Weaving a touch of spin into Web-site rankings
THE CHINA INTERNET Network Information Centre is supposed to be the most authoritative body overseeing the development of the Internet on the mainland.
Its studies of the Net are widely cited and are perceived as having great strategic value for business. However, its latest surveys have been so embroiled in controversy that the information centre's leading position has been undermined.
Among other functions, the centre, which is under the Ministry of Information Industry, is responsible for administering domain names on the mainland.
According to the centre, there were 99,734 Web sites registered under the national domain of .cn as of last July. The number of citizens with access to the Net in China, on the other hand, is estimated at 16.9 million.
The centre's assessments of the popularity of Web sites on the Internet have far-reaching implications on how investors and advertisers perceive them.
It has become common practice for the major Internet portals to launch advertising campaigns at the same time as the centre produces its six-monthly Internet user surveys.
Its ranking surveys consist of two phases. In the first part, Net users are encouraged to register their interest. The centre then selects some of the volunteers to take part in the massive ballot exercise.
After its last survey, its sixth, which was based on a total of 205,724 valid returns, the centre named sina.com.cn as the best site. However, the Guangming Daily asserted that the title should have gone to yahoo.com and its Chinese version, cn.yahoo.com, which together secured a total of 95,756 votes, surpassing Sina by 16,224.
But for unknown reasons, the organiser insisted that only ballots for cn.yahoo.com would be recognised. As a result, Yahoo had to settle for fifth place.
Guangming Daily, a major national paper focusing on cultural, educational and scientific topics in China, also raised the case of hotmail.com, which offers free Web mail services.
With 19,048 votes, it should have made the top 10. But the site was disqualified on the pretext that the company does not have an independently operated branch office in China.
The results for the sub-categories have also been challenged. The entertainment and sports section, for instance, was dominated by three little known portals - the9.com, 51go.com and 343.com.cn.
Other established sports sites, such as shawei.com, ended up with just 10 per cent of the votes of the9.com and failed to make the top 100.
The mainland publication The Shopping Guide has challenged the rankings. The publication remains unconvinced that popular cyber bookstores, including dangdang.com and peoplespace.net, have been outranked by sites it dismisses as virtually unheard of.
Despite the scale of the exercise, there have been media exposes of some Internet companies' dubious methods used to shape the results, including money inducements to voters.
Other, more-scientific methods to gauge Internet usage are already in place elsewhere.
Instead of asking the public to submit their preferences, panels of about 2,000 randomly selected and representative samples are often used. Data is collected automatically every time these users log on to the Internet. There is little room for outside manipulation.
Unless the centre takes drastic remedial action soon, its next national survey may well be widely rejected as invalid.
Andy Ho is a political commentator