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WeChat eyes search business to rival Baidu

Photo: Reuters 

WeChat, the highly popular mobile messaging app owned by China's leading Internet giant Tencent, recently added a new search function in an update, which enables users to find relevant content by typing keywords.

Different from Baidu, the country's dominant search engine which entails aggregating everything published on the Internet, WeChat's new search function only allows users to find information, articles and music published and shared by individual users and subscription accounts within the walls of the application, and tapping on links of any search results always keeps users within the app's built-in browser.

However, some industry experts deemed that Tencent would eventually equip the new WeChat search service with full web search capability through its collaboration with Sogou, the second-largest search engine in the country, and that the push into the search business would bring more traffic to WeChat and enhance engagement with more users.

Over the past several years, WeChat, which had more than 880 million monthly active users in 2016, has replaced mobile phone's text messaging function as the main messaging tool, and has developed into a key mobile platform for traditional news organizations, online news providers and individuals to publish and share information. Featuring a large user base, WeChat has gained direct access to plenty of data that could be used to build a powerful search engine.

Thomas Graziani, founder of WalktheChat, a WeChat marketing consultancy, predicted that people were likely to search more content within WeChat amid its increasing popularity that would give the application access to more data.

According to statistics released by China Channel, 50 percent of WeChat users spend more than 90 minutes every day on the application.

In order to make its search function more powerful, WeChat last month announced the establishment of a search application department, which focuses on the application's search business, reading recommendation engine, artificial intelligence technology development and application as well as data platform building. The move followed the launch of WeChat Index in March on WeChat, an equivalent of Google Trends, which allows users to track the dynamic change of keywords in 7 days, 30 days and 90 days, based on the large data analysis. Tencent's two rivals Baidu and Alibaba Group have also introduced similar index tools before. Last year, Tencent bought a 45 percent stake in Sogou in the hope of using the latter's potentially valuable data and technology to develop its search business.

However, WeChat's new search function is in its infancy as it is still a "walled garden" approach to search. In an interview with the Financial Times, Mark Natkin of Marbridge Consulting, a technology research company, described WeChat's new search service as a "first step", saying that "WeChat has done a good job of adding new functionalities, with each new increment sufficiently congruent, so that it makes sense to users. They keep expanding the core."

Also, the introduction of WeChat's new search function comes as Baidu has reported slowing revenue growth and declining operating profits, with its reputation being badly damaged by its notorious paid search listing system, under which the more money advertisers pay to the search engine, the more easily their information can be found on the top of the search listing.

The money-oriented paid search listing system has raised public fears over the credibility of information found on Baidu's search engine, especially after the death of a young university student last year who tried an experimental cancer therapy he found through his Baidu web search.

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