SHANGHAI Google is reloading its guns in China to focus on display advertisements and the booming export sector a year after a blowout with Beijing over censorship and hacking all but ensured its demise in the country.
The road to recovery will certainly be a bumpy one, but the Internet giant looks to have enough in place to rebuild its presence in the world's biggest Internet market with more than 400 million users.
"Do I think they can do it? Yes, the market is still growing very fast, a small piece of the big pie is still a big piece," said T.R. Harrington, chief executive of search marketing consultancy Darwin Marketing.
China's search market was worth 11 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) in 2010 and is expected to grow an average of 50 percent each year over the next four years, according to iResearch.
While Google's share in China's search arena is set to further decline for a few more years, the sheer size and the rampant pace of growth of the overall market should provide it with enough buffer for now.
Under the new game plan, Google is targeting Chinese firms to advertise on its dominant overseas search market, a business which already constitutes about half of its China revenues, according to Harrington.
Google is betting that rapidly-growing Chinese exporters, keen to reach out to overseas customers, will make use of the company's global reach through its international search sites.
Since last year, the firm restructured its operation to focus on getting small and medium Chinese businesses to advertise on its platform.
"We have many new export products being rolled out which will be more helpful for the local SMEs," a Beijing-based Google spokesman said.
Google told Reuters it will increase its sales staff in China this year to boost its advertising business targeted at the rapidly-growing export sector.
ANDROID AND DISPLAY ADS
Last January, Google announced it may withdraw from China after a serious hacking episode and that it was no longer willing to self-censor searches. Months of incrimination between the search firm and China followed, resulting in a diminished Google China presence.
Google's search engine market share fell to around 26 percent last year from around 30 percent in 2009 due to the company's partial pullout from China, while rival Baidu increased its stake to 73 percent around 69 percent.
Google is likely to give up more ground in 2011.
"Google's China market share won't return to the level seen before the incident, even though their revenue in China is increasing, the rate is much slower," said Li Zhi, a Beijing-based analyst with Analysys International.
Its mobile operation system Android, seen as Google's bright spot in China, is now coming under threat from rivals Baidu and Tencent.
Local websites have reported that Baidu, China's top search engine, is set to create its own mobile operating system and Tencent already bundles it highly popular QQ services with mobile phones.
Google's popular Maps product is also under siege as China's new regulations require online map providers to acquire a license. Google said it is still examining the impact of those new rules.
While weakness in such products will dent its branding in China, it is unlikely to directly hit its revenue stream, which is still dominated by its search business.
Investors have priced in Google's struggles in the China market and are now focusing on other areas of growth. In 2010, Google shares fell 5 percent, underperforming the Nasdaq.
"People realized that China is not that important to Google today and that there are other things that are important to Google today, such as display adverting, mobile advertising," said Walter Price, a portfolio manager with RCM Capital Management which owns Google shares.
Brand advertising, of which display advertising is a component, made up 69 percent of China's online advertising market in 2010 and is set to remain a dominant destination of advertising spend to 2014, iResearch said.
"Display advertising is a big focus for Google globally and particularly in China, where it's already a big industry," John Liu, Google's VP of sales in Greater China, said in an email to Reuters.
Display advertisements do well in China as Chinese netizens cluttered webpages with many visual and audio stimuli whereas Westerners prefer neater more organized website designs.
(Additional reporting by Alexei Oreskovic in San Francisco and Terril Jones in Beijing; Editing by Kazunori Takada and Anshuman Daga)