Saturday, October 25, 2008

Google and Globalization in Korea

The following is a letter to the editor that I wrote, published in the Joongang Ilbo
The Internet itself epitomizes globalization, and there is no more prominent indication of this than Google’s success. 
Because the Internet unleashes a flood of information, its users around the world now turn to Google to tame that flood and find the information they need. People in virtually every country of the world now “Google it” to find press coverage, images, videos and more.  Nevertheless, there are four nations in the world in which success seems to elude Google. The Financial Times, in an article accompanied by a map of the non-Google World, reported that Google has failed to achieve success in South Korea, China, Russia and the Czech Republic.  Here in Korea, the major media have made much of how Naver leads the search market and has so far beaten Google. 
However, this claim, like that on behalf of Yandex in Russia, Baidu in China and Seznam in the Czech Republic, is sheer nonsense. If you believe the apples and oranges comparison of these four search services with Google, I have a bridge to sell you.
In fact, the services all have two critical limitations. First, they answer search inquiries ONLY in Korean, Russian, Chinese, or Czech, respectively. Second, they do not search or “crawl” the entire Internet, instead focusing only on content in Russian, Chinese, Korean or Czech. Contrast this with Google’s stated mission, “… to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” 
A closer look at Naver’s success and the difficulties for Google here actually explains why Google must ultimately succeed in the Korean market. Part of Naver’s success is simply because Koreans feel more comfortable with a service presented entirely in the Korean language.  Despite the national campaign here to learn English, it is well documented that people here feel uncomfortable with situations that demand English, such as job interviews, meeting foreigners and surfing English Web sites. 
Naver also responds to a strong cultural need felt by many Koreans to know what other people are thinking. Hence, its most popular service is called “Knowledge-In.” Users submit questions which other Naver users are encouraged to answer, creating an ever increasing base of “knowledge.” 
The crucial limitation is that Naver’s database, because it is a Korean language-only service, effectively excludes most of the world’s knowledge.  In this respect, one can argue that Naver is more of a social-networking site than a search engine. Google, of course, allows searching in Korean as well as English and returns Web pages in both languages. 
Naver also relies heavily on “sponsored” searches, a model pioneered by Overture and Yahoo. With this business model, any company, organization or individual can pay to have its search results appear higher in the list of results from any search inquiry. 
Search results in Naver contain several categories of sponsored search. Consequently, commercial entities with the money to pay for Web-based promotion, dominate in Naver search results. So why must Google succeed in the South Korean market? 
The answer is because the flood of information that is available electronically and digitally via the Internet is multilingual. Although English may be the dominant language of international business today, other languages are important. Google’s robots search, or attempt to search, this entire universe of information on the Internet, whatever the language.  This explains Google’s interest in automated translation from one language to another and why its translation service now represents the best available machine translation. 
Whatever Google’s weaknesses, its global scope and goals are surely its strength.  Take a specific example from the field of education and study abroad, currently a booming business here. If a Korean parent or student does a search on Naver for “study abroad in the U.S.”, they will typically receive a page of search results that are sponsored by the dominant commercial study-abroad institutes in South Korea.  While those results may serve the promotional needs of private institutes, they may not fit the needs of the individual student or family.  They also may fail to contain the most current information placed on the Internet by the U.S. schools, colleges and universities themselves.  For such information - you guessed it - we advise parents and students to “Google it.”
For Korea to fully participate in the global information society, a higher portion of its students, teachers, government officials and business personnel will need to more effectively find and utilize the information available through the Internet. As things stand, this means embracing Google or a service like it, rather than simply enjoying the Korean-language province of the Web, which is now dominated by Naver.  South Korea has embraced the notion that English fluency is one key to its future role in the global information society.  The nation might do well to also monitor use of Google as an important index of globalization here.

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