Chinese Site Design and Display Ad Models

Let’s begin this lesson by my pointing out the obvious, and that is I am pompously attempting to sweepingly discuss the design of websites written in a language I have no hope of ever learning how to read.


That said, I must also confess to have a grand total of ten days inside of China, time enough to see one major city, a village, some suburbs, the usual tourist spots, and the airport. Therefore, I have no sense of the rich cultural gestalt that drives Chinese design, assuming most of my Jungian design insights from the decor of bad American Chinese restaurants which serve food that is about as related to real Chinese food as a can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti-O’s is to a good tagliatelle con ragu in a trattoria in Porto Ceresio.

When I was at IDG, one of the world’s few truly global online publishers, with master brands such as Computerworld, Infoworld, and PC World translated independently at the country level in dozens and dozens of languages, I arrived with the misbegotten notion that brand hygeine demanded a templated design across all sites. Then I met the folks from IDG China, who were delivering traffic numbers that essentially blew the original US brand sites out of the water, and who were following an ad model completely unlike the CPM, impression-based, lead generation dog fight we all have come to know and hate in the US and West.

In other words, the Chinese sites were kicking ass in terms of traffic and money and not spending a lot of time worrying about eye-tracking, heat maps, golden triangles, and audience development.

To the Western eye, they are an utter hash. What Steve Gillmor at ZDNET calls the “Las Vegas” approach to online publishing, where everything blinks, slides, pops-up, takes over, and otherwise — to plagarize from my own earlier post — induces epilepsy to someone enamored of the stripped down Web 2.0 design gestalt pioneered by Google and exemplified by Fiickr, (neither of which has much if any in the way of ads) and the user interface genius of the iPod (of which I saw none in ten days in Beijing).

There are some rules of thumb in U.S. online publishing models which say that two ad impressions per page is great, three is acceptable, four is pushing it, and five is insane. Some Chinese sites are throwing off ten to 14 impressions on their homepage. The skyscraper unit — the vertical “tower” that runs in the margins (and which I claim to have invented at in ’95 when I had the insight in the shower that the first thing to vanish during a scroll-down was the 468×68 horizontal banner pioneered by Hotwired) — on Chinese sites the things follow you down the page, skipping along, and, in some cases, there are units that float all over the page, impossible to kill or stop.

If you want to read a good explanation of the chaos, I suggest you check out Virtual China and it’s post on the aesthetics of abundance. They write:

Hans Juergen-Bucher (Media Studies, University of Trier) has a provocative 2004 paper titled Is There a Chinese Internet? which reports the results of user studies he conducted in Germany with Chinese Internet users. One of his most interesting points is about what he calls an “aesthetics of abundance” that shapes Chinese website design and interface.

In Chinese culture we can find two different kinds of aesthetical systems: the “aesthetics of abundance” and the “aesthetics of emptiness” (see Pohl 2004). Websites in China are usually designed along the principles of the “aesthetics of abundance” which refers to the Chinese popular culture and what can be seen in New Years pictures, calendars or paintings on dishes. The “aesthetics of emptiness” is part of the Chinese high culture and heavily influence by Zen and Chan Buddhism. The principles of this kind of aesthetics did not influence web design up to now in a significant way. The attractiveness of the “aesthetics of abundance” not only relies on its integration into popular culture but also on its symbolic meanings: strong and rich colour, density, and opulent presentation symbolize happiness and wealth.

I’ll add some links later. It’s past midnight in Durham and I need to be up in 6 hours.

Beijing Nightlife

Saturday night I received a full-on dosage of Beijing nightlife. I am a cautious drinker, as I have lost all capacity to go toe-to-toe with the big dogs in a colossal piss-up.  Scotch, the beloved “brown wine” is my preferred poison; martinis, Negronis, tequila, and Kamizazes are my downfall. I come from a long line of illustrious dipsomaniacs but haven’t been a big party animal for some years now.
The notion of getting hammered in a foreign city wasn’t too appealing in a security sort of sense (my idea of a great reality show would be to dump clueless Americans in the middle of Beijing at 1 am on a Saturday night with no money, and send them on a survival treasure hunt), but being a former bartender (Balboa Cafe, corner of Greenwich and Fillmore, San Francisco 1981-1982) I know how to comport myself in the presence of party people, and while I prefer to have a bar between them and me, I played the good sport geek in his Brooks Brother blazer, shirt, pants, and loafers and went partying with the Beijing Party People until o’dark thirty.

First it started with this man — Henry Lee — the “Steve Rubel” of Beijing, (of Studio 54 fame, but in Henry’s case, 88). Henry took me under his wing — literally — Tibetan prayer bead bedecked arm around me the entire evening, and introduced me to the mob at the Centro, an upscale Chuppie bar in the Kerry Center. One of these women is the granddaughter of someone really important, but I forget who. I would make a bad papparazzi, explaining to the editor: “I think one of these people is Brad Pitt. Will you buy my picture?”

Henry is very devout and wants to build schools in Tibet. He has owned or opened five bars across the city and is one of those rare people whom everyone seems to know and be happy to see at all times. He was one of the most favorite friends I made.
The Centro was a nice, genteel kickoff to the evening. Then we decided to lay down a food base to soak up the remainder of the evening by joining a bunch of rowdy English and Chinese film makers at a Sichuan restaurant for a 20-course feast of great food, which included the ubiquitous metal tub of “hot fish” which is spiced with Novocaine or something-caine (actually, a spice someone said was called Ma) that makes your lips numb, I guess to spare them the heat to come. I, of course, being Cary Grant, master of debonair and suave, the Anti-Post of table manners, nuked yet another shirt with a blob of red food launched by the chopsticks catapult and spent a major portion of the meal scrubbing myself with my napkin and soda water.
Tons of Tsingtaos — big ones, tallboys — were downed to quench the chilis, then out came the dreaded bái ji?, which smells like Brut or Old Spice and is served in little thimble glasses, and people started screaming the Mandarin equivalent of Bottoms Up at me. I expected a pistol to be served at any moment. Lonely Planet calls this stuff “liquid lobotomy” and I saw it advertised on the side of buses in big plastic jugs (to be fair it comes in far fancier decanters as well). In hindsight I should have tried cleaning my shirt with the stuff.

Then off we wobbled to Bar Street, or more properly Sanlitun, which was a city block lined with open doored techno-throbbing cafes filled with people half my age, some with laptops, none dancing (that happens in dance clubs, duh), all stylish and so-affected with ennui that I felt like taking a nap.

But in a few minutes I found myself in the back room of a back street bar owned by a nice Italian gentleman, and this time the drink was champagne, which I normally avoid like acetone in a closed closet. Four bottles and all around me are getting utterly hammered and belligerent and smoking six cigarettes at once and I am practicing all the classic bartender tricks of pretending to drink while not drinking (the secret is go to the bar, order a round of shooters for the mob, get a water shooter for one’s self, and make a big deal of it. Do that three times and everyone stops noticing that a designated driver is emerging from within their ranks.

And so it went from there. A total bar crawl out of the Lost Weekend. This was my favorite place. It changed colors and so did my stomach. I couldn’t watch it for long.

As my good friend Charlie Clapp has said, “Nothing important happens after midnight.” And indeed, nothing did. Were I but 25 years old and wearing my drinking pants as opposed to my teetotaller’s skirt, it could have been an epic evening for the ages.

I am grateful that karaoke was not involved as that is an activity I cannot abide (along with dancing). I tend to request inappropriate songs (I am Woman/Hear me Roar and Afternoon Delight) which I sing in a loud, Kermit-the-Frog voice to insure I won’t be asked to perform an encore.

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