Bottom line: Baidu's (NASDAQ:BIDU) rapid expansion of its global mapping services is mostly targeted at Chinese traveling abroad and is unlikely to attract many local users because better services already are available in most markets.
Still suffering from a spate of negative news at home, leading search engine Baidu is trying to draw attention to the more upbeat subject of its global expansion that is slowly inching forward. The company has squarely focused its global drive on emerging markets, and is continuing that trend with word that it's launching new editions of its mapping services for most of South America. Baidu has already launched a version of its core search business in Brazil, and many will probably view this move to launch mapping services in 13 countries as a prelude to future launches for search service in those markets.
The move looks at least partly timed to coincide with the upcoming Rio Olympics and will see Baidu's mapping service debut for major South American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile, among others (Chinese article). Baidu formally launched its Brazil search service in 2014 after several years of beta testing, and also has recently launched search sites in Egypt and Thailand, all under the Hao123.com name.
The company also has a Hao123 site in English, presumably aimed at taking on global giant Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and other English-language rivals like Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Bing and the fading Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO). Baidu made its first foray outside China a decade ago with a launch in Japan, but never gained any traction there and last year announced it would stop supporting the service (previous post).
Baidu's expansion of its mapping services has apparently been going on for a while, and the latest reports say the move into South America will bring to 60 the total number of countries and regions covered by the service. The new services are available in the maps section of Baidu's main homepage and also are available in many of the local languages for the various countries that are covered.
Targeting Chinese Travelers
The basing of the many country maps on Baidu's main China page appears to show the company is probably targeting the millions of Chinese traveling abroad since many already are familiar with the service here in China. Winning over local users to the service could be a bit more challenging since most markets already have their own established services, most notably the popular mapping service from Google.
I've used both Google and Baidu and can say quite definitively that the former is far better than the latter. But, of course, Google is blocked here in China, including its mapping service, which means that Baidu is really the only choice for maps here in China. But unfortunately for Baidu, Google is widely accessible outside China, and therefore I seriously doubt that too many non-Chinese will use the service.
Baidu isn't very well known outside China, which is probably a good thing since the company has suffered a steady stream of negative publicity this year. Most of that is tied to Baidu's deceptive practices of mixing paid and organic information. The biggest scandal came in May when Baidu was ordered to become more transparent after complaints from a cancer patient who said he was deceived by a paid search result for a treatment he chose for his disease.
In an interesting twist to Baidu's global expansion story, the company has apparently decided to rebrand its business outside China under the hao123.com name, switching from an earlier decision to use the Baidu name globally. That's probably mostly aimed at developing a global brand, though it's markedly different from Google's approach of using the Google name throughout the world. Regardless of what name it uses, I do think that Baidu will have a tough time attracting non-Chinese users to any of its global services, mostly because they are unknown and far better local options already exist.