SEO in Korea – how Naver built a closed Internet

Posted: June 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

It is easy to assume that the world wide web was always destined to be a cornucopia of different websites, where a few big beasts (Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google) mingle with a long tail of millions of independents.

In fact, there was no guarantee that it would end up that way. And in at least one country, it didn’t.

Below is what most people’s route into the web looks like in Korea, where 70% of searches are performed on the social/content/search/gaming monolith Naver. The spot I have highlighted in pink is where the natural search results begin. All the other links go to sites owned by Naver, or some kind of paid result.

Naver search results

The pink bit is natural search

Why would anyone use this terrible search engine?

My initial reaction was ‘This is bonkers! How can they prefer this to a real search engine?’ But that’s not really fair. This is how users enter the web in Korea, so businesses and individuals optimise their content for Naver’s search rather than Google’s. And that means creating everything on Naver’s sprawling network of sites (social networks, dictionaries, Q & A sites, and so on). They use Naver search, because the web in Korea is built on Naver, and they don’t object to it because it provides the best results. In the same way, we don’t object to Google providing location results on Google Maps, because Google Maps consistently has the best answer to our queries.

Imagine if Google hadn’t arrived until 2004, and in the meantime Yahoo had launched a brilliant social network. Yahoo would have thus fulfilled its plan to be the ultimate ‘portal’, combining personalised social results with paid search. It would produce something just like Naver, which reluctantly guides traffic to external websites, and enthusiastically points users towards its own properties.

Does it matter?

In many ways, this is the future that Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon want to build for us – where personalised search results keep users inside a walled garden, in which they never have to interact with pages hosted by another company. The debate about the importance of an ‘open internet’ rages on (there’s a good summary on Gizmodo), but the dominance of Naver doesn’t appear to have done Korea’s vibrant online culture any harm – Korea is arguably the most digitally connected country in the world.

Still, the lack of plurality does lead to some curious side effects. Koreans have had to learn to misuse their closed digital platforms in productive ways. When teenagers use a boyband forum to organise ten-thousand-strong protests it’s a sign that they are having to hack the platforms they have, rather than  being delivered the platforms they want.


How do I get my business to appear on Naver searches?

It shouldn’t be too hard: if you’re doing your SEO properly, your search strategy is already a content strategy. The only difference in Korea is that putting brilliant content on your website won’t get you anywhere near the top of those Naver listings.  You need to transfer all that activity onto a ‘Naver Cafe’ – and you need to get people in your target audience to connect to your group. It’s not really any different to running a Facebook page, and the effective content is a similar kind: videos, photos, questions.

The big problem, is that because so few Korean websites are Google optimised, there isn’t enough data out there for Google Translate. How is your Korean?