Friday, 20 June 2014

Content Marketing in China: Taking Care with Censorship

by Owain Lloyd-Williams

When considering content marketing for China, there comes an added dilemma that every writer, content marketer, journalist and just about everybody under the media umbrella needs to remember – censorship.

It is well known that China’s search engine giant Baidu operates its own highly-developed censorship system (known as the “Great Firewall”) that runs in rhythm with the requirements of the Chinese government. For content marketers, this means avoidance of sensitive topics and keywords is of high importance, and perhaps it’s of no surprise that outfits such as The Guardian, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, The New York Times and even Dropbox have experienced temporary or permanent blocking in China over the last few years.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, as through these few helpful tips on what not to do when creating content for China, you’ll be evading the glaring beam of the Chinese censors with ease.

1) The Three T’s

Tiananmen. Tibet. Taiwan. Three taboo topics that you won’t find being discussed anywhere in public in China, let alone on the internet. This also accounts for any possible reference or keywords related to these topics, and there are many. Also, last year, during the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests, the “grieving candle” emoticon was famously removed from Weibo, and this year, on the landmark 25th anniversary… well, have a read of this.

2) Prudence in Namedropping 

It perhaps goes without saying that the mentioning or referencing of any dissident or freedom of speech advocate (think Ai Weiwei or Liu Xiaobo) is a big no. Of course, it is highly unlikely that any piece of marketed content is going to reference anyone like this, so why worry? Well, it’s not just names that spark fire in the eyes of the Chinese government that suffer censorship, but also, bizarrely, names that are popular in the news at a certain time. Right now, even punching the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping will come up with censored results. With this in mind, extra care needs to be taken with political, economic or culture-focused content, as entering in a censored name or even a Chinese word that is linguistically similar to censored names may see your content flagged by Baidu.

3) Keyword Checking 

If ever in doubt when doing content creation or SEO strategy for China, one quick tip is to head to Baidu and enter your keyword into their search bar. If you see this message pop up at the top of the SERP: “根据相关法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示”, you’ll know that the term is under scrutiny from Chinese censors. In typical nothing-to-see-here fashion, the phrase translates: “In line with relevant laws, legislations and policies, some search results haven’t been displayed”. Given the fickle nature of China’s internet censors, no-one can really tell which terms are censored at any given time, and I’ve found this to be the most effective way of keeping up with Baidu’s unpredictable keyword censorship algorithm.

4) Links to Censored Sites

When it comes to link prospecting your now censorship-proof piece of content, make sure you take steps to ensure that your outreach doesn’t extend to sites that are blocked in China. Baidu SERPs won’t show these, though if you’re prospecting sites through, say Google or Yahoo, take care not to approach Chinese language sites that may be blocked in Mainland China. There are in fact quite a few Chinese language sites that have audiences with overseas Chinese or in Hong Kong or Taiwan that are blocked for reasons either stated above or otherwise. Use this neat tool to check if sites are blocked in China and ensure your content enjoys the visibility it deserves across the Chinese internet.

Successful content marketing in China requires the same TLC that any other localised campaign would, though avoiding the all-seeing eye of Baidu’s censors adds that extra bit of intrigue.

Time has shown however that China’s censors are only human as well, with the odd censorship fail occurring from time to time. There was a recent instance where someone managed to hack into a local police website and rename the bureau as the “Xinyang Criminal Syndicate”. Chinese censors are also well-known for their oftentimes comedic failure to pick up on creative use of homonyms by netizens as a means to discuss censored keywords (see below photo).

Images like this managed to escape the censors and went viral on the Chinese internet during the CCP’s 18th National Congress in 2012, a time when Chinese censors cracked down on politically-sensitive terms. In Chinese, the word for “18th National Congress”, which was censored during the time, is “Shi ba da” (十八大), which incidentally sounds a lot like “Sparta”. 

Image credits: Paolo MassaΣταύρος

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