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?
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.