Baidu has been China’s king of search since Google pulled out of the country in 2010. Now it’s facing a new challenger, TikTok creator ByteDance, which unveiled a new search engine on Monday.

But the challenge for ByteDance might not be Baidu. A bigger problem might be that people in China don’t seem to care that much about online search at all.

ByteDance, the creator of China’s biggest news aggregator Toutiao and the global short video sensation TikTok, now has a search engine named Toutiao Search. Bloomberg called it “the most serious threat yet” to Baidu, which has 76% market share in China, according to Statcounter. Despite years of complaints from users, Baidu hasn’t had much competition.

While some users are applauding new competition, others are skeptical about whether a new player will make a difference for users. This is in part because of the unique experience of searching online in China.

Toutiao Search has not added a news feed like Baidu and Google’s mobile app. (Picture: Toutiao and Baidu)

Outside of China, there is no doubt that Google is unchallenged when it comes to search. The company controls 92% of the global search engine market. Even on mobile, people often first turn to Google when they need information -- news stories, navigation and even restaurant reviews (over which Google was sued). 

Things are quite different in China, where users are much less likely to rely on search. 

WeChat, for example, has become a primary news source for internet users in China, just as Facebook has outside China. But the massive amount of content produced by the more than 10 million content creators on the platform is inaccessible through search engines. The articles only exist on WeChat. 

Combined with the trove of WeChat mini-programs offering a wide variety of services and WeChat’s efforts to improve the in-app search function, some have argued that WeChat also works as a search engine.

In January, an article titled “Search engine Baidu is dead” went viral in China. The article, written by veteran journalist and media researcher Fang Kecheng, argued that Baidu had been prioritizing low-quality articles, some of them fake news, from its own content platform Baijiahao. While some platforms don’t open their content to Baidu, Fang said, Baidu is also looking to boost traffic to its own platforms. Many user comments under the article shared Fang’s view.

“That’s true,” says one WeChat user’s comment with more than 1,900 likes. “I recently loved searching on WeChat, and I feel like it’s more reliable than Baidu.”

“Now when I search for things, I need to search on Baidu, and then search again on WeChat and Weibo, and once again on Zhihu, and then half a day passed,” another user commented.

Baidu responded to Fang by saying that only 10% of all search results on Baidu are from Baijiahao.

Wei Wuhui, lecturer at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and managing partner at Skychee Ventures, takes it one step further. He argued in a blog post in April that “search engines ought to die” because China’s mobile internet has increasingly become “islanded” within different apps.

“On Baidu, you can’t get search results from WeChat public accounts,” Wei wrote. “Even indexing Weibo content is very difficult.” He added that reviews on travel booking sites and short videos on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, are also rarely found on Baidu.

All this siloed content is “shaking the cornerstone of the internet -- interconnection,” an opinion piece from state-owned Global Times said in January.

In April this year, the hashtag “using Weibo as Baidu” was trending on Weibo’s hot search rankings. Many users said it was quicker to find what they were looking for by searching on the microblogging platform.

“As in-app search capabilities become increasingly important and eventually pervasive for other mobile apps, traditional search service providers also have good opportunities as long as they can effectively expand their digital ecosystem,” Forrester analyst Charlie Dai said.

To meet the challenge of improved search on platforms like WeChat and Toutiao, traditional search engines like Baidu need to strike a balance between personalized and diverse content, Dai added.