You may never have heard of Alibaba -- the e-commerce search engine, not the hero of the 40 thieves. Yahoo owns 40 percent of the company, which runs Yahoo in China. Last year, comScore placed Alibaba Corp. as the fifth-largest online property in Asia-Pacific, and in January the Financial Times described it as "the world's largest platform for trade between businesses."
If Alibaba continues growing at its current pace, it could be on par with Baidu within three years, according to Citi analysts. Now Chairman Jack Ma, the Chinese Internet grandee and one of the TIME 100 world's most influential people, is offering western businesses search marketing opportunities to sell their products globally.
While Alibaba is described as an "Asian eBay" and credited with causing eBay to shut down its Chinese operation in 2006, it's much more than that. And its global domination plan is being rolled out at astonishing speed.
After announcing plans to go global in January, Alibaba has aggressively developed its U.K. operation, opened up to India and Turkey, and is knocking at the doors of potential partners, including Google, Amazon, and even eBay in the U.S. By June, its India operation had already passed the million-member mark, and this month EMEA director Maggie Choo reported a European membership base of 2.5 million and annual membership growth rate of 66 percent.
What is Alibaba?
In addition to running Yahoo China, Alibaba owns Taobao.com, which is its auction platform similar to eBay. Alibaba.com, which features the slogan "Global trade starts here" beneath its logo, also runs Chinese-language (china.alibaba.com) and Japanese-language (Alibaba.co.jp) sites. Founded in 1999, it now has more than 40 million registered users, all of whom are focused on doing business-to-business (B2B) trades.
Alibaba's original purpose was to find buyers for Chinese manufactured goods. But as demand for Chinese goods stuttered in a faltering economy, Ma quickly spotted the need to extend the site to traders interested in selling to Chinese, Japanese, Indian and frankly any businesses looking to trade globally. That explains why the Alibaba.com team has been touring Silicon Valley, New York, and Seattle in recent weeks, and why their European headquarters moved to London earlier this year.
Global B2B Dating!
In addition to its similarity to Google's Product Search or Kelkoo -- in that this is a platform where you upload content, namely the goods you have to sell, rather than crawling Web sites like a Google -- it could also be argued that this is a grand B2B dating site! For instance, businesses that are looking for specific products can upload their requirements in the hope of a "match" with potential suppliers -- so you can effectively search Alibaba.com for business customers who have already registered their searches.
If your business makes "Aquarium Tanks" today, you can search in Alibaba's buying leads and find 14 potential buyers for aquarium tanks in India, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, India, Portugal, Germany, Iran, and China. Naturally, businesses can also upload their products, offer them for sale, and seek other buyers not yet listed.
How Can International Search Marketers Use Alibaba?
The site is useful for initial market research to gauge potential demand for a potential product or service using the 'sourcing trends' tools -- useful to assess markets where there may be relevant opportunities. And you can also use it to dip a toe in the water and make some sales, or find agent partners, without investing in a localization of your site until you're confident that it makes marketing sense. For product sales, it also represents a good starting point to reach out, especially to China, Japan and increasingly other Asian markets such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
Significantly, Alibaba is increasingly mimicking search engines' keyword ranking systems. For some time, it's been possible to position your products on the first page of buyer search results for a contract period (rather than a PPC model). But in March, Ali-Advance, a "pay-for-performance" keyword bidding system, was launched. This enables businesses to target their product listings to the top five rankings.
You can also use it for keyword research for "international English" to discover how your potential customers describe items in English they'd like to buy from you.
Useful in various ways to undertake cultural research and comparisons, the site also has a wealth of resources in English about managing global trade, ranging from dealing with suppliers, documents, and payments, through to logistics and shipping, as well as finding a market in the first place. Its forums cover traders discussing how to get a response from business partners and other cultural issues receiving direct feedback from businesses located in the market.
And Alibaba's global rollout isn't over yet. Following its Hong Kong IPO in November 2007, Alibaba has a strong bank balance. Announcing its first quarter figures for 2009, the company revealed cash reserves of more than $1 billion, giving it scope for widening its brand awareness and appeal or for making large acquisitions.
So, watch this space for new developments from this monolithic global site with deep pockets, strong leadership, huge ambitions, and an eagle eye on what you're doing.
Andy Atkins-Krüger is off this week. This column was originally published on July 29, 2009.