Why is your website slower in China: Getting around the speed issue

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    The sheer number of internet users in China (988.99 million by the end of 2020), make it a very lucrative market for many businesses. However, most foreign companies either fail to compete with their Chinese counterparts, or simply are too overwhelmed with the complexities and prefer to not even engage in the first place.

    There are many reasons why this is the case, anything from a lack of understanding of the target audience, to simply not having the resources to expand operations. However, one of the most common reasons is a huge increase of loading times for websites run outside of China, and visited by end-users located in the mainland. Fixing the huge problem with speed not only helps you retain your customers, but also gives you better chances at ranking higher in popular Chinese search engines.

    User experiences and loading times

    Just like anywhere else in the world, Chinese internet users expect websites to take no longer than a few seconds to load - with each millisecond making a difference. Google claims that as page load time goes from 1 to 10 seconds, the probability of visitors bouncing increases 123%. Deloitte recently reported that with a 0.1 second improvement in site speed, retail consumers spend almost 10% more on the products.

    The probability of bounce rates increase dramatically with every added second of loading time.

    So in a situation where milliseconds dictate how profitable your business can be, how do foreign websites perform in China?

    It is of course a complicated and rather broad question, however there is already some valuable data available, which can help us understand the situation a little bit better.

    In a 2019 report by Chinafy, 10 foreign websites were studied to see how they would perform inside China. These websites were chosen so they would represent a diverse range of industries, from Disneyland to Lamborghini. The final results speak for themselves:

    Average loading time of outsider websites for end-users located inside china are extremely high.

    With the exception of 1 website (Chanel), the loading times are higher than 5 seconds - the higher threshold for the average visitor’s patience.

    So the obvious question is to ask why? These websites perform drastically better outside of China.

    Lack of local infrastructure in China and the Great Firewall

    China’s internet laws are complicated, and usually not fully understood by outsiders. In addition to everything else that would affect a website’s performance in any other country, the location of the infrastructure supporting your websites makes an incredible difference in China’s case.

    More specifically, it is the geographical distribution of the CDN (content delivery network) that more than anything else affects website performance inside China. A CDN is simply a network of web servers located in a specific geographical location that will deliver the content. While the geographical distribution of the network always matters when it comes to loading times, in the case of China this effect is multiplied many-folds. This is of course because of the aforementioned complicated internet policies of the Chinese government, namely the Great Firewall.

    The Great Firewall

    The Great Firewall refers to a set of rules (some of which being very vaguely defined) and technologies that restrict the reach of outsider content to users inside China. In addition to completely blocking certain types of content, those who manage to pass the censors suffer a huge drop in their performance. The loading times for these websites/apps can be so incredibly high, that users simply give up any intention of working with them.

    In addition to heavily restricting and downgrading the performance of outsider companies, going through the Great Firewall also adds a certain amount of uncertainty to the whole process. Because of the vague nature of the laws governing the censors, you as an outsider company can never be sure what ends up happening to your content. It may get completely blocked to your surprise, or it may load after 30 seconds of waiting. This makes it very hard for outsiders to justify targeting Chinese markets.

    Lacking local infrastructure not only deters potential customers due to long loading times, but also heavily downgrades your search engine rankings. Local engines like Baidu or Qihoo360 are extremely popular in China, and lacking local infrastructure without a doubt sends you further down the list (in addition to the negative effects of your loading times). Of course, these problems amplify even more if you implement a wide array of content types, especially websites which use a lot of images.

    Most of the problems that outsider companies face when delivering content to a Chinese audience, is tied to the fact that their content infrastructure lacks local support inside China - and as a result has to go through the Great Firewall. This means, by fixing the CDN issue, you can get rid of most of your problems at the same time!

    Optimizing user experiences in China: Local content infrastructure

    The easiest way to go around the speed problem is making sure your CMS (content management system) offers dedicated infrastructure inside China. Doing so improves your performance in the Chinese market by lowering your loading times:

    1. Circumnavigating the Great Firewall

    By offering local infrastructure, your content will be delivered from networks located in mainland China. Keep in mind that without local CDN, requests from mainland China have to be processed from neighbouring countries, slowing down everything even more - in addition to the restrictions of the Great Firewall.

    Finding a CMS that offers content delivery with nodes located inside China is the first and the most important step towards circumnavigating the firewall. Your next step should be obtaining an ICP permit, which is granted by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). This may sound like a complicated task, but fortunately it is a one-time thing, and any decent CMS should also offer you some help and point you to the right direction.

    A world map showing the global distribution of the CDN nodes used by Storyblok, including mainland China.

    An example of a widely distributed CDN, with local infrastructure in China - offered by AWS and used by Storyblok.

    2. Better SEO

    By going around the Great Firewall, you are already making your website much faster inside China, resulting in higher ranking in search results. You should also remember that Google is NOT the most popular choice among Chinese users. Baidu is a local search engine which takes up to 80% of the market share, compared to Google’s mere 2.4% (source). Having dedicated infrastructure in China helps you rank much higher in local search engines.

    By using Storyblok, you can get around the great firewall easily and start managing your content in China.

    With multiple nodes in China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Zhongwei), Storyblok completly gets around the Great Firewall and delivers your content with top speed.

    While these 2 facts greatly increase the quality of user journeys in China, there are other things you can do to make sure these journeys are as seamless as possible:

    3. Superior image optimization

    In order to further improve your loading times, you should look for content solutions that offer great image optimization services. This is obviously more important for bigger enterprise cases where the content output is typically much higher. The key is finding a solution that is capable of optimizing images while simultaneously keeping a high quality.

    4. Better personalization

    In a huge market like China with a big number of already established competitors, making sure you have the means to customize and personalize your content to the smallest degree possible is a key factor.

    Doing so requires having the right tools and the right strategies. Strategies can be defined in different ways depending on your situation and specific needs - you can read our detailed whitepaper on personalization here.

    When it comes to the right tools, there are 2 different things to consider:

    1. Having the ability to independently choose every single tool in your technology stack. This is possible through following a best-of-breed approach (as opposed to all-in-one).

    2. Choosing a content management system that instead of relying on premade templates, allows you to customize your content to any degree. There are already content management systems which give you absolute control over the presentational layer of your content (the front-end). These systems do so by separating the back-end from the front-end, and are known as “headless” systems (read more).

    5. Localization

    It is pretty obvious that in order to successfully enter a new market, you should make sure your content can be easily localized without too much extra work. Keep in mind that localization is much more than simple translation. While translation is the bulk of the process, you should also keep the local trends, cultural norms, currencies, and preferred payment methods in mind.

    It is also worth mentioning here, that in cases where localization is important, having proper workflows and scheduling capabilities are also most probably equally important. Your content management system should be able to fully support you in all these aspects for a truly internationalized experience.

    6. Optimized market analysis

    When operating in a special market like China, having easy access to all your customer data is really important. This is only possible when all of your content is structured within a central content hub, as opposed to being scattered across multiple content silos. This is especially true if you are planning to publish your content across different platforms (such as phones, smart watches, AR headsets, digital signage, IoT devices, etc.).

    Additionally, your content management system should be able to help your marketers with offering them seamless integration of external analytic tools and A/B testing capabilities, communication tools, automated email campaigns, targeted page banners, and personalized messages to registered users.

    Taking the first steps

    If your goal is to operate in China and offer your products/services to the huge chinese market, running your operations on a dedicated local infrastructure is a must. In order to do that, you must make sure that your content management system can offer you such a possibility. Also keep in mind that your content management system must be able to help you in the other points mentioned above, such as SEO, localization, and personalization.

    Storyblok is a headless content management system with dedicated servers all around the globe, including mainland China. The headless nature of Storyblok goes hand in hand with a best-of-breed approach to building your technology stack, and the separation of the front-end gives you complete control over the presentation of your content. As opposed to most traditional systems, Storyblok manages your content in a single central hub - getting rid of the silos and their problems. Furthermore, in addition to its own localization capabilities, Storyblok also offers seamless integration with other localization tools.

    If you are interested in knowing more about optimizing your content for users in China, contact our specialists here - or use the live chat on our website to get in touch with us.

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