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The ByteDance logo shown on a smartphone screen on September 12, 2020. Photo: Shutterstock

TikTok owner ByteDance quietly launches search app Wukong in China, where Google is banned

  • ByteDance’s promise of no ads on Wukong could be seen as a swipe at market leader Baidu, which has faced years of controversy over paid listings
  • The app is the TikTok owner’s second go at a dedicated search product, which comes within days of Tencent shutting down its Sogou search app
ByteDance, owner of the hit short video app TikTok, has quietly launched a new search engine that promises no advertisements in a cyberspace where Google has not been available for more than a decade.
Without any announcement, ByteDance subsidiary Beijing Infinite Dimension Technology launched the Wukong search app this month, within days of Tencent Holdings shutting down on August 8 its Sogou search app. Sogou, which Tencent bought last year, still maintains its web-based search engine.
Wukong, currently available on Apple’s App Store in China and various Chinese Android app stores, brings ByteDance into closer competition with Baidu, China’s dominant search engine.

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The new app promotes itself as providing “quality information and search without ads”. The line could be interpreted as an indirect jab at Baidu, which has long faced criticism for its paid listings in search results. In 2016, 21-year-old college student Wei Zexi died of a rare cancer after he received experimental treatments recommended by Baidu.

ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some search results easily illustrate the different approaches in the two apps. On Baidu, the first three search results for “double eyelid”, a biological feature that many Asians associate with beauty, were all ads for plastic surgery clinics. Wukong results were just tips and knowledge from doctors.

Like other popular search engines, Wukong includes different search categories, such as news, images and video. It also allows users to bookmark pages and features an “incognito mode” like in web browsers that does not save search history.

However, similar to Baidu, Wukong tends to prioritise its owner’s other products, a practice known as “self-preferencing” that has invited political scrutiny of Big Tech firms overseas but remains common in China.

The top of Wukong’s search results often show content from Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, Toutiao Encyclopedia, under news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, and Xiaohe Yidian, the medical information provider of Xiaohe Health.


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In contrast, Baidu results give prominent placement to Baidu Baike, its own encyclopedia, and Wenku, a document-sharing site.

Wukong presents a fresh challenge to Baidu after other Big Tech firms have expanded in internet search in recent years. Prior to Tencent’s Sogou acquisition, Alibaba Group Holding started aggressively promoting its Quark search engine in 2019.

Quark, which was initially launched as part of Alibaba’s UC Browser, also markets itself as a zero-ad platform. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

ByteDance even had a previous search engine called Toutiao Search, which launched in 2019. That search engine was eventually removed, but ByteDance has continued to improve search functionality within the Douyin and Jinri Toutiao apps.

In 2020, several Baidu executives joined ByteDance, including former vice-president Wu Haifeng and executive director Sun Wenyu, both of whom left China’s dominant search company in 2019 after working there for more than a decade.

Part of the challenge for any search engine operator in China is censorship. Different companies offer their own approaches while avoiding showing sensitive search results.

For some types of content, Wukong’s top results were not even related to the query. A search for The New York Times brings up a result for the nationalist tabloid Global Times, run by the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily. Baidu’s top result for the same search showed an entry on Baidu Baiku about the US newspaper.

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Wukong’s main page has also promoted propaganda content. On Tuesday, the top three items labelled as “sticky” were a Xinhua News Agency piece on how President Xi Jinping cares about people’s lives, a CCTV article on building China into an industrial powerhouse by improving vocational training, and a People’s Daily report about strengthening the Communist Party’s leadership of economic work.

Baidu’s homepage featured similar content.

Despite recent controversies, Baidu’s grip on the domestic search market has been firm. In July, the company’s market share was 70 per cent, followed by Sogou and Microsoft’s Bing at 12 and 10 per cent, respectively, according to StatCounter, a web traffic analytics firm.
Foreign internet platforms must also censor content when operating in mainland China. This has previously been an issue for Bing, which has suspended its auto-search feature at least twice since December.
Google’s decision to censor search results was controversial when it launched its mainland search engine in 2006. However, it left the market four years later, saying it was targeted by cyberattacks originating in China.