SEOUL, South Korea – Google Inc. (GOOG) has seeped into many aspects of online life across the globe, but the Internet search engine has failed so far to make any notable inroads in one of the world's most wired countries: South Korea.
Users here are some of the most Internet-savvy in the world, with millions of people running their own blogs and taking advantage of omnipresent broadband hookups and Wi-Fi hotspots.
South Koreans would seem like natural Google users, but the leading search engine is merely a bit player.
Google referred only about 17 percent of unique visitors to other sites in March, according to the Web analytics company WebSideStory. Another research company, KoreanClick, found that Google's Korean site referred only about 10.8 percent of unique visitors in February.
The search-engine field here is ruled by local NHN Corp.'s Naver Web site, whose links accounted for nearly 58.4 percent of search referrals, according to WebSideStory. KoreanClick's tally of Naver's share was even higher — nearly 80 percent.
Daum Communications was second with more than 48 percent, and U.S.-based Yahoo's Korean-language site No. 3 at 32 percent.
Why hasn't Google, which last week surprised investors with a 60 percent surge in first-quarter profit, done better in this technological hotbed? After all, its worldwide referral rate was more than 63 percent in March, according to WebSideStory. And while announcing its results, Google cited growth in international markets as a big factor.
Experts say Google's struggles here stem from unique factors in the Korean market, as well as Google's reliance on its software rather than human expertise to get search results.
The Korean slice of the Web is relatively small compared to the English-language chunks of cyberspace. Koreans often come up short when trying to find information in their native tongue.
To remedy the situation, Naver — which is more like a Yahoo-esque portal than a mere search engine — came up with what it calls Knowledge iN, where users post questions that are answered by other users — creating a database that now totals more than 41.1 million entries.
A search on the site brings up typical Web results along with the Knowledge iN database and news and blog sites.
"I don't know whether they expected it before or not, but it was actually a very good match for Korean culture," Wayne Lee, an analyst at Woori Securities, said of Naver's service. "Korean netizens like to interact with other people, they want to answer questions, they want to reply."
The most popular questions clicked on Naver's site focus on love, dieting or eradicating computer viruses. The queries that have garnered the most answers range from how dinosaurs are named to getting rid of pimples, and even musings on why telephone poles are spaced 165 feet (50 meters) apart.
Google relies on its computers to troll the Web and see which sites are linked most often by other sites, creating a ranking system based on how often a page is referenced.
Compared to Naver's people-created database, Google doesn't "have a system to combat that," said Danny Sullivan, editor of industry newsletter Search Engine Watch.
"It's sort of a unique place — South Korea is a place where humans and search still survive and thrive," he said.
Yim Kwang-soon, a 25-year-old Incheon university student who uses the Internet for an average five hours a day, said he almost always uses Naver for Web searches.
"As long as Naver's service is satisfactory, I don't think people will move to another portal site unless they provide some really unique services," he said.
Google, which started its Korea site in 2000, isn't wallowing in defeat. The company has since introduced its Desktop Search and Gmail products in Korean, and it set up a Seoul office last June, said Choi Myung-jo, sales manager for Google Korea. The company also is seeking to bolster its staff here with sales, product and marketing personnel.
The search company last year sent a "Google Experience" double-decker bus to universities and shopping centers across South Korea, offering information about the company and free Internet access — a rare marketing effort for a company that typically doesn't bother with advertising in the United States due to its sheer dominance.
Still, Google faces an uphill battle, simply because it can be tough to change Internet users' habits.
Many Korean Internet users start their Web browsers with portal sites such as Naver that offer detailed category listings, online shopping and news headlines.
Koreans embrace the visually rich Web sites because they also benefit from being a world leader in per-capita broadband connections — meaning fancy graphics and animation flow quickly onto their screens.
That's a marked contrast to Google's celebrated bare-bones approach, with sparse graphics and a single search box. The company has only recently sought to change its approach and become a place on the Web for people to hang around and not just jump to other links.
Lee Jae-suk, a 24-year-old university student in Seoul, said he prefers Naver for searches because of the wealth of its results that skim Web sites, blogs, news and video and organize them by category.
"Google's site is just not enough for everything. Their search results especially are too limited," said Lee. "I think Google is paying less attention to Korean Internet users' demands."