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  1. 2009.11.26 Never Underestimate the Power of Local Knowledge (88)
Korea Technology Review2009. 11. 26. 16:17

Invited to a Korean dinner table? Be prepared for an extravaganza of 'banchan,' the Korean side dishes cooked from such varying food sources as vegetables, herbs, fruits, beans, meats and fishes. Sometimes Korean dinner tables will even include a couple of desserts from the very start of the dining. To many western visitors accustomed to the sequential serving of dishes, the scores of banchans accompanying a bowl of rice and soup is baffling to say the least. 

How do you eat a Korean dinner? There is no culinary road map here for you as  in the western dining—appetizer followed by entrées, finished with desserts.  The answer is; it is pretty much up to you how you eat them. You first size up scores of banchans, then decide yourself how you will sample them, either crisscrossing the table randomly or spiraling them around clockwise or counter-clockwise. That is exactly how Koreans surf top online portals everyday.

Naver, Daum and other Korean portals usually display dozens, sometimes hundreds of menu links on their front page. After you click into a link, the subsequent page will always display a side menu bar, nudging you ever-so-subtly to click more number of pages than you thought you ever would. So pervasive and insinuating their intricate site designs are, it is not uncommon to hear someone grumbling that he or she visited portals to do an online research but instead ended up reading some racy celebrity gossips, completely forgetting about the original purpose of the visit.  

To Korean online users addicted to the local portals festooned with a plethora of menu links, the spartan design of Google's front page comes as a shocking reminder how different from the rest of the world their ethnic online behaviors are.

Google's famed front page implies that its site was optimized for the sequential exploration pattern of the western users; the main search box followed by hundreds of search results, which again prompt you to click into the final pages. Nothing clutters you in the goal-oriented pursuit of sequential online search in Google. In contrast, the implicit message embedded in the design of Korean portals seems to be that you will not surf the site sequentially but spatially, just as you would scan scores of banchans on the dinner table.

No wonder Google's local share in the total search queries has remained at a meager 2.4 percent for years, despite its efforts to win over the hearts of local users since it launched the service in 2004. Google Korea stressed repeatedly that it intends to remain as a simple portal by insisting on the clean site design, hence redirecting customers to their desired online destination as quickly and efficiently as possible. Google's miserable presence in Korea shows, however, that Korean users can never leave behind the spatial surfing patterns ingrained in their brain.

Google Korea announced last week that they will integrate “Blog, People and Hot issues links on the upper menu page, with Picasa, Gmail, Textcube and other Google services occupying the lower half,” thus effectively copying the style of Naver and Daum. At the end of the day, even the mighty Google could not fight against the tenacious local culture.

The list of global online brands that have failed to win over the local audience by insisting on their original site design optimized for the western users is long.  MySpace heard their death knell last February and Linden Lab could not renew the contract for Second Life with the Korean partner, ending their two year experiment in Seoul. 

Barunson Games, Linden Lab's business partner responsible for localizing the service for Korean market announced on November 13 that they are giving up Second Life Korea, citing that the service has failed to attract the interest of Korean users. 

Korea, along with Japan, has been notoriously difficult market to break into for many global online service companies, as their local markets remain heavily guarded by the home-grown online powerhouses. It is doubtful, however, if those western online brands did enough to understand and assimilate into the unique local cultures.  

In the case of Second Life, Koreans have already been enjoying their own virtual realities in the form of Lineage and other online games. The target market of Second Life Korea has largely overlapped with those online gamers--the male online users in their 20's to 30's.For those groups basking in their own brand of virtual space, Linden Lab might have had a better chance in Seoul if they redesigned Second Life as an interactive game space, where users are allowed to play with some elements more attuned to the real-life narratives. What about Monopoly reincarnated as an massively distributed online games?

Linden Lab has instead slapped in their face another brutal virtual reality, whereas Korean gamers were searching for an escape from the harsh reality of daily life, as J.C. Herz noted in her Wired article five years ago.

Looking back, the default setting of Second Life's party style virtual stages, where users are roaming around looking for a potential date, friend or partner, looked and felt quite strange to many Koreans from the very start. If you really want to get connected with new friends here, you and other attendees would usually sit around the dinner table and drink soju together for hours. That is how you make new friends in Seoul.  

My advice to some prospective western online brands considering an entrance to Korea: never underestimate the power of local knowledge. And try to learn the joy of sampling banchans—spatially.

Posted by PSB

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