Google aims to help users vault Great Firewall of China

Google searches in China are notoriously difficult, thanks to the country’s notorious filtering system. Now, though, Google’s aiming to help by warning users when a search is likely to fail.

There can’t be many people left in the country who would even bother trying to search on ‘Falun Gong’, for instance. But many other apparently-innocuous search terms also cause problems, says Google.

“We’ve observed that many of the terms triggering error messages are simple everyday Chinese characters, which can have different meanings in different contexts,” says Alan Eustace, senior vice president for knowledge on the company blog.

“For example a search for the single character 江 (Jiāng, a common surname that also means ‘river’) causes a problem on its own, but 江 is also part of other common searches like 丽江 (Lijiang, the name of a city in Yunnan Province), 锦江之星 (the Jinjiang Star hotel chain), and 江苏移动 (Jiangsu Mobile, a mobile phone service).”

Google’s identified the problem characters through a comprehensive trawl of the 350,000 most popular search terms in the country.

Users typing in such characters not only get messages such as ‘This webpage is not available’ or ‘The connection was reset’, but find that they typically can’t use Google again for a few minutes.

Users should be able to find alternatives, says the company, for example by using pinyin, the system used to transliterate Chinese characters into Latin script.

“We’ve said before that we want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services,” says Eustace. “Our hope is that these written notifications will help improve the search experience in mainland China.”