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Regardless of where individual pundits stand on Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) decision to stop censoring its search results on Google.cn, and thereby risk getting kicked out of China, they all seem unanimous in the belief that the company's move will cost it dearly from a financial standpoint. I think recent search market data from ComScore bring this view into question.
How big is the market?
While Google, by most estimates, received less than 2% of its revenues from China last year, the conventional wisdom has been that the massive size of China's Internet user base (a recent government estimate put the number at 384 million), combined with its still-untapped growth potential, meant that Google was set to see a much higher share of its revenues come from the Middle Kingdom going forward. However, according to ComScore, the number of search queries conducted in China in December 2009 grew by only 13% annually. That's well below both the 46% growth seen in search queries worldwide, and (according to the Chinese government) the 28.9% growth seen in China's Internet user base in 2009.
The truly startling fact about ComScore data is that it puts Chinese query growth well behind that of more developed nations such as France (61%), Japan (48%), and even the U.S. (22%), all of which have much higher Internet penetration rates. If these figures are even remotely accurate, they suggest that some factors are at work that are holding back the growth of the Chinese search market, even as local Internet use continues to take off. Maybe there are some cultural issues at play, or maybe it's just that the complexity of the Chinese language, with its thousands of actively used characters, doesn't lend itself well to frequent searching. Regardless, the data suggests that the "huge potential" of the market can't be taken for granted.
Financial impact less than expected
A critic of this view would point out that even if Chinese query growth is subpar, the market's revenue growth looks pretty solid, thanks to improving monetization of search traffic. After all, while ComScore estimated that market leader Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU ) saw only 7% annual query growth in December, the company is expected to report 36% revenue growth in Q4.
But with China's share of global queries down to a mere 10.1% as of December; China's per capita GDP (which impacts ad rates) still well below that of fully developed nations; and Google a clear second fiddle within the country (unlike most other big markets), the revenue impact for Google over the next several years still might not be that terrible. Especially if Google succeeds in its goal of holding onto the businesses that currently account for most of its Chinese revenues: Its AdSense platform for advertising on third-party sites, and its ad sales to Chinese companies advertising on its flagship Google.com site.
Meanwhile, on a global basis, it looks like 2009 represented business as usual for Google. With 58% query growth in December, Google managed to grow its global share from 62% to 66.8% -- and that's using ComScore's comprehensive approach to search reporting, which takes into account queries on sites such as eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) and Facebook. Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , with 13% growth, was further left in the dust, and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , in spite of massive ad spending to draw attention to Bing, only saw its share grow to 3.1%.
Censored Chinese site or not, Google remains a very solid growth story heading into a new decade.