knock-off brand goods and/or presents itself as the official website of a given brand.
Baidu sees Shanzhai brand websites as a problem because they often outrank the official brand websites, providing search engine users with a poorer experience. Baidu wants to protect search engine users from being tricked by these brand pretenders.
Over the past few years, brand-related searches have been a hot topic for Baidu search engine optimization practitioners. Ranking in the top results for a brand-related phrase was certainly profitable, and the shanzhai brand websites were able to obtain the top rankings. For Baidu users, shanzhai sites were ubiquitous. For each reputable brand, there were tens or even hundreds of websites jockeying for top spots on Baidu’s search result pages.
The first industries to be affected by Baidu’s Sun Storm were the logistics, education and consumer electronics industries as well as 3A hospitals in Beijing. In total, 150 brands and 1.4 million keywords were affected. After the changes were implemented, a search for consumer electronics company “Haier”, “Tsinghua University” or “Beijing University Third Hospital” did not turn up any results from Shanzhai brand websites.
Some websites in these industries had been punished before, but Sun Storm has expanded this to a new level, punishing many more websites.
Baidu’s pay per click system has been affected as well. The usage of brand names in pay per click advertisements has now been disallowed.
I think that Baidu’s Sun Storm and other such actions to crack down on Shanzhai websites will ultimately improve the online ecosystem in China, but it will take time to do so. Website owners will have to adapt their SEO strategies to this new environment. The Chinese Internet’s ‘age of copying’ is about to end. In the new age, blindly following in the footsteps of others isn’t enough. A greater level of creativity will be required. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea for SEOs to adhere to Baidu’s guidelines if they want to avoid getting hit by future changes made by Baidu.
What do you think? Will changes made by Baidu be able to decrease the amount of ‘copying’ done on the Chinese Internet?