Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Google to Korea: Show Yourself on the Web

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It’s hard to believe that anybody with a Web site would not want use a global search engine to attract attention to it. But then, the South Korean government isn’t anybody.

One of the strange hangovers of the let’s-block-competitors-and-do-everything-ourselves mentality that is thankfully declining in South Korea is that when government agencies were building Web sites in the 1990s and early 2000s, they blocked access to global search engines.

Part of the thinking, no doubt, was that this would cause South Koreans to favor local search engines rather than the global players like Google and Yahoo. South Korea-based Naver and Daum do dominate the nation’s Web search market and control its online advertising market.

South Korean companies, driven by the commercial imperative of trying to snag as many eyeballs and users to their Web offerings as possible, long ago made sure their Web sites could be seen, indexed and prioritized by global search engines. And when there’s a big news story in either of the Koreas, we’ve noticed that some South Korean media organizations have become skilled at optimizing their headlines and story placement to draw attention to themselves on the news pages of Google, Yahoo and Bing.

In recent months, Google has stepped up its effort to persuade holdout South Korean Web sites to let its search robot crawl their sites, index their pages and present them to users of the Google search engine.

On Monday night, one of Google’s top engineers, Matt Cutts, gave a presentation to about 80 government officials, attorneys, webmasters and journalists to illustrate the problem. “If a country turns away from the open Web, it risks turning into an island,” Mr. Cutts said.

A South Korean newspaper last month carried a story with a list that showed near half of the government’s web sites blocked access to search engines. Among the quickest to change after that article was the presidential web site, although the Blue House web gurus still haven’t figured out how to maximize their exposure as a search for “President Lee Myung-bak” on Google, Yahoo and Bing still returns his Wikipedia biography first.

Mr. Cutts dismissed concerns that hackers might find their way to Korean Web sites via Google’s search engine. He noted that hackers tend to target Web sites by using IP address numbers rather than domain names.

And when a reporter suggested Korea’s search engines do a better job of protecting privacy than Google, Mr. Cutts replied that Google has developed many tools to help webmasters identify whether private information is appearing on their site.

One of those in the audience was Kang Min-koo, a senior judge in the Seoul High Court. When he saw the court’s Web site was on Mr. Cutts’ list of government sites that couldn’t be indexed by Google – and thus couldn’t be found on a Google search – he sent a text message by phone to the court’s webmaster ordering it to be changed.

Since the change can be made by altering just a few lines of software code, the webmaster had it done in no time. When it came time for questions, Mr. Kang asked Mr. Cutts to check if the High Court’s site showed up on Google – and it did.

“That’s amazing,” Mr. Cutts said, calling it an example of South Korea’s “balli balli,” or hurry-up, culture and promising to use the experience in future speeches.

When an attorney from one of the country’s most prominent firms asked if other countries also blocked Google from listing their Web sites, Mr. Cutts said South Korea was unique among the developed, prominent countries of the world as “one of the few that has done more blocking.”

Of course, the issue is a competitive one for Google. If it can’t deliver prominent Korean web sites in its search engine, Koreans or people who are interested in Korean content are less likely to use Google.

Mr. Cutts appealed to the vanity and pride of those in his audience in his appeal. “If Korea opens up a little bit more, more people will realize how important it is,” he said.

That’s true on so many levels of society and in so many facets of business that it’s just part of the conventional wisdom among foreigners who live and work in South Korea – and just another example of why Korea wasn’t called the Hermit Kingdom for nothing.


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