China’s largest search engine has stern government criticism after a young man died of his cancer after he sought expensive treatment from medical provider promoted Baidu’s paid ads. This is the latest, and the most widely discussed, of a long long of controversies regarding Baidu’s business ethics in regard to which are promoted within its search results.
First before discussing this from an industry and marketing perspective, it is important to recognize the reason for the latest Baidu scandal – the death of Wei Zexi, a 21-year old student suffering a rare form of cancer called synovial sarcoma. Based on promises made by a hospital – Beijing Armed Police Corps No. 2 Hospital, promoted by Baidu for payment, and describing itself on search results as “world’s most advanced” – Wei and his family spent 30,000 RMB on treatment, that was ultimately unsuccessful.
Before his death last month, Wei published a scathing rebuke of the hospital and Baidu on the popular Q&A website Zhihu, which then went viral across other platforms nationally. However, Wei’s tragic death was not an isolated incident, as Baidu has been heavily criticised in the Chinese media previously, including national TV, CCTV.
Unlike other search engines, such as Google, Baidu does not enforce ethics regarding medical services paying for search promotion. In fact, profits from medical advertisers make up a substantive part of the business. With some sources suggesting Baidu has continued to be extremely aggressive in pursuing medical clients, despite ongoing criticism.
Interesting, as we watched the fallout from Wei’s death we noticed the some comments regarding Google. For example, on micro-blog Weibio – “If Google would come back to China, I would never use Baidu again,” and “Compared to Baidu, I have more trust in Google,” and: “Let Google come back!”
Is Google the way to deal with Baidu’s lack of ethics?
So this hints at a curious issue – why has Baidu continued to ignore crticisims from society and the government regarding ethics. The primary answer is an economic one – monopoly.
To prevent Google from becoming dominant in China, Baidu was give ‘free reign’ to become the dominant search engine in China. Like Google, Baidu became synonomous with the category, where locals say the Baidu equivalent “google it” in Chinese.
However, while China has other search engines such as Sougou and 360, Baidu can expect that this scandal will not affect its dominant market postion. However, in the context of Google being an option for local netizens, the scandal would take on a whole new significance.
Looking at this from a policy making persective, introducing Google might be the way to clean up Baidu – like introducing a new species to control a pest.
If this is a search engine football match, it feels like Baidu was given ‘a yellow’ by officials, and is looking at ‘a red’ – the ‘red’ not being expulsion from the game, but instead the prospect of competing against an equally powerful competitor.