Marketing to China is a whole new world, especially digital marketing. One of the most common questions we get is how to set up a website in China.

Many people don’t realise that the internet is very different in China. Through a combination of technology and regulations, China has implemented severe restrictions on what it’s citizens can see on the internet. Known as the Great Firewall of China, political censorship means the Government actually blocks many websites from outside of China, as a means of controlling what people within China can see.

This means that if you want your company website to be seen in China, you’re going to need a few workarounds. Here’s everything you need to know to make sure your website is visible in China.

 

Why does China block overseas internet traffic?

What may seem like a crazy measure in the Western world comes down to a combination of culture and politics. One of the biggest reasons China blocks internet traffic is to block citizens from seeing anything that’s critical of the Chinese government or goes against the Communist Party’s policies. Blocking foreign social media sites like Facebook and Twitter means citizens instead use Chinese alternatives like WeChat. WeChat’s owner, Tencent, is very much aligned with Government policies, which you might say is the biggest reason it has been so successful and become the largest social media platform in China. WeChat follows all Government censorship directives, blocking keywords and content the Government does not want published.

 

How does the Great Firewall of China work?

 

Officially called Project Shield, the Government’s internet censorship system employs a variety of tricks to achieve what many might think is impossible: filtering out most of the internet. China blocks entire websites based on their URL or IP address – such as social media sites like Facebook.

Another measure is to scan for keywords that indicate topics or information the Government doesn’t want to share. One example of this is the keyword ‘Tiananmen.’  

China is able to do this by controlling the gateways through which internet traffic enters China. Through a combination of firewalls and proxy servers at these gateways, they can analyse and filter out Internet traffic.

So, what does it look like in practice? There isn’t any kind of alert or message that comes up. For the most part your site either won’t load, or will be slowed down so much it might as well not load. Your site will also have different results from different cities in China – many technological measures to block or slow sites are managed at the province level, so you might be blocked in Beijing but be visible in Shenzhen.

 

How can I tell if my website is blocked in China?

There are plenty of free tools online to check if your site is visible in China, and see the load time in different regions. A quick site test at Comparitech will show if you load or not in key regions, and Site 24/7 will let you choose different cities in China, and give a full breakdown of what is slow to load.

When testing on our site, we found that it did load in China:

 

 

However, there were some elements of the site that were slow to load, including the service Formstack which manages some of our forms, and fonts from Adobe:

 

Why isn’t my site loading in China?

Even if you have no content that could be considered remotely offensive in China and there is no reason for your brand to be singled out and added to the blocked list, it can actually be the elements of your site that are blocked. Google Analytics is one of the most common elements that gets added to your site – a small piece of code that allows you to get insights and information about your website traffic and site behaviour. However, as Google is one of the site China blocks, that small piece of code can be doing a lot of damage. 

As we saw from our site as an example, there were a number of elements from larger companies that are on China’s radar that can impact your site speed and visibility. Common ones are embedded posts from Facebook or Instagram, web fonts provided by external sources, YouTube embeds, Google Maps, and more.

 

How do I get my website to be visible in China?

Now you know what not to do, there are some keys to success with website visibility in China. The checklist is:

  1. Have China-friendly code
  2. Have a mobile-friendly site
  3. Remove any content China may not approve of
  4. Host your website in China or Hong Kong
  5. Optimise for Chinese search engines
  6. Keep monitoring and testing your site

Let’s walk through each of these.

 

China-friendly web design and code

As we learned above, many common website elements in the west are blocked in China. So that means having a complete review and clear out of anything that might be blocked in China. We recommend using a Chinese website developer with experience in this space, but if your website budget is smaller, we are also happy to let you know that WordPress sites are a great way to create a DIY website that will be visible in China. Just watch out for all the extra plugins and add-ons – avoid Google Analytics and make sure your design theme will be China-friendly and not automatically add in extra elements.

Of course, you don’t want to compromise your Western website by having to remove your social feeds, YouTube embeds, and tracking. Instead, we suggest actually separating your English and Chinese websites and having them only linked by a ‘translate’ button at the top of the pages. This means hosting on a subdomain or in a subfolder.

 

Have a mobile-friendly site

61% of all Chinese web traffic comes from a mobile phone. In fact, for many Chinese citizens, especially in older generations, a smartphone is actually the only way they access the internet. This is why mobile-first social media apps like WeChat are so popular. This is also why many companies don’t actually have a website, but create a mobile website within WeChat. If the sound of getting a Chinese developer to create a website for you, or working around all the technical hurdles to get your website visible in China is giving you a headache, it’s worth considering if using the pre-made and already popular infrastructure of Chinese social media platforms like WeChat or Tmall (for ecommerce) is a good solution to a web presence in China.

Remove any content the Chinese Government may block

Next, make sure your content won’t get censored in China by reviewing what’s on the blocked list. This Wikipedia article is a great outline of the kinds of topics China doesn’t want its citizens to see.

 

Host your website in China or Hong Kong

Hosting your website in China is the best way to be visible and have lightning-fast load speeds. Hosting itself is easy and you can set it up affordably through Alibaba Cloud – with an English website and everything! However, to do this you will need an ICP (Internet Content Provider) Licence in China. To get one of these you will need to be a registered business in China. This is quite a difficult process requiring either joint ventures with Chinese companies, staff on the ground or significant investment in the Country.

If that’s not on the table for you, we recommend hosting in Hong Kong as the next best option that still delivers great performance/

 

Optimise for Chinese search engines

China has its own search engines, the most popular of which is Baidu. One of the biggest factors influencing your SEO performance on Baidu is having a .cn domain name. Optimising for Chinese keywords is important, and finally there are some interesting technical factors that diverge from Western SEO. These include: Having a much more flat/shallow website structure with more content on top-level pages, not using javascript, linking the home page only to next level category pages, having all pages link back to the home page, having more links to most important pages and most importantly, being very well optimised for mobile.

Mobile traffic accounts for the vast majority of traffic in China, so a mobile-first design is going to be very important.

 

Keep monitoring and testing your site

Regulations can change frequently, and content that used to be OK can be blocked. So, it’s important to test regularly to ensure your site is still loading quickly in China, and enlist the help of a Chinese web development expert if something changes.

We hope this guide has helped you improve your Chinese marketing strategy. If you need any help getting a Chinese website off the ground or launching a Chinese digital presence on social media sites like WeChat, don’t hesitate to reach out and we’ll be able to connect you with some great developers who can help you.