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The Best Practices of China SEO by Owain Lloyd-Williams

The Best Practices of China SEO by Owain Lloyd-Williams

Owain Lloyd-Williams has been in the SEO and digital marketing space for over 10 years and is an independent SEO consultant. He has worked with a wide array of different brands across various verticals in both agency and client-side SEO.

Before going into the consultancy game in 2020, he was EU SEO Lead at Samsung’s in-house agency Cheil and Head of SEO at the freelancer marketplace site PeoplePerHour. Alongside being a well-rounded SEO consultant, he also has a niche specialism in China and Baidu SEO owing to his time spent there and has helped many major western brands with their SEO efforts in China. To get more details about Owain’s experience and SEO projects, visit his website or LinkedIn.

1. How did you get into SEO?

At the risk of employing an overused adage, I, like many others, “fell “ into SEO.

My own SEO story follows a slightly more unorthodox journey, however. I have a background in writing and literature and was working in China in an editorial and translation capacity; translating stories from the Chinese media and managing the content on a popular website aimed at ex-pats in China. This saw me interface with basic SEO via submitting page titles and meta descriptions to a CMS manager from Word documents for him to upload. We had no SEO tooling of course but it gave me a basic exposure to rudimentary on-page SEO practices.

After I moved back to the UK from China, I was picked up by an agency that was looking for a Chinese-speaking digital specialist to help them with a client looking for insights on their Chinese web properties. I was thrown in on other general content and technical SEO projects from there and the rest is history.

2. Have you learned anything particularly helpful in your SEO journey?

In recent years, I’ve surprised myself insofar as getting more heavily in technical SEO challenges and projects. This would have shocked the aspiring creative writer in me from my early 20s. I’m not hugely mathematically minded, though I’ve enjoyed getting deep into unique technical SEO problems and diving into source code and this forms the bulk of my work these days.

One of the great things about SEO is that it touches on so many different skill areas: creativity, mathematics, commercialism, client services/stakeholder management, and much more. I’ve loved developing my skill sets in areas in which I wouldn’t traditionally expect myself to be any good.

3. What projects have you launched recently that you are proud of?

One of my first projects as an independent/freelance SEO consultant was working on a huge website using a very restrictive CMS and codebase. I had to be very selective in terms of technical change implementations.

The site had countless indexation and cannibalization issues, and it took a while for any of the changes (internal linking journeys, indexation management, site design, and nav, etc) to bear any fruit, and the inevitable imposter syndrome kicked in.

This was tricky at the time given it was my first big job, and I would constantly look for signs of green shoots. However, 4 months later, I’m glad to say that the site now enjoys a 20% uplift in an organic overall year-on-year and there’s a clear attribution path to the changes made.

The key thing that made the difference was creating indexation management rules on old defunct forum posts that were taking up too much crawl budget and at the same time strengthening the internal linking profiles of newly-launched product pages.

4. In your opinion, what are the SEO trends in 2023?

I’m going to try not to talk too much about AI as things are moving incredibly fast at the moment and they have such variance in competency it’s hard to assess what (or indeed when) the impact might be.

With AI and AI content in the rearview mirror, however, I think this will accentuate the importance of E-EAT metrics, 10x content, and getting search intent right. AI will have its place in the SERP for quick-fire queries and indeed in certain content to an extent, though people will still be searching for unique, authoritative, and expert-led content on a topic and this will be key to standing out in getting users into various stages of the funnel.

5. What forms of content are working out the best for SEO now?

Back in my early agency days, we used to use a lot of infographics and interactive content to drive traffic and links.

I’m sure this stuff still has its place, though for me, particularly when I look for inspiration from SEO publications, long-form content that is clearly structured with informative, easy-to-digest steps and instructions (for a guide piece for example) with features such as jump links to dive in and out of the sections the user is interested in doing great.

6. You have a big experience with the Chinese search market. What are some key differences in ranking factors and technical SEO differences between Google and Baidu?

From a high level, Baidu and Google follow similar paths in terms of technical SEO best practices, with some nuanced differences. Baidu doesn’t currently support hreflang for example and struggles more than Google does with JavaScript. Baidu’s Spider is also somewhat less advanced than Googlebot so if you’re looking to bring big websites into the market make sure your architecture is clean and navigable.

The things that will make a real difference are whether you have valid Chinese hosting, your technical website setup, and a business presence in China. The restrictive nature of the Chinese internet Baidu will favor sites hosted in China by Chinese entities. If you can’t do that, look at near-China hosting solutions and CDNs to help speed up your site performance.

7. What content works in China?

There are many sensitive topics that are censored in China so it goes without saying anything political or historical should be avoided.

That’s an unlikely scenario for most of us of course, so in terms of general content, it really depends on what audience and locale you’re targeting. There are many highly-evolved digital subcultures in China and key touch points differ depending on the location and demographic.

If you’re running a Chinese New Year campaign, for example, don’t just play it safe with swathes of red and gold and glitter. This is more in the digital ad space, though a recent content campaign that did very well was following the journey of a young migrant worker embarking on a long train journey home to his family, as many millions do in China each year. The content hit a particular tone as it came at a time when lockdowns were still in place and overseas Chinese in particular had been unable to visit their families for a few years.

Ignore the stereotypes and focus on cultural values.

8. What are the peculiarities of Chinese keyword research?

The main one that springs to mind is that you can’t really do Chinese keyword research using any of our go-to SEO tools as they don’t have Baidu API access. You’ll need a Baidu account to access Baidu Webmaster Tools and keyword planner in order to start gathering ideas.

9. What should we take from China and apply it to the USA and European markets?

There’s an awful lot of innovation that we can learn from China in the tech space, not just from SEO but particularly when it comes to apps. WeChat, which should feature as part of your wider China digital marketing strategy alongside your SEO efforts, has been leading the way as the all-in-one lifestyle app (payments, bills, e-commerce, event booking, etc) way before that silly chap who owns Twitter had a similar idea.

From an e-commerce standpoint, the customer lifecycle is also very interesting as sellers, large and small, are all largely set up on e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and Tmall. Regardless of a brand’s prowess, not having a presence on one of these shopping platforms and relying solely on their own integrated online stores may be a big turn-off for consumers given the trust associated with these platforms. I like how these e-commerce platforms democratize (for want of a better word…) the ability for sellers big and small to get involved.

10. Please share your SEO tips on how to work with large e-commerce websites with hundreds of thousands of product URLs across different markets.

That’s a big question! Every site will of course be different in its challenges and priorities, though, for large e-commerce/enterprise sites, my main tip would be to do all you can to make inroads with the right in-market stakeholders in order to get the right buy-in. Run regular SEO workshops, Q&A forums and listen to their needs and prioritize accordingly. Educate and iterate.

When it comes to implementation, many large e-commerce sites often used templated CMSs that employ the use of components across the site. Look for ways in which you can optimize code across these components so it has an impact on a multi-level URL basis (without breaking anything of course).

One area of success I had a few years back at a global electronic brand using a heavily-restricted CMS was actioning a templated fix to move internal links being rendered via JavaScript into the HTML within a site-wide component.

11. Please share your best practices for enterprise SEO, covering areas such as working with stakeholders, and executing and scaling global SEO strategies.

I’ve alluded to it above in the context of large e-commerce SEO, though getting buy-in is key. If you’re working in-house or indeed with a brand as an SEO consultant, you may come across stumbling blocks when asking for what appear to be no-brainer SEO ventures to be actioned. Frame everything around opportunity: why are we doing this? Forecast (if you can) and chiefly, focus on the commercial outcome of your strategies.

Getting senior buy-in can often come down to very top-level metrics that make sense to the C-suite. While all-encompassing SEO reports on all manner of issues and data are useful, find ways to succinctly frame your insights in a way that cuts through.

12. Have you ever generated content with AI tools? If yes, please share your findings after generating and posting AI content.

I have had a bit of fun with them of late, yes. I’ve found them useful to help with Excel formulas and regex troubleshooting, for example. In terms of content, I’ve used ChatGPT to help with generating straightforward taglines and meta descriptions to help populate content on a side project I’m working on. I’m a writer at heart though so will always go in and tweak/re-write the output so it reads like something I’d be happy with.

13. Do you think it’s possible to rank higher with great copy and no backlinks?

Yep, I’ve done this before several times. I recently had a client’s page ranking in the top 3 positions for a competitive term around driving in a certain country. The page outranked competitors whose backlink profiles dwarfed our own, and there were no links at all going to this particular page. We were able to spot gaps in our content and match intent better.

Obviously great content and great backlinks are the ideal pairings, though you can rank well if you spot gaps in terms of what’s ranking in the SERP around your desired search term.

14. Which interlinking rules do you follow?

Diversify, diversify, diversify.

15. What do you think is the one rule that helps improve ranking?

It may sound old and tired but it’s amazing what you can do by simply giving an old piece of content a fresh lick of paint. I hate to say it, but even lazy things like adding “2023” into page titles can still work. Come on Google!

16. What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’m sadly not one of these people who consume — business or marketing books and podcasts for inspiration, though I probably should as I’ve been recommended plenty throughout my career.

Another side of me is heavily into politics and global affairs. I may be stretching here, but I believe there are things we can learn from the world of politics when it comes to global SEO and wider marketing and consumer behavior around the world. I suppose this feeds back into my background living in China for so long — I take a big interest in how different cultures and indeed socio-political demographics operate and try to apply this where possible in my work.

With that in mind, “The News Agents” and “Rest are Politics” podcasts are two that I couldn’t live without these days, alongside good political and historical non-fiction books.

17. The best piece of career advice I have ever been given is…

I’ve been given plenty of golden nuggets of advice over the years by people smarter than me, from tips for running a solo business to framing certain SEO problems for difficult clients.

The one thing that’s kept me sturdy all these years though is to not take oneself too seriously, roll with the punches and remember it’s only work.

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