China's Alibaba launches new search engine

Alibaba's AliCloud Search appeared to go online on Monday

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group has launched a new search engine directly challenging the nation's search companies for market share.

The new site comes from the group's Alibaba Cloud Computing business. The company declined to say exactly when the site launched, but it has been available at least since Monday.

Alibaba is China's largest e-commerce operator, and leads in the online retail market with its sites Taobao Marketplace and Tmall.com. But outside of e-commerce, Alibaba has also shown an ongoing interest in the nation's search space, which is currently dominated by another local Internet giant, Baidu, a company that bested Google to overtake the Chinese market.

"They've always had a strong search team, but it's been focused on internal search, to search their own platform," said Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. Alibaba Group CEO Jack Ma has long considered search the missing piece of his eco-system, Natkin said.

As part of a 2005 deal, Alibaba already operates Yahoo's China page, which contains its own search bar. In 2010, the company also launched a beta version of eTao, a shopping search engine that once featured a web page search. A year later Alibaba's CEO said the company entered the search engine business to create competition with Baidu. The web page search function has since been dropped from eTao.

Alibaba's newest search engine, called AliCloud Search, offers a more traditional user experience. It includes a search for web pages, news, pictures and maps. The functions appear to be the same as those offered by Yahoo search in China. Searches made on the two sites generated identical results.

"It's very possible that AliCloud Search is simply a rebranding of China Yahoo search," Natkin said. "If you visit the 'Help' section in AliCloud Search, you'll find that it mistakenly refers to itself as China Yahoo search at least once."

Although Alibaba declined to provide more information, an official company microblog offered some clarity on Tuesday, and said both sites were using the same search algorithm. "China Yahoo's search service is being offered by AliCloud Search," the post said. "The search service was independently developed by AliCloud."

It's unclear why Alibaba took so long to release the AliCloud search engine, Natkin said, but it comes at a time when the country's dominant search company Baidu is facing new competition and losing market share. Last year, Chinese security vendor Qihoo 360 launched its own search engine, which has managed to gain a 10 percent market share against Baidu's 72 percent, according to data analytics site CNZZ.com.

To promote its own search engine, Alibaba will look toward integrating the product into the company's existing services, much like Qihoo 360 did, Natkin said. "They have an enormous user base," he added. "So they definitely will try to leverage that."

But to gain loyal users, Alibaba will have to also offer a superior search experience over its rivals. "What's the advantage to users switching search engines? In order to get users, you have to provide some sort of feature that users aren't getting with the search engines they currently use."

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