S Koreans don’t `Google’ — they `Naver’ instead

Park Hye Ran, a 15-year-old high school student, wanted to know the shortest route from a bus terminal in the southern port city of Busan to a fish market to the east.

That is precisely the kind of question that Cho In Joon, 50, a seller of lottery tickets in Busan, loves to answer.

Sitting at a computer installed at his street kiosk, Mr. Cho posted a reply for Ms. Park — and for other Naver.com users who might one day ask the same question — with instructions on where she should switch trains, which station exit she should take and how long it would take to walk from there to the market. He even attached a map of the market area.

Thanks to Mr. Cho and tens of thousands of other volunteer respondents, Web users in one of the world’s most-wired countries seldom “Google” anything. They “Naver” it.

Tapping a South Korean inclination to help one another on the Web has made Naver.com the undisputed leader of Internet search in the country. It handles more than 77 percent of all Web searches originating in South Korea, thanks largely to content generated by people like Ms. Park and Mr. Cho, free of charge.

Daum.net, another South Korean search portal, comes in second with a 10.8 percent share, followed by Yahoo’s Korean-language service with 4.4 percent.

Google, the top search engine in the world, barely registers in the country’s online consciousness, handling just 1.7 percent of South Korean Web searches, according to KoreanClick, an Internet market research company.

“No matter how powerful Google’s search engine may be,” said Wayne Lee, an analyst at Woori Investment and Securities, “it doesn’t have enough Korean-language data to trawl to satisfy South Korean customers.”

When NHN, an online gaming company, set up the search portal in 1999, the site looked like a grocery store where most of the shelves were empty. Like Google, Naver found there simply was not enough Korean text in cyberspace to make a Korean search engine a viable business.

“So we began creating Korean-language text,” said Lee Kyung Ryul, an NHN spokesman. “At Google, users basically look for data that already exists on the Internet. In South Korea, if you want to be a search engine, you have to create your own database.”

The strategy was right on the money. In this country, where more than 70 percent of a population of 48 million use the Internet, most of them with high-speed connections, people do not just want information when they log on; they want a sense of community and the kind of human interaction provided by Naver’s “Knowledge iN” real-time question-and-answer platform.

“When people I have never met thank me, I feel good,” Mr. Cho, the lottery ticket seller, said. “No one pays me for this. But helping other people on the Internet is addictive.”

Each day, on average, 16 million people visit Naver — the name comes from the English words neighbor and navigator — keying 110 million queries into its standard Google-like search function. But Naver users also post an average of 44,000 questions a day through Knowledge iN, the interactive Q.&A. database. These receive about 110,000 answers, ranging from one-sentence replies to academic essays complete with footnotes.

The format, which Naver introduced in 2002, has become a must-have feature for Korean search portals. The portals maintain the questions and answers in proprietary databases not shared with other portals or with search engines like Google. When a visitor to a portal does a Web search, its search engine yields relevant items from its own Q.&A. database along with traditional search results from news sites and Web pages.

Naver has so far accumulated a user-generated database of 70 million entries. Typical queries include why North Korea is building a nuclear bomb, which digital music player is best, why people have cowlicks and what a high school boy should do when he has a crush on a female teacher.

Naver lacks the full-time editorial oversight found on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, and some entries are of dubious veracity and attract vigorous rebuttals. But many respondents, eager to build and maintain an online reputation, do careful research to provide useful answers.

NHN, which employs 2,700, is now the most profitable Internet company in South Korea. The company posted 299 billion won, or $325 million, in profit on 573 billion won in sales last year. It has a market value of more than $8 billion.

The company still runs its popular online gaming site, but its search engine, which sells advertisements and search-generated links to commercial Web sites, generated 52 percent of its revenue last year.

When Daum, Naver’s largest local competitor, began making a big push into the Korean search market last year, it turned to its 6.7 million virtual Internet cafes, which are not physical structures but online user groups built around shared interests.

The cafes create pools of material supplied by people who, for example, went to the same school, support or oppose a free trade agreement with the United States or share an interest in hiking in the mountains. The biggest of the cafes have up to three million members.

By opening its cafes to its search engine, Daum’s market share increased by nearly 30 percent in two years. It took in 22.8 billion won in ad revenue in the first quarter of this year, up 42 percent from a year ago.

Google, which started its search service in the Korean language in 2000, introduced an upgraded Korean-language service in May.

The new version deviates from Google’s celebrated bare-bones style. In South Korea, people prefer portal sites that resemble department stores, filled with eye-catching animation and multiple features.

“It’s obvious to me that Korea is a great laboratory of the digital age,” Eric E. Schmidt, the chairman of Google, said in Seoul at the introduction of the new search service.

 

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