Google launches group deals aggregator in China

The portal catalogs group-buying deals in the country

Google has launched a new portal in China that catalogs group buying deals, a return to activity there after pulling back from its operations in China more than a year ago.

The site is called Google Shihui, which can be translated to mean timely benefit in English. Google launched the site on Tuesday as a public beta through its Google.cn domain. Last year, the company shut down its search engine on Google.cn and instead put a link on the page to its Hong Kong search engine at Google.com.hk.

Shihui is an experimental search feature that aims to help people find deals through China's enormous number of group buying sites, said Google spokesman Robin Moroney. The country's group-buying market has exploded in the past year to include more than 4,000 sites, according to analysts.

"Shihui is in the early stages of development and we'll be working with our partners to see what features drive the best traffic to their sites and also what features guide users to the offers that are most valuable to them," he said.

Google's new Shihui site also allows the company to tap into burgeoning market, without having to establish its own group buying company in China. U.S. company Groupon launched its own Chinese site in the country earlier this year, but the joint venture has struggled to compete and has been laying off staff by the hundreds.

China has been a difficult market for Google to succeed in, with some of the struggles stemming from the country's prevalent Internet censorship. Google sites such as YouTube, Google Plus and Gmail have all seen some level of blocking from Chinese authorities, likely due to how they can be used to spread anti-government and politically sensitive content.

Shihui probably won't draw the attention of China's Internet censors because it relates to e-commerce, said Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

"It's a fairly safe neutral area of business in which Google can participate without risking as much," Natkin said. "Google is still very interested in growing its business in the China market and has realized in areas like Web search it may face more significant challenges than in less sensitive areas like e-commerce."

Google's core business, Internet search, has diminished in China after the company announced last year it would no longer censor its search results in China. This led Google to shut down its China search engine, allowing domestic player Baidu to gain a near monopoly over the market. Currently Google has an 8 percent user market share, while Baidu has an 80 percent share, according to CNZZ.com, an Internet analytics web site.

In spite of the setbacks, Google has said it still aims to introduce new web services to users in the country. Google senior vice president Alan Eustace called the country the "heart of the future of the Internet" in a speech last December.

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