Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Naver, Korea's "Walled Garden" and Economic Democracy

As reported in the Joongang Daily and other Korean papers today, "The government’s first IT target in its campaign for “economic democratization” is Naver, the nation’s largest Web portal site, and its aggressive expansion into various services. (click on the accompanying graphic to see a full-sized version) The Fair Trade Commission is currently conducting an investigation into NHN, the operating company of Naver." The investigation is in line with the government's economic democratization drive, aimed at creating a sound online market that protects small players.
To place this news in larger perspective, one must consider that Korea is still among a small handful of the world's nations in which Google does not hold a leading market share.  Google's near-universal popularity is based on the fact that its robots index the largest portion of the so-called "visible web."  Consequently, people interested in a comprehensive search for information use Google.  Incidentally, my undergraduate students at KAIST, both Korean and international overwhelmingly favor Google as a search engine.
As readers of this blog will know I've been very interested in the continued popularity of Naver, given the dramatic differences with Google in terms of what it does.  (see numerous posts by entering "Naver" in the search bar at the right)  Basically, Naver deals exclusively with Korean language source material and formats its search results in a manner that appeals to Koreans.   It appears much more like a web portal than a search engine and its most popular feature, by far, is called "knowledge-in," which allows users to ask a question, which is then answered in Korean by other Naver users.  Naturally, the "knowledge-in" database has grown tremendously over the years.
The most interesting thing about the current news of an FTC investigation is that Naver epitomizes the continuing "walled garden" character of Korea's internet.  Whatever else one may say on the matter, those who rely on Naver search results are choosing from a relatively small universe of Korean-language content, rather than the far larger universe of content on the visible web.  In today's global economy, it would seem that Korea's efforts to move in the direction of stronger software, content and services will eventually mean a shift from the heavy reliance on Naver toward Google or other search tools, yet to come, that are more global in their scope.

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