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In a move to catch up with Chinese search site Baidu, Google on Monday began offering free music downloads through its Google China home page.
Google's partner and music source is Top100.cn, a 4-year-old Beijing company that aims to promote licensed online music distribution in China. Google became an investor in the company in 2007.
"Google's vision is to put music at your fingertips with the help of search technology," said Kai-Fu Lee, VP at Google and president of Google China, in a statement. "Today, the launch of Google Music Search is the beginning of a new music search experience. We would like to take on this challenge. In addition to the traditional ways of searching by song or artist names, Google has a dream to allow Chinese people to enjoy searching for music in new ways based on musical characteristics."
Google Music Search includes, in addition to traditional keyword searching, the ability to search for specific categories of music and for songs of a certain tempo or tone.
About 62% of Internet searches in China go through Baidu, compared with about 27% that go through Google.
Baidu's popularity can be attributed in part to its ability to search for specific media file types, such as .mp3 files. Though many of the songs found through Baidu are not authorized copies, Baidu's users, like Napster's users a decade ago, don't seem to mind.
Google also allows users to search for specific file types through its Advanced Search page. However, .mp3 files and other audio formats are not included among the available file types. And even though a search restricted by the unlisted operator
filetype:mp3 will sometimes produce a few results, Google clearly takes steps to limit the .mp3 files that its search service will find for U.S. users.
For Google, the Chinese market is hugely important. China had the largest online audience in the world last December, with 180 million Internet users, according to ComScore. That represents 18% of the total audience worldwide. The United States during this period accounted for 16.2% of the total audience.
A January report from the China Internet Network Information Center claims that the number of Chinese Internet users reached 298 million, with 279 million broadband users, by the end of 2008.
Last week, the Chinese government began blocking access to Google's video-sharing site YouTube. Though no official reason was given, it's widely believed that Chinese authorities objected to the presence of videos depicting Tibetan monks being beat by Chinese soldiers. Access was restored Friday.
In an e-mail message, a Google spokesperson described the deal as an expression of Google's long-term commitment to China. "We're optimistic that this is a good first step in building an ecosystem in China that's healthy for users, artists, and the music industry," the spokesperson said. "It's a win-win: Google and Top100 are giving users an easy way to find and access the music they’re looking for while giving music labels and publishers a new channel to distribute, promote and make money off of their valuable music content."
Google's spokesperson declined to provide financial details of the partnership.
Google and Top100 began testing the new music search service back in August. Google is characterizing its offering not only as a convenient, time-saving way to obtain music legally, but also as a way to avoid potential computer security problems from infected downloads.
InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of Google's endeavors offline as well. Download the report here (registration required).