Case Study: Launching a Marketing Website on the Chinese Mainland
Learn how Studio Hyperset helped a global business intelligence company launch its marketing site on the Chinese mainland.
Challenge: “How do I launch a Chinese website?”
Seerene is a global business intelligence firm whose platform helps organizations monitor their engineering capacity and software codebases. In the first and second quarters of 2017, Studio Hyperset helped Seerene build a new trilingual marketing website to support its customer acquisition efforts in the US, Germany, and Hong Kong.
Not long after launch, Seerene decided it wanted to target potential customers on the Chinese mainland as well. However, because of the “Great Firewall” (GFW) and the fact that the Chinese mainland has some of the slowest average broadband connection speeds in the world, we struggled to serve the existing site there with any sort of reliability. Unlike the thousands of sites that Chinese authorities actively block, Seerene’s site contains no subversive content, eCommerce elements, or user-registration mechanisms. Nevertheless, because it’s hosted in an American data center and deployed via a content delivery network (CDN) with points of presence (PoP) outside the Chinese mainland, prospective customers in places like Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing routinely experienced both performance issues and incidental GFW blockage when trying to visit seerene.com
To serve Seerene’s website to visitors on the Chinese mainland in a reliable way, we knew we needed to host it in a data center located there. But we soon discovered that the political and technological regulations China imposes on its mainland network make launching even a basic marketing website challenging. Doing so involves a number of steps that are unnecessary most everywhere else in the world.
A basic Google search for “how to launch a Chinese website” or “how do I launch a Chinese website” will return a good number of helpful resources that summarize the steps involved.
“, how do I launch a Chinese website?”
When building a plan for Seerene, we consulted these kinds of resources as well as several members of our professional network who have experience working in China. While this expertise was enormously helpful, our team couldn’t help but feel the process we inherited was, for the most part, poorly documented and needlessly confusing. As such, while there’s certainly no shortage of “how to’s” concerned with launching websites on the Chinese mainland, we hope the solution we outline below is the clearest and most comprehensive of the lot.
Solution: How to Launch a Chinese Website
The steps and best-practices associated with launching a website on the Chinese mainland fall into six categories. While most of the items in the following checklist aren’t strictly contingent on the others, we’ve nevertheless tried to organize it linearly. That is, if organizations start at the top of the checklist and work their way to the bottom, they should find the process runs as smoothly as possible.
Step One: Infrastructure
First, you’ll want to set up a hosting account with a company that has data centers and CDN PoP’s on the Chinese mainland. In Seerene’s case, we use Alibaba Cloud’s ChinaConnect service and serve the site via a public IP address. (You’ll find more information about URL options below.)
Update: In early 2019, Seerene shut down its mainland Chinese website. You can find a new proof of concept we built based on the methods outlined in this case study here.
Step Two: Administration
After setting up an account, your Chinese host will probably ask you to complete a “real-name verification” process. This involves little more than sharing your business entity’s incorporation information with your host. Unlike registering a .cn domain (which requires a mainland China-based business entity), this information can be from anywhere in the world. (In our case, we provided Alibaba Cloud with Seerene’s American incorporation information.) If you’re interested in learning more about this step, Alibaba outlines its real-name verification process here.
Set Up a Chinese Business Entity (Optional)
If you want to serve your site using a top-level domain (TLD) such as “yourdomain.com” or “yourdomain.cn” or a subdomain such as “chinasite.yourdomain.com,” you’ll need to create a legal entity for your business on the Chinese mainland. This would be the Chinese equivalent of a US incorporation or German “GmbH.” (Unfortunately, Hong Kong legal entities don’t count.) A Google search for “set up a Chinese business entity” or “incorporate in China” will uncover a number of vendors who can help with this process as well as some DIY “how to” articles.
In our case, we did not complete this step. As we mention above, Seerene serves its mainland China site from a public IP address provided by the host. As an experiment, we added a china.seerene.com A record to seerene.com’s DNS zone file. However, since Seerene doesn’t have a mainland Chinese business entity or an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license (see the next step), we saw the following note from the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) when we tried loading the site using the subdomain.
We also found that, as long as the A record was in place, the public IP wouldn’t resolve on mainland China.
Apply for an ICP License (Optional)
Once you’ve set up a business entity on the Chinese mainland, you’ll need to apply for an ICP license. The application and filing process is self-service, but the system is only available in Chinese. If this presents an insurmountable challenge for your organization, Alibaba offers an ICP acquisition service.
Register a .cn TLD (Optional)
Registering a .cn top-level domain (TLD) is optional, and doing so requires the registrant to have Chinese citizenship or a mainland Chinese business entity. Assuming you’ve registered a Chinese business entity and filed an ICP, you could just as well serve your China-based site from any valid TLD or subdomain (or, as we did, public IP address). However, some organizations may want to use a .cn TLD for branding reasons. If you’re interested in registering a .cn domain, a Google search will reveal a host of vendors.
If you do use a TLD or subdomain to serve your China-based website, Thomas Graziani wisely suggests having your DNS resolve inside China. If you registered your domain and/or manage your domain’s DNS elsewhere in the world, requests for your domain will need to constantly enter and exit the Chinese national network. This will slow your mainland site speed considerably. To get around this, either register you domain with a Chinese registry like DNSPod or use a cloud DNS service like Alibaba Cloud DNS, DNS.com, or Amazon Route 53.
Step Three: Marketing
Adjust your site’s marketing strategy so it targets a Chinese audience. Several of the resources listed above offer helpful tips about the (very different) things Chinese and Western audiences expect from websites.
Step Four: Content
It can be very challenging to conduct site-level eCommerce on the Chinese mainland. First, one needs to support local payment methods, which aren’t widely used outside China. Second, one needs a Chinese bank account to settle transactions. Then, once funds hit that account, the seller needs to move its revenue off the Chinese mainland into a foreign bank account.
Luckily, Stripe offers both WeChat Pay and Alipay integrations. Using Stripe’s Source API object, eCommerce vendors outside the Chinese mainland can check off all three challenges above. Mainland Chinese customers can purchase goods and services using their preferred, local payment method. Then, once the transaction is complete, the international vendor has immediate access to funds in his/her Stripe account.
See this integration in action here. (Warning, transactions are live on this page. If you have a WeChat Pay or Alipay account, you will be charged for the transaction.)
Note, you’ll need a security certificate (SSL) to conduct live transactions on your site via Stripe. If you’re using a domain or subdomain, any SSL will do. If you’re using Alibaba Cloud’s ChinaConnect service, you can buy and/or install using their platform. If you’re using a public IP address, your certificate options are more limited. Alibaba sells Entrust OV and EV SSL certificates. You’ll need the OV version to secure a public IP. Other options include GlobalSign’s Organization SSL and Comodo InstantSSL Premium. A Google search for “buy ov ssl” will reveal other vendors.
Translate all site copy and SEO resources/meta tags into Mandarin using Simplified Chinese characters. Google Translate can help create a first draft. However, before launching your site, have a native speaker and/or localization professional review the translated copy to ensure it communicates clearly and reads comfortably.
Localize Social Media
Since the MIIT blocks so many popular Western social media sites, you’ll want to review this list of sites that are blocked in China and remove any outbound links, embeds, and other third-party features associated with blocked sites. If you’re focused on cultivating connections with a mainland Chinese audience, you can set up Chinese social media accounts and replace your Western links and embeds with their Chinese equivalents: Facebook > RenRen, Twitter > Weibo, YouTube > Youku Tudou, &c.
Remove Non-Chinese Links
You’ll want to remove any outbound links to non-Chinese sites from your mainland site. Even if a Western site isn’t explicitly blocked, your mainland Chinese audience will often see performance issues and loading errors when trying to link out to sites based elsewhere in the world.
Scan Site for Sensitive Content
Jason Ng has identified nearly 10,000 keywords that Chinese government considers sensitive. If your site contains any of these keywords or other kinds of sensitive content — eg., offensive comments, political content, gambling, pornography — it’s more likely to be blocked. Before launching your site on a Chinese server, you’ll want to review it thoroughly and ensure it doesn’t contain this sort of content.
Step Five: Web Development (Launch Prep)
Whether your site is hosted in Beijing or Baltimore, the same optimization best-practices apply. Make sure your images are less than 50k, that you’ve minified your code, and that you use any and all available caching mechanisms. The mainland’s slow average connection speeds simply mean these optimization best-practices are doubly important for Chinese websites.
While it’s difficult to speed test Chinese websites when you aren’t physically on the mainland, resources like WebPagetest, Pingdom’s website speed test tool, and Chrome’s developer tools can help identify laggy scripts, oversized images, and hanging third-party integrations. Address these before pushing your mainland China site live.
To ensure Seerene’s Chinese website loads as quickly as possible (and that it remains as secure as possible), we created a static version of their global WordPress-based marketing site and launched that on Alibaba. The host would have supported a traditional, SQL-driven WP install, and this might be necessary for content-driven, magazine-style sites and enterprise sites that have an active blogging strategy. However, if your organization can make-do with a static site for its mainland Chinese audience, you’ll improve your page load time and harden your site’s security profile. Since sensitive content is less likely to join the site as a result of casual page edits or commenting and blogging activity, a static site can also help minimize your long-term chances of being blocked by the GFW.
Step Six: Web Development (Post Launch)
After you deploy your site on your Chinese server, you’ll want to test site forms, chat applications, and any other third-party integrations to ensure they’re working normally. Moreover, you’ll want to review these regularly to ensure they haven’t suddenly stopped working. Marketing automation tools, data tracking solutions, custom fonts and icon sets, embedded maps and videos, API integrations — these can put upward pressure on site load time and, if the connection is ultimately blocked, make your site render incorrectly or prevent it from loading altogether.
Again, if you aren’t located on the mainland or don’t have contacts there, it can be challenging to test a website from a Chinese user’s perspective. Doing so would allow you to identify and remove any problematic integrations. However, while they generally will not help you identify the root causes of laggy mainland load times, this article lists a few resources that will allow you to test your site’s mainland load speed. Like their Google equivalents, Baidu Webmaster Tools and Analytics should also help you identify any mainland performance issues.
Benefits of Launching a Chinese Website
- localized, reliable access to 730 million+ internet users in mainland China (or ~10% of the earth’s population)