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Tag Archives: Korea

Naver Rules Korean Online Searches

While it is without question that Google reigns supreme over 83% of the Internet real estate when it comes to searches, there are some areas where it still ranks a far second. One of these very small regions is South Korea. Topping the search engine list in the country is a search engine called Naver.

“Naver” is a derivative of the verb “to navigate”. This is the country’s top search engine and has a 70% captured market of the searches conducted online in South Korea. The search engine was the brainchild of several former Samsung employees in 1999 and has dominated the online search market since that time.

Unlike Google’s minimalist approach to its main search page and the plain listing of the search results, Naver provides more personality as well as more color. Naver resembles Yahoo’s search engine page, with many images, banners, sections and other organic parts. This is but the surface difference between these two search engines, but there lies much more underneath it.

Matt Cutts, an Internet expert who visited South Korea to highlight to its government and press how the Internet has become a major force in society, finds Naver lacking in the proper exposure it should provide to Korean websites. The problem is that many Korean webmasters block global search engines like Google, citing security reasons. Cutts warned them against this practice, saying, “If a country turns away from the open Web, it risks turning into an island.”

This is a myopic view of what is considered an “open” Web. Many think that by not becoming part of the Google “open” web, Korean websites are not fostering free exchange of ideas and information. On the contrary, Naver’s actions have arguably become the blueprint for Google and other search engine’s successes. The following are examples of areas where Naver has been ahead of the curve:

  • Naver had unveiled on the site a functionality called “Knowledge In” back in 2002. This was eventually the inspiration for Yahoo! Answers, where online users can provide information to questions posted on the site by users
  • Naver, upon its introduction, provided options for many kinds of search results when on the site. Google had picked this up much later, introducing its Universal Search functionality onsite
  • Naver has always maintained itself to be a socially oriented search engine, a move currently being undertaken by Google from its standard web searches to Google Plus and other options
  • Some features of the current Google were taken straight out of Naver, such as Google’s highly touted “Search Plus My World”, which is very similar to Naver’s me.naver.com, implemented years ago.

To all this, Naver has issued an official statement through its Chief Executive Officer Mr. Chae. Mr. Chae said, “Naver’s forte is in aggregating useful information for popular topics, often created by the users themselves (blogs and Q&A searches), and presenting such information in a very human-friendly way. Unlike Google, Naver doesn’t rely almost entirely on the brute force performance of its search algorithm.”

In essence, Naver is the amalgamation of Yahoo!Answers, YouTube, Blogger and Google’s paid search functionality. With many options for specific search results, one can find their requirements in either the Q&A database, blog search, news search and the like.

The major difference between these two search giants is the basis of the searches. Google depends its search parameters on the English language while Naver uses the Korean language. Because of the difference in syntax between the two languages, with the Korean syntax much more specific, helps the Naver search algorithm provides more search results to the user.

The justification for the difference of results between Google and Naver for Korean sites, according to Google, is Google’s inability to crawl and index Korean websites. This is where the Korean privacy issues start to limit Google’s webcrawler indexer. On the other hand, Naver understands the Korean mindset regarding the searches, limiting the indexing on its own.

This difference is very much seen in the search results themselves. Naver, with a smaller market, clearly would provide search results of lower quantity but higher quality. On the other hand, Google, with its vaunted search algorithm, just lists out results without regard to quantity. Furthermore, Naver, with its lower indexing results, provides listings for paid advertisements, directory submissions, user generated content, Web 2.0 content among others.

Because of the staggering differences between Naver and Google and because of the status of Korea as one of the few completely connected communities online, Google seems determined to dominate this market. Their first move is to index as much Korean content as they can, and beyond that, they are pressuring the Korean online community to optimize Google’s way, with the “don’t be an island” routine.

Unfortunately, even the market they are targeting is pretty much set on Naver as its main search engine. The Korean Internet community is dominated by Naver, much to the chagrin of Google. This has a self-limiting effect, though, especially to those paid advertisers on Naver. Because Naver is designed for a market that is for Koreans by Koreans, it is limited to the South Korean market. Trying to break into the Top ten in Google involves much time and effort, with little chance of success, something that Koreans are not too inclined to do.

There is also a discipline required to become one of the top search results even in a specific target market search engine such as Naver. In Google, there is a system called Search Engine Optimization. This does not hold true for Naver, as the site has its own specific algorithm for specific search functionalities. Naver utilizes a mixture of pay per click and pay per time advertising in search functionality for its search functions such as Knowledge In and its other multi-media blogs, news sites, image and video searches.

Ultimately, only time will tell if Google can break into the most connected geographical area in the world. But as long as the Korean netizens remain happy with Naver, it’s going to be a tough sell.

The South Korean Internet Anomaly

One of the most frustrating things about living in South Korea is using Korean websites. Aside from hideous, cluttered design that is difficult to navigate (OK, I’ll admit that’s subjective, but it makes me feel better to vent my frustration), most websites simply don’t work unless you view them in Internet Explorer.

Many websites require the installation of several active x controls specific to that website just to log in, and other websites simply do not display properly in Chrome or Firefox, rendering their content unreadable. This in turn causes the Korean population to continue to use Internet Explorer, since experimenting with other options hinders them in their daily lives, which in turn perpetuates the problem by allowing developers to continue to make websites the way they always have.

How did this trend begin?

Since most websites in the US don’t have a Korean language option, copy-cat companies have sprung up in Korea offering most major web-services to the Korean population. The end result is that Korean people tend to use only Korean websites and have little concept of what is standard in the western web, which has created this bizarre situation in which browsing the Internet in Korea is like entering a time machine  into the early 2000s in terms of web design and usability. The result: frustration.

For example, in order to log into my bank’s website, first I needed to install 4-5 active x controls with dubious names like “TouchEn Key Installer” (dear god that’s unnerving). One of the programs I was required to install seems to be a piece of antivirus software. How any website can get away with mandating its users use a specific piece of antivirus software, I have no idea. Because it’s always been the norm, and lack of other options?

Korean Search

Moveover, South Korea is one of the only wired countries in the world where Google does not have a dominate presence. Last time I checked, Google’s search engine market share was something abysmal like 2.5%. The leader? A Korean company called Naver. Now, my love for Google aside, is this necessarily a bad thing? In this case, a resounding “yes.”

In Naver, something absurd like 75% of the results are paid listings. Yes, if you find Google’s recent attempts to increase the number of ads on the page and camouflage them to look more like organic listings to be annoying, Naver is your worst nightmare: their search bot sucks at indexing the web, and most of the results you see are paying to be there. Brilliant from a business perspective, terrible for a user trying to find what they’re looking for.

And yet again, the state of the Korean Internet prevents users from switching. Years ago there was an issue with Korean websites not securing private data. As a result, Google’s bot was indexing it in their search engine, resulting in a scandal in the news. As opposed to simply protecting secure data, the solution in the Korean web design community seems to have been to block the Google spider altogether. This is even true for many Korean government websites. So yet again, if a Korean tries switching to Google, their experience suffers (not by fault of Google, but due to Korean websites themselves), and they’re likely to switch back to using what was always comfortable.

The Korean Internet: Moving Forward

As frustrating as the situation is at the moment, I’m hopeful moving forward. For one, the explosion of smartphones here means websites are going to have to change or get left behind. If their website is not viewable on the iOS and Android web browsers, users are going to resort to another service. Mobile websites are a must, and hopefully this will lead to active x controls and archaic HTML being a thing of the past. (The worst outcome here would be Korean websites requiring mobile users to install an app to view their content, which wouldn’t surprise me. That has, after all, been the status quo all this time).

The rise in mobile browsing also gives hope for Google capturing more search engine market share. Since Samsung is one of the main distributors of Android smartphones, and Google is the default search on Android devices, it gives me hope that more people will discover the benefit of un-biased, un-censored results. (Naver has been accused several times of filtering their search results). Matt Cutts even made a trip to Seoul a few months ago to speak with prominent companies and government officials about unblocking their websites so the Google spider can index their content.

And lastly, Facebook and twitter have really taken off in the past year or two. (Prior to that, Koreans used a service called Cyworld). This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a western web service has taken off in Korea, as opposed to Koreans using a copy-cat service from a Korean company. My hope is that this exposure to the western web will have ripple effects, exposing the pitfalls of using a biased search engine like Naver, as well as exposing Koreans to functional web-design and usable services. This will perhaps raise the bar for Korean websites, and maybe in time I’ll be able to access my bank’s website from my MacBook.

Or maybe I’m just being optimistic. It could be a long time before the Korean Internet catches up with the rest of the world. (It’s ironic for me to be saying that, since Korea is statistically the most wired country in the world). Only time will tell, and in the meantime, I’ll continue to mutter curses under my breath as I boot up Internet Explorer simply to order something online.