Embracing the Personal and Trivial

In most parts of the world, the conventional way of finding the best fish restaurant in town might be to consult food magazines or your friends. In South Korea, millions of people visit Naver, the country's biggest Web portal, instead. Naver has developed a search engine that is designed to answer any question, no matter how personal or trivial—how to remove a kimchi stain from your pants, for instance, or what plastic surgeon can offer the best nose job.

The expertise comes from Naver's 28 million users. Since 2002, when the portal launched its knowledge-search service, it has collected a database of 70 million questions and answers, which it draws upon whenever a new query comes along. The early start has allowed Naver to grab 75 percent of South Korea's portal market. More than half of Korea's 48 million people have logged on. They make 100 million queries each day.

Naver is a case study in how local portals, particularly in non-English speaking countries, can beat global giants like Google by taking local culture and customs into consideration. By tapping the enthusiasm of South Korea's Internet, Naver grew into the world's fifth largest portal in terms of search-engine queries, according to comScore, a U.S. Internet information provider. Google, by contrast, has less than 2 percent of the Korean market and ranks fourth in market share, after local portal Daum and Yahoo. "We cannot exceed Google in English-speaking countries," says Kwak Dae Hyun, spokesman for NHN, which runs Naver. "But in a non-English culture, we have a distinct advantage."

Naver's success was possible mainly because Korea's Internet users have been willing to spend time and energy answering other people's questions, using a national broadband network that reaches nearly 90 percent of all households. In 2000 Naver was one of the first sites to introduce integrated search results that included news, community forums, blogs, pictures and Web pages. More recently, Naver added books and journals. Net profit grew seventeenfold last year, and the company plans to enter the Japanese portal market by the end of December.

Unlike some more recent social search engines, Naver doesn't rely on just its users to provide the personal touch. The firm's 300-plus editors prioritize content so that searchers get the most relevant information. For example, the keyword "scandal" wouldn't provide information on just any scandals, but the ones currently hot in Korea. Some politicians and CEOs complain that Naver is not objective, but users keep coming back for that personal touch.

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