Lack of cross-browser testing specifically targeted at Chinese web browsers could result in an improperly functioning website for nearly 50% of Chinese users. That's because, as of July 2022, nearly 50% of desktop users in China are visiting websites through one of the locally produced Chinese web browsers, the most popular ones being UC Browser, 360 Safe, QQ Browser, and Sogou Explorer. The numbers are less striking on mobile, but still significant: Over 27% of mobile users access the internet through one of the locally produced Chinese web browsers, mainly UC Browser and QQ Browser.
Why is it important to consider website optimization for Chinese web browsers?
Cross-browser testing is a mainstay of web development. The issue was most prominent in the early days of the web when notoriously terrible browsers such as Internet Explorer 6 resulted in massive breakages of websites that looked and felt fine on more sophisticated browsers.
Tweaking and testing websites to work on the seemingly ubiquitous IE6 was both painful and time-consuming. Eventually, companies took the bold move of simply refusing to optimize for such an outdated browser, forcing Microsoft to finally upgrade its browser engine to something better.
Unfortunately, the Chinese market doesn't work that way. The ethos that the Great Firewall of China (GFoC) has engendered in the Chinese market is that you either follow the rules and are welcomed in, or you will be simply left out.
Businesses simply don't have the option to "force Chinese browsers" to upgrade. You must find a way to cross-browser test on Chinese browsers inside China to ensure your website works properly inside China and on Chinese browsers. Different browsers in China tend to focus on specific niche markets. To penetrate each of these markets, it is necessary to test on all Chinese browsers, not only the leading browser(s).
A Chinese web browser use-case — WebRTC
We ran an experiment to determine if Chinese web browsers handled the WebRTC protocol differently from foreign browsers.
WebRTC stands for Web Real-Time Communication. It is an open-source project that provides a framework for websites to embed video and voice communication in a website. It also allows users to view videos without needing to install any plugins.
At the time of our experiment, Sogou Explorer (a desktop browser) did not support WebRTC, nor did some versions of QQ Browser. On mobile, several versions of UC Browser did not support WebRTC.
Although support was added later to Sogou Explorer, the experiment points up the importance of cross-browser testing on Chinese web browsers. What works in Western Browsers might not work on Chinese browsers. It's also important to conduct the cross-browser test inside China. This is to eliminate other factors that might cause a website to not load properly, such as blocked resources as a result of the GFoC.
Common cross-browser compatibility issues to avoid in China
There are three primary issues to consider when doing cross-browser testing in China.
1. Lack of testing on real devices
Testing must be carried out on real, physical devices, not on virtual machines. Testing should also ideally be conducted inside China by people who are physically present in the country. Although there is a time and place for VPN and virtual device testing — such as in the early development phase — our experience has shown us that VPN testing can lead to inaccurate results when testing websites in China.
2. HTML validation
The most basic test any website should go through is HTML validation. It is important to use services that are not blocked inside China to validate your HTML. For example, Google's HTML validator would not work and would therefore provide inaccurate results.
3. Plug-ins and extensions
Don't rely on any plug-ins or extensions for your website to work. These might be blocked in China.
If your website must use a browser plugin, such as a crypto-wallet plugin that is necessary to access DeFi websites, then this should be thoroughly tested on Chinese browsers inside China. If your website's code relies on plug-ins or extensions (such as WordPress plugins or Drupal modules), these should absolutely be tested on Chinese browsers inside China as they might contain calls to resources that are blocked inside China.
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Solutions for cross-browser compatibility issues in China
Cross-browser testing in China follows two very precise steps:
1. Determine your target browsers
The first step is to determine what browsers you will need to test on. Current market share data for China indicates that the following browsers absolutely must be tested (bold indicates Chinese browsers):
- Chrome (37.5% market share)
- 360 Safe (22.3%)
- Edge (14.8%)
- QQ Browser (7.4%)
- Firefox (5.9%)
- Sogou Explorer (4.5%)
- Chrome (52% market share)
- UC Browser (17.5%)
- Safari (17.5%)
- QQ Browser (9.5%)
Other browsers that are used on mobile are Samsung Internet, Android Browser, and Firefox.
2. Manual and automated (synthetic) testing
Both manual and automated testing are needed to ensure the Chinese browser you are using can properly render your website.
Automated testing is greatly limited, but does have its place. It offers insight into your website's availability across China as well as load performance issues. But it does not offer much insight into browser-specific errors.
For this, manual testing is imperative.
By manually testing a website, testers can personally verify a website's look and feel and usability on a Chinese web browser, both on desktop and on mobile.
Manual testing is not easy. It could take as little as a few hours or several weeks. But it is the most thorough way possible to fully and completely test a website's performance on various Chinese browsers inside China.
A balanced strategy would include both manual and automated testing. Automated tests often leverage commercial test automation frameworks and tools which allow you to shorten your release cycles and ship code faster. Manual testing then allows you to tweak that code so that it's perfect across all Chinese browsers.
3. indicators to check for in Chinese website performance
The core speed attributes to test when testing websites on Chinese web browsers are:
- DOMContentLoaded — How long it takes for the basic HTML to load, minus additional requests for style sheets and other such resources.
- Transferred (file size) — The total size of files being loaded from the server. For Chinese websites, this should ideally be less than 10 MB.
- Requests — Web pages require many additional resources to function properly — mostly style sheets and script files. This adds to the total number of requests per web page. The total requests should be kept to a minimum, or resources should be loaded asynchronously so that they do not block the web page from being rendered.
Different web browsers will have varying times for the DOMContentLoaded event. It is also possible that they handle asynchronous requests differently. Some browsers might handle compression and decompression differently, resulting in varying speeds and file sizes per web page. Related article: 5 ways to increase your conversion rate by optimizing your website speed in China
Case study: VPN Testing
The GFoC makes VPN testing unreliable, according to tests that we conducted on the AirCanada, Fairmont, and Four Seasons websites.
Manual testing proved far more reliable and test data remained similar across tests.
VPN is also not really a solution for mobile browser testing. Although emulators can be configured on a desktop computer, and can then be accessed via the VPN connection, it is best to test on a physical device.
Case study: eLearning
We tested several eLearning websites from inside and outside China and discovered that the websites that operated from within China generally performed better overall when compared to the western websites.
This wasn't always the case — Lynda and Khan Academy had faster DOMContentLoaded times but only by several milliseconds, and Lynda fell short on its video performance.
But the superior performance of the two Chinese websites indicates thorough testing across Chinese web browsers as well as within China as well. Related article: Do popular Learning Management Systems (LMS) platforms work in China?
Case study: Travel booking
Our travel booking study revealed mixed results. In some cases, they favored Chinese websites strongly, and a handful of other cases revealed that even the Chinese websites needed to be optimized. The main takeaway from our study was that websites that were hosted inside China or that used CDNs that were near to China routinely outperformed websites that were hosted further away.
What else have we found out?
We also performed cross-browser and the results showed very clearly the importance of this type of testing in addition to normal website testing
The cross-browser test reveals that the Airbnb website loads slower on a 360 Safe browser compared to the Chrome browser. In general, we found that the Airbnb website was highly optimized for the Chinese market so the differences in load times were not terrible.
But the experiment does show clearly that the same website will perform differently on a different browser. And so it is vital to test a website thoroughly across all Chinese browsers to ensure maximum reach to the entire Chinese market. A test we ran on the Fairmont Hotels website revealed that it was so badly prepared for the Chinese market that it did not even load on a Chinese browser. Fairmont is an international hotel brand with eight hotels in China.
We also found that the global Coursera learning site loaded eight times slower than Airbnb:
Airbnb's exceptional performance across tests indicates that they have implemented a full solution to their Chinese website optimization, not only cross-browser testing.
The total solution to optimum website performance in China
GoClick China recommends that websites in China get tested both manually and automatically on a regular basis. This will show up any errors in the website early and so website owners can take the necessary actions fast to address any errors.
It is important to monitor websites in China constantly because of the ever-changing landscape.
GoClick China can analyze websites, provide regular testing, and offer suggestions to keep a website functioning properly in China. We can especially offer cross-browser testing of Chinese browsers to ensure that websites function properly in those browsers.