Korea Technology Review2009.03.30 23:21


A giant Google logo was spotted over and over again roaming around universities and shopping malls in Korea last summer. The white double-decker, wrapped in the emblem of the global search king, was Google's latest foray into the broadband capital of the world, an unusual move for the Mountain View, California company that had conventionally relied on buzz and word of mouth for promoting its services. 

The potentially million-dollar marketing blitz that Google has never done anywhere but in Korea shows how much stake it puts on the world's 10th largest economy in its global expansion strategy. Despite this extraordinary effort, however, Google's share in the Korean search market measured by the total number of daily queries remains at a meager 3 percent, while Naver, its Korean archrival, attracts a whopping 70 percent of total search-related traffic, according to a recent survey. 

Google's dismal performance in Korea is all the more perplexing because it has never failed to conquer any market it has entered -- in most of the major markets outside its familiar Anglophone stronghold, Google's unparalleled technology has almost always guaranteed it the crown of the local search king, according to the spokesperson of Google Korea. 

A prevalent theory in Korean dotcom circles is that Google failed to impress demanding Korean customers with its lousy service. This is at least what Naver and other major local portals want Koreans to believe. 

Choi Mi Jung, who leads Naver's "Knowledge Man" service, a Wikipedia-like online encyclopedia built by the spontaneous participation of Netizens, scoffs at the sloppy interface and unfriendly way Google's Korean site presents its search results. "It is how meticulously their service was designed that made the difference," she says. 

However, the real reason behind Google's difficult path in Korea is that its highly praised search technology was rendered practically useless in the Korean language sphere when major portals decided to block Google search robots from crawling around the content they hold, industry observers universally note. 

Kim Joong Tae, an online columnist who writes for IT SpotNews, says that he dug up "robots.txt" from all of the top three portals. "The code, designed to prevent unwanted assaults on privacy by search bots, was never misused this extensively anywhere else to block archiving of the entire databases that portals hold," Kim says. Naver's Knowledge Man alone boasts over 37 millions questions and answers, but Google was never able to archive this massive database and show them to its Korean users. 

Empas, a midsize Korean portal that nevertheless stood up to Naver and Daum by archiving their databases, named its search service "Open Search" -- a tautology since search by nature relies on the "open" architecture of the Net, according to the consensus of the international dotcom community. Is it a pure coincidence that Empas formed an alliance with Google in developing its "Open Search"? 

How things have developed in this way is a long story. Back in 1997, when most of the Korean portals were launched, the total number of websites that existed in the Korean language sphere was barely over five thousand. For the Korean portals that were desperate to entice early Internet users, simply archiving the puny number of Web sites did not make any sense. The popular content providers at the time were news sites operated by the familiar names in mainstream media. 

Following the path of AOL that worked so well during the early days of dial-up connectivity, Korean websites decided to build their own "walled gardens" on the net, where users would create content themselves or copy and paste other content they found elsewhere. This strategy worked well for them. 

First, Daum introduced "cyber cafe," where online hobby groups, class reunions and various other discussion groups would generate tons of content by themselves. CyWorld came up with a personal homepage service festooned with lots of bells and whistles that allow users to socialize with others at a much faster pace than they otherwise could. 

Recently, Naver introduced Knowledge Man and blogs to users, giving them a place to play with their intelligent online peers. Even the news service was simply a tool to stimulate extended discussion, hence generating huge amounts of user-created content. One online survey found that Daum earned near 40 percent of its traffic from the user-created content, rather than the paid-for content. Finally, Internet-size fences were built up around the content reservoirs they accumulated over time in the form of search bot blockers. 

To be fair, the Korean portals should be given credit for realizing the vision of Web 2.0 for Koreans well before anyone in Silicon Valley started such discussions seriously. By simplifying the web publishing process with more standardized content creation tools such as online cafes, blogs and mini-homepages, the portals popularized the web experience for many Koreans, advancing the market to a maturity far earlier than in any other country. 

The caveat of this approach is, while putting more stress on users' content generation than on archiving the web, it ignored the enormous amount of useful content lurking outside the Korean language sphere. Kim of IT SpotNews warns that while Korean portals were gloating over the domestic success they achieved with the walled-garden strategy, they lagged behind Google in the development of more sophisticated search technology. 

A vice president of a major Korean portal observes that the unprecedented early maturation of the Korean web sphere drove the general Internet culture in a grossly entertainment-oriented direction. 

"With so many juveniles and even kindergarten-age children surfing the web," he laments, "Koreans would not be able to see in their web space the level of intelligence and sophistication that is easily found, for example, in Wikipedia." 

Already, Korean "power users" who can surf English language sites without much difficulty complain that Korean portals cannot compete with Google at all in the league of more advanced search games. University students looking for in-depth information for their research papers usually find far more useful content written in English from Google than Naver and Daum can do in their combined searches. 

As an increasing number of younger Koreans are getting used to the English language and starting to command a fair level of proficiency, they will realize that a bigger and more interesting world does exist outside the horizon of the Korean language sphere. If that scenario is ever realized, that will be the judgment day for those Korean portals that have basked in their protracted complacency. 

Meanwhile, Google's white double-decker will have to keep crawling around the streets of Korea looking for customers, while the legs of its search bots remain tied to its parking lot.
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