Google expands free music downloads in China

Its deals with the four big U.S. music labels are a needed boost as Google competes with Chinese search giant Baidu

Google has expanded the free music downloads it offers in China to include songs by artists from each of the big four U.S. record labels, an addition that could help it win users from dominant Chinese search engine Baidu.

Google launched its free music download search last year -- only in China -- to compete with a similar service that analysts say rival Baidu relies on for a significant portion of its traffic.

A music search on Google's Chinese site Monday revealed freely downloadable songs whose licensing rights are owned by Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group and EMI.

The expansion could boost Google's traffic in a country where music piracy is common. Baidu has attracted more users than Google through its music search with a wider selection of songs, but it links to unlicensed downloads.

Google's music search links users to legal downloads on the Web site of partner Top100.cn. It is supported by advertising revenue split between those two companies and the music labels.

The company's use of signed deals to distribute music has made it the preferred partner for global music labels willing to experiment with new business models in China, said David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based media consultancy.

The music search service is also part of Google's strategy to match Baidu's features hit-for-hit before moving on to offer online services Baidu cannot, said Wolf.

Expanding services could dovetail with the rising popularity of netbooks among cost-sensitive Chinese buyers to boost Google's user base in the country, he said.

"They're really looking to become not just a portal, but kind of an all-purpose cloud for people who want their services online," Wolf said.

The number of Chinese users who used Google as their default search engine was 16.6 percent last year, a slight improvement from the previous year but still a far shot from Baidu's 76.9 percent, according to the country's domain registry center.

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