South Koreans Connect Through Search Engine

Posted on: nytimes.com  

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.

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