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Could Chinese social app disrupt search?

To some marketers in the West, China’s “Great Firewall” is seen as an obstacle, preventing brands and consumers from interacting on the platforms that the rest of the world uses. But to Chinese entrepreneurs, this isolation from Silicon Valley presented itself as an opportunity to create a different way of doing things.

Far from being created out of necessity, Chinese social networks have gone on to achieve a much wider range of things than their Western counterparts. Take WeChat, for example. Far from being a mere WhatsApp also-ran, it boasts 938 million monthly users, half of whom spend more than 90 minutes on the app.

When a consumer opens WeChat, they’re not just messaging their friends. They’re watching videos, reading blogs, following and engaging with brands, making payments, and even opening their own e-commerce stores — all without leaving the singular platform. Similarly, brands, government departments and media agencies can open accounts to engage with followers in real-time, offer discounts and QR codes, and partner with third parties to continually bring value to consumers.

This week, WeChat announced it is expanding its functionality to include a Search feature. Rather than directly taking on the Chinese search engine Baidu, WeChat’s Search is designed to complement the social experience. In addition to listing results from the web, the new button also lists mentions of search terms from the user’s friends, followed by news stories relating to the search. And as has become customary with WeChat, any link you follow opens inside the app.

“If WeChat perfects its search capabilities, expect a giant of the Chinese internet to suffer,” writes Quartz’s Josh Horwitz. He points out that while WeChat parent company Tencent’s stock prices are “soaring”, search company Baidu has suffered since 2014, with plummeting shares and a decline in revenue growth.

Horwitz calls these new plans a “walled garden” approach to search, and it remains to be seen whether such a proprietary experience will appeal to users — although WeChat’s already booming popularity can only help its chances of owning a portion of the search market.

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