Baidu’s CFO on the future of search
Baidu Inc.’s finance chief Jennifer Li said Wednesday half of Internet searches will soon be audio or visual instead of text, offering a new perspective on an $800 million deal between Baidu and two other companies in China to take on e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Inc. (BABA).
Two months ago Baidu teamed up with Tencent Holdings Ltd (TCTZF) and Dalian Wanda, China’s largest commercial property owner to form a venture that was billed as a competitor to Alibaba, but which lacked details about why two of the country’s largest tech giants and a mall operator were joining forces. At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s forum in Hong Kong, Li offered new clues.
“Mobile means people can make purchasing decisions on offline consumption,” she said on stage in an interview with Fortune’s Pattie Sellers. She said Baidu expects consumers to making shopping decisions using photos of someone’s dress in the mall, or a voice search of where to see a movie nearby, in addition to the more ordinary uses like “taking picture of yourself, and what movie star do you resemble? Or take picture of a plant, what is it?” Baidu has pumped money into deep learning programs to support the new searches.
Baidu Eye, the company’s answer to Google Glass, is also supporting the new search ventures. Only it’s not so much an Eye as an Ear. Li said Baidu’s device, in contrast to Google’s, is ear-mounted–in part, because so many Chinese young people have poor eyesight, making an eye screen impractical. Instead, a voice command delivers search results into the ear-piece. The market for, Where to buy Nike shoes nearby? is a big one in China, and one that ties Baidu’s contraption back to its goal of bridging online search into Dalian Wanda’s brick-and-mortar malls to take on Alibaba.
A veteran of General Motors Corp. (GM), who moved to China’s leading search company in 2008, Li sits on the board of Philip Morris International and is the first Chinese woman to serve on a Fortune 100 company board.
Li said she expects revenue from mobile searches to surpass PC searches soon. In the latest quarter, mobile revenue was 36% of total revenue. When pressed by Fortune’s Sellers, Li said it was growing at five points each quarter.