Caixin
Jul 10, 2017 07:25 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Misleading Hospital Results Land Baidu Back in Hot Seat

Baidu Inc. has drawn the ire of a doctor at Shenzhen Children's Hospital, who complained on Weibo that using the search engine to find the state-run hospital often guides users to the wrong facility. Photo: IC
Baidu Inc. has drawn the ire of a doctor at Shenzhen Children's Hospital, who complained on Weibo that using the search engine to find the state-run hospital often guides users to the wrong facility. Photo: IC

(Beijing) — The love-hate relationship between Baidu and profit-hungry private hospitals is again in the public eye, little more than a year after misleading medical ads on the leading Chinese search engine led to a student’s death.

Searching for a state-run children’s hospital on Baidu’s map often guides users to the location of a private hospital of dubious reputation, according to a physician at Shenzhen Children’s Hospital on Friday, who complained on social media platform Weibo that many of his patients were confused and misdirected to the wrong hospital.

Baidu said in a statement that the search results on the map were unrelated to keyword promotions, and the mistake was caused by a mix-up of names and abbreviations of locations.

The company has been fiercely criticized in the past two years over weak vetting of its health care-related advertisers, which are an important source of revenue. A particularly serious medical scandal in May 2016 prompted an investigation from cyberspace and health ministries. 

Following the government probes into the death of Wei Zexi, a college student who died from a rare form of cancer after a search on Baidu led him to a costly but ineffective experimental treatment, the search engine has undertaken steps to identify and remove uncertified advertisers, in health care and beyond.

But the company is still not immune to advertisements from private hospitals, many of which are seen as dodgy — particularly those belonging to a family of “Putian clinics,” a branch of hospitals in Fujian province that had touted mysterious “home remedies” peddled by roving doctors. 

The top result under the keyword “hospital” on Baidu is a gynecology hospital whose stakeholders are based in Fujian, while “hypertension” triggers results from a private hospital of Chinese medicine with Putian ties.

Such clinics account for nearly 80% China’s private hospitals, according to figures published by the Putian Health Industry Society and the health ministry. A boycott by the ring of hospitals in 2015 over expensive pay-per-click fees revealed that Baidu charged as much as 999 yuan for a single click on paid keyword results.

Baidu dominates the search engine field in China with an 80% market share as of June, according to web tracker Stat Counter. Nearly all its profits came from search engine advertising and marketing.

Company CEO Robin Li admitted last year that purging ill-qualified advertisers shaved off 2 billion yuan in advertising revenue in a single quarter.

Baidu said in a statement after the crisis last year that it had taken a number self-imposed remedial measures, including limiting advertising and sponsored results to a third of the page — no more than four ads. However a search under certain medical keywords such as “scar reduction” or “pediatrics” shows that the company has begun to give itself a certain amount of leeway.

“Let’s hope that this really was a mistake, and not an intentional ploy to steer users in the wrong direction,” warned state-run publication People’s Daily in a short editorial on Sunday. “There’s nothing worse than following misguided advice when seeking medical attention — and for companies, to err in strategy.”

To some, regression for Baidu does not come as a surprise.

“As long as Baidu’s chief revenue stream comes from paid search listings,” said e-commerce lawyer Dong Yizhi, “the sites that appear at the top of your search will remain those in industries with high margins and risks to match — medicine, online financing, real estate and education.”

Despite online advertising regulations that were put in place in September, stipulating that advertising must be conspicuously labeled as such, Dong believes that the rules are imprecise and leave flexibility for companies like Baidu.

“Much of the information critical to us as citizens is in the hands of one company,” Dong said. “Does the public have unaltered access to information about health, education or even financial products? We don’t even see many reports about the case with Wei Zexi’s father — we would need to search on Baidu.”

Contact reporter April Ma (fangjingma@caixin.com)

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