The internet structure in China
The Internet structure in China is primarily aimed at the Chinese users and is also designed and optimized for them. This basic philosophy runs like a “red thread” through all Internet services and platforms in China, both from the user’s point of view and from the point of view of search engines, for example, as well as the legal framework. For example, China is surrounded by a “Greater Firewall of China” (GFW), which clearly distinguishes between content hosted in China and content hosted outside China.
The aim must therefore be to ensure that you make your company’s content available to the Chinese market in the best possible way, so that it can be used holistically, quickly and also legally securely.
In terms of the website, there are mainly 2 central factors: 1. the domain (URL) as well as 2. the hosting, i.e. where the content is physically stored and accessible. Here, domain and hosting are basically considered separately from each other, just like, for example, the company name and address of your company: anyone can register a .cn domain, for example, and link to it as they wish – but only Chinese companies are also allowed to host in China!
The general conditions, e.g. on the part of the Chinese government or Baidu, are constantly changing, which is why a lot of content on the Internet on the subject of domains and hosting in China is outdated or now simply wrong. In the following, we therefore show some background information in order to be able to better point out the challenges and solution options.
Domain-management for China
Domain, DNS and IP
Your website content is hosted on a server, this is accessible via an IP address (Internet protocol, e.g. “192.168.0.1.”). Since it is difficult to remember these number combinations, it is made accessible as plain text via a domain (“Internet address” such as www.EVIOM.com). To do this, the domain name is linked to the IP address via the central DNS system (Domain Name System): Domain > DNS > IP
Structure of a domain
A domain builds up from right to left. “www.eviom.com”, for example, is made up of the top-level domain (TLD), here a “com” for “commercial”, in the middle the second-level domain “eviom” and the third-level domain or subdomain “www” for world-wide-web. Beside the generic TLDs (com, org, net, …) there are above all also the ccTLD (country-code), thus the country domains such as .de (Germany), .us (USA) and .cn (China), whose administration stands in the sovereignty of the countries and can have therefore completely different restrictions. In combination with e.g. an https protocol, this results in a complete URL like https://www.name.tld.
A URL like “com.cn” is therefore nothing more than a subdomain under the domain “com.cn”, i.e. someone has registered the address “com” under the .cn TLD and assigns subdomains under this, so this solution is not suitable for China and SEO in general!
Domain structures of international companies
International companies usually try to create a uniform domain or URL structure globally. There are different approaches to this:
- country.domain.com > in this case, the country-specific content is located in a subdomain under an overall .com domain (a well-known example here is also Wikipedia with URLs like “https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volksrepublik_China”).
- www.domain.com/land > in this case, the country-specific content is located in a subfolder of the .com domain.
- domain.com/?lang=CN > we do not recommend using such URL language parameters, especially since they are difficult to interpret for search engines like Baidu
In all examples, Chinese content is not provided in a dedicated way, but is part of a larger structure within a .com domain. If you do not have a dedicated China domain available, we recommend using a subdomain instead of a subfolder.
Domain strategies for China
.cn is the country code TLD of China and clearly indicates to both users and search engines, for example, that content for Chinese is provided here. Alternatively, a .com domain can also be used for China, e.g. Baidu itself can be reached under a .com domain. In our experience, it makes no difference from an SEO point of view whether you use a .cn or a .com domain – from a user point of view, we recommend a .cn domain.
In any case, it is recommended to use a dedicated domain for your Chinese content instead of a subdomain or subfolders for China which show that the Chinese content is always only part of a broader website. In contrast to Google, the leading search engine Baidu, which specializes in China, for example, always covers the entire domain and cannot be restricted to individual areas, e.g. by displaying a hreflang tag, which can be used to signal language variants to Google.
A .cn domain can currently be registered by any company – you do not need a branch office (local business registration) in China! Also note that – depending on the IT structure and software/CMS of your company – the content of a subdomain can also be hosted on another server, e.g. in China.
Hosting in China
Accessibility and performance / user-experience
As described earlier, China is technically surrounded by the Greater Firewall of China, which controls data traffic to and from China. This results in two consequences:
- Blocked Internet services – some Google services such as the Google search engine and YouTube, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc., are blocked. – but also content on topics such as gambling are simply blocked; also avoid features such as sharing functions to blocked social services if possible.
- Slow performance – all content not hosted in China is significantly slower to read, both for users and search engines.
Therefore, check whether your current content is accessible from China at all and, if so, what the speed is. Also keep in mind that China is a huge country with a very heterogeneous IT landscape and a very high mobile usage. While connections from the east coast (Shanghai, etc.), for example, can be very good, connections in the hinterland may be significantly worse.
Often, the connection of content not hosted in China is so poor (slow) that the Chinese user does not experience a satisfactory user experience and cancels the call for further pages. This is especially the case in eCommerce, where users expect a fast user experience – but also, for example, when downloading more extensive data such as company brochures.
Also, the leading search engine Baidu will give the slow speed a strong malus in indexing your website, making search engine optimization with good keyword rankings in Baidu much more difficult. Use Baidu Webmaster Tools here to further improve your website performance.
Hosting solutions for China
For optimal user experience, your website content must be hosted in China. However, before you can host in China, you must apply for an Internet Content Provider (ICP) Filing for your website with the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). All websites hosted in China have such an ICP Filing and must also display this in the footer at the bottom of the website. Websites with a paid connection even need a commercial ICP license.
However, this ICP filling can only be applied for by companies with a business license and headquarters in China! A purely Western company cannot use it to host in China itself.
After acquiring an ICP filling, you are allowed to host in China. There are two approaches to this, which can ideally be combined if necessary:
- CDN – Content Delivery Networks that make your content available at different hosting locations in China; this reduces the distance and increases the access speed between user and the next available hosting location. This solution is especially suitable for static content that does not update so often and can therefore be cached and reduce server load and thus costs.
- (Cloud) server – this real-time full access to your own server can also provide extensive, dynamic content, e.g. in eCommerce, with high performance. However, direct access increases server requirements and costs.
There are both purely Chinese CDN/hosting providers such as Alibaby, Baidu or ChinaCache, but also global providers such as Amazon Web Services or Akamai, which also offer specific hosting services for China and can be integrated into a global hosting strategy.
Alternative hosting solutions for non-Chinese companies
Countries like Hong Kong or Singapore are not inside the Chinese Firewall, but they are geographically much closer than Europe or the US, have a strong IT infrastructure with high speeds and hosting there is very easy for Western companies.
- Subdomains and Subfolders
If you don’t have a dedicated domain and hosting for China, you can also use subdomains (cn.name.com) and subfolders (name.com/cn) within your existing domain structure for the Chinese content, although we recommend subdomains based on our experience.
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