China’s ByteDance Ltd. launched a search engine that bears a striking resemblance to Google’s clean, uncluttered home page but produces heavily sanitized results in keeping with one of the world’s most rigidly censored internet regimes.
ByteDance, the creator of popular apps including viral short video service TikTok, presents the most serious threat yet to rival Baidu Inc. Following the 2010 departure of Google from the market amid government censorship, Baidu has enjoyed a near-monopoly in internet search in China. ByteDance has yet to display sponsored products or ads in its search feed, but the results heavily prioritize content from its own Toutiao news app.
ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup according to CB Insights, has evolved from a news aggregator into a social media Goliath — challenging the likes of Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. in everything from messaging and work collaboration to video gaming. Its latest service will need to tread carefully in China, where Beijing aggressively clamps down on any content it deems undesirable. It’s already been forced to shut a number of apps in the past.
The new search service morphed from a feature within ByteDance’s core news app. With Toutiao Search, users type keywords for related news, videos and information, producing results dutifully scrubbed to comply with strict censorship. Entering the Chinese equivalent of “Hong Kong protests”, for example, yields links to pro-Beijing sources such as the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. A search for “Xi Jinping” leads to a Wikipedia-like bio page and articles by state media about the Chinese president. June 4-related searches — the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre — brought up commentaries in state-backed publications slamming the 1989 student pro-democracy protests.
A ByteDance spokeswoman declined to comment. In an earlier blogpost, the company said it’s building a general search engine that aims to create an ideal user experience “from zero to one.” The company has no plans for now to offer a mobile search app.
Baidu, meanwhile, has struggled to stay relevant in the mobile era, as users and advertisers gravitate toward smartphone apps like Toutiao and Tencent’s WeChat. A spokesman for the company declined to comment but referred to remarks last week by mobile unit general manager Ping Xiaoli, who said Baidu has successfully fended off new entrants in the past.