Are Chinese websites fundamentally different from western sites?

Chinese versus western websitesChinese sites have the reputation of being cluttered, look busy, are full of links, and always open up in a new window that kills your browser. Just look at some of these popular sites (Tencent,

To explain this supposed preference, we hear things like: Chinese is more difficult to type, so people prefer to click away on links that are readily presented to them.

But is this really true?

Let’s see.

Chinese sites sometimes look more complicated because the characters look denser, and with little space in between. To Chinese-speakers, they really convey the exact same amount of information as their western counterpart. Just look at the side-to-side comparison of the BBC site. Much of the perceived denseness is actually optical illusion.

Another perceived difference is that Chinese sites MUST have lots of links, and those links always open in a different window. This does seem to be the case, but why? Designers sometimes explain this away by citing how difficult it is to type on a alphabet-based keyboard as opposed to searching for links. But is this really the case?

Typing on a keyboard and inputting Chinese is actually a lot less cumbersome than people realise. Pinyin is used to input characters, and there are tons of shortcuts to do it quickly once you are used to it. Say I want to put in Beijing or New York, 北京/纽约, just putting in BJ or NY will get me the choice on the keyboard, where I can easily select it. The links on a page are sometimes so dense that people actually do like to search to find a piece of information instead of randomly looking at links.

Frequent users of Chinese sites also notice that whenever you click on a link, it always opens in another page. Why is it and do you need to do the same with your website?

In most cases, this is done to support Chinese browsing behaviour, where people open up multiple windows to load while browsing on the current page. A lot of this is a result of theslower Internet connection in China.

Connection speed has actually improved significantly in recent years, but the browsing behaviour and design ethos has sort of stuck to how things used to be a decade ago. Major portals are already moving towards the trend of not opening new links for every piece of content (check out Sina‘s non-advertising links).

What this means for you when thinking through your site design is this – if your site is graphics and multi-media heavy, then you might want to give your users the option of opening multiple windows to load pages. On the other hand, if your site is mostly text-based and fairly light, then regular navigation and page opening sequence should do the trick.

People also have the perception that Chinese don’t like simpler because of the “more the merrier” marketplace mentality, but is this really true? Baidu, which is China’s largest search engine by far, has an interface very similar to Google’s.

Weibo started off looking very similar to Twitter. It added a ton of functionalities later and became extremely popular, because those functionalities supported what the users wanted and their natural social behaviours. It didn’t become popular because it had a busier interface in a case of form over function. Similarly, Taobao became popular because of its low prices, good customer experiences, and convenience, not because of its (formerly) cluttered interface.

In fact, users did regularly complain about user experiences on the major portals, and when compared to a few years ago, the layout and overall user experience has improved a LOT.

So to summarize, Chinese users do have their own unique preferences when it comes to web browsing. But the idea that a cluttered interface with a ton of links is the way to go when it comes to introducing a Chinese version of a website is really outdated.

When it comes to your business, should you then stick with the layout of your current site or go with a different one for your Chinese site?

It depends on the stage your business is in.

If you are still in the very beginning phase of your business, I would suggest going with a one-pager in Chinese that highlights all the key elements of your business and your offerings. It doesn’t have to be complicated, as long as you include all the essential information around your business. You can always ask your website designer to add in a location-dependent re-direct, so that anyone accessing the site from within China will automatically get directed to the Chinese-language page.

If you have the resources to support a full-feature Chinese-language site, then consider first what content you want to house on the site, and then move on with site design. There is no reason why you can’t go with the same infrastructure as what you currently have.

I hope this dispels some of the myths around how Chinese websites are supposed to look and feel, and gives you some arsenal to throw at your Chinese-site designers if they try to put something cluttered and messy in front of you.

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photo credit: Daria Riabchenko via photopin cc

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