When it comes to search in Vietnam, Google is number one, at least according to Alexa. But Vietnamese netizens aren’t exactly happy with Google’s search service because it wasn’t built with Vietnamese characters in mind. And that’s where Wada, a new search engine launching publicly today that’s run from Vietnam, is seeing an opportunity.
Wada is developed by local company New Horizon Internet. It is, however, based on search technology invented by Russia’s Ashmanov & Partners.
On Wada, users can find web directories based on genres across entertainment, business, and sports. There’s also a one-page news aggregator from over 250 news sources. The news aggregator is able to identify the primary news source and filter duplicated news for users’ reading convenience. Alexander Smirnov, business development director of Ashmanov and Partners, says:
We consider these services very important for the Vietnam market, especially mobile users. In Russia, at least 20 percent of mobile users are new to the internet. And they do not like to search by putting in queries but by clicking on directories. […] We believe these are features users want in Vietnam.
One example of the search engine’s localization is being able to detect Vietnamese names quickly and accurately. Wada also allows searching without the need to insert accent signs while you are keying Vietnamese on mobile. The search engine (pictured below) will suggest the correct accent signs to your search queries. Google.vn, on the other hand, doesn’t do this useful thing:
As I see it, Wada wants to challenge Google in Vietnam, to create a search engine for Vietnam that’s much more localized and specialized. It isn’t just about language, but also some cultural and behavioral aspects of Google’s search engine that aren’t quite suited to Vietnamese users.
In Wada, the potential is certainly there. Thinh Pham, the CEO of Wada, says that Vietnam has more than 30 million internet users (out of 91.5 million in total population) and 75 percent of them use search engines actively. Vietnam also has many mobile subscribers – 127 million – and many are still on feature phones.
So it’s not surprising that Opera Mini (which is well-known for saving users’ mobile data and loading pages faster) is the number one mobile browser in Vietnam. And today’s announcement here in Hanoi also highlighted a partnership between Wada and Opera. For Vietnamese users on Opera Mini browser, Opera will feature Wada.vn on its start page. Opera insists that this partnership isn’t to challenge any other search engines. The mobile browser remains neutral and open to work with any content provider. Opera Asia’s senior VP, Fabrizio Caruso, says:
We’re an open platform only to give our users the best mobile browsing experience. […] We give relevant content to users. And we believe that Wada will give relevant content to Vietnamese users.
Since being featured on Opera Mini, Caruso says that Wada has attracted 180,000 unique users and 700,000 page views within two weeks in Vietnam.
Anyway, it should be fun to see how Google will react to this punch from a local competitor. It isn’t just Google who will be pulling its hair out, though. Chinese search engine Baidu recently set up a language R&D center to research the Vietnamese language (and also Thai) in Singapore, and the Chinese giant may also be taken aback by this news.
When asked by the media about how Wada will be able to change users’ habits now, when they’re already used to Google, CEO Thinh Pham didn’t really answer the question directly but insisted that the purpose of Wada isn’t to compete directly with the current search engines. Rather, Wada is focused on building a better search experience for people who use the Vietnamese language. Pham did concede that he’s aiming to bring Wada to other markets in the future. Smirnov added:
In the short term, we would like to have one million users. In two to three years, we would like to have 30 percent share of the search market [in Vietnam]. Search is just our technology, we would like to build other services around it.
Vietnamese Google-killer searches like it’s 1996
Local search contender borrows ideas from Yahoo! circa 1996
Google is facing another challenge to its dominance in Asia after home-grown Vietnamese search engine Wada launched with a mission to offer users there a more localised, intuitive alternative hat seems to borrow heavily from Yahoo!, circa 1996.
The Mountain View giant has a huge lead in the Vietnamese search market, with market share of around 96 per cent as of October, according to StatCounter. However, the search minnow believes it has a chance by offering a different user experience.
Instead of a simple Google-like search bar in the middle of the page, Wada also offers an extensive ‘web directory’ through which to search, divided into category (eg ‘Sport’) and sub-category (‘Football’). Users can also navigate through the directory by ‘genre’.
That description may ring a bell for some Reg readers, as it sounds not a million miles removed from the way Yahoo! looked in 1996, as shown in the screen shot we’ve borrowed from Pingdom, below.
Alexander Smirnov, business development director of Russian search firm Ashmanov and Partners, which supplied the underlying technology, said this method of searching is in sync with Vietnamese users, especially on the mobile.
“In Russia, at least 20 per cent of mobile users are new to the internet,” he told TechInAsia. “They do not like to search by putting in queries but by clicking on directories. We believe these are features users want in Vietnam.”
In addition, Wada offers the more traditional web search bar, with options to search news sites and images.
It will also auto-suggest in Vietnamese without the need to input fiddly accent signs, which Google.vn apparently doesn’t do, and offers a virtual keyboard which could be useful for those caught on a computer without Vietnamese language support.
Whether this is enough to mount a serious challenge to the web giant remains to be seen.
The only other major Asian country where Google’s share has dropped below 70 per cent is China – where according to some estimates it is now in fourth place.
However, that had a lot to do with its decision to relocate its search servers outside the Great Firewall as well as major rival Baidu’s superior handling of local language queries.
There’s certainly a lot to fight for in Vietnam. Internet penetration is currently at just over 30 per cent with around 30 million online according to the ITU, and the vast majority of these are mobile users.
No surprise, then, that at the launch even this week Wada apparently announced a tie-up with the country’s leading mobile browser Opera Mini which will put its search bar on the Opera home page.