In the new iOS update (version 6.5.8 released May 18th 2017), WeChat has released a new function: ‘WeChat Labs’, which allows users to enable some provisional test functions, although WeChat reserves the right to withdraw these functions at any time.
The first two test functions are ‘Top Stories’ and ‘Search’. After users enable these functions, they will appear under the ‘Discover’ tab.
In reality these are not completely new functions, but are in fact only new ‘gateways’ that provide easier and faster access to existing WeChat services.
‘Top Stories’ shows the latest newsfeeds, any articles your friends are reading or content you might be interested in based on WeChat’s big data algorithms. In previous versions, there was a similar function under the search button in the Official Accounts section that would show what articles or videos your friends were viewing.
This has very similar functionality to Bytedance ( known as Toutiao or Headlines Today), which is a news app utilizing unique data mining and recommendation technologies, and which analyzes data from users’ social networking accounts and individual reading habits to offer customized, relevant information and suggestions that meet specific needs and preferences. Toutiao does not have its own news network, and it does not offer opinions or commentary on the news items it feeds. According to Quest Mobile, in Q1 2017, Chinese smartphone users spend most of their time (1965 mins per month on average) on WeChat, with Toutiao coming in second (1021 mins). Interestingly, Tencent’s own news app only scores an average of 557 mins. Of all the news app categories, Tencent News has the highest MAU in Q1 2017, at 220 million, by which it enjoys a 40% market share, while Toutiao has 173 million MAU, at 30%. It is clear what the strategic objective behind WeChat’s move into ‘Top Stories’ represents.
‘Search’ works like a search engine and internal browser within WeChat. The search results comprise those from the Official Account, Mini Programme, and articles from Official Accounts and Moments. One interesting point worth noting is that while all the results seem to originate from within WeChat, i.e. it retains the look and feel of an internal search engine, in actual fact links from outside WeChat’s ecosystem will also be included if they point to websites, articles or videos your friends have shared in their WeChat Moments. This function currently exists in all versions as part of the ‘Search’ function in the ‘Chats’ tab, which also shows the ‘Chat history’ and ‘ID search’.
In April 2017 WeChat established a specialized search department. Although the current WeChat Search is still under the WeChat Labs and is still mainly an internal search function within WeChat ecosystem, the strategic thinking behind this attempt to develop WeChat as an handy search engine for the whole internet is clearly discernable.
Currently, in WeChat’s default search results, we can often see items from Sogo Baike (An encyclopaedia, similar as Wikipedia) and Zhihu (Biggest Q&A site in China, similar to Quora). Since 2013, Tencent started to invest in Sogo Search and also merged with Tencent’s own Soso Search. As of 2016, Tencent owned a 45% stake in Sogou, making it the 2nd largest shareholder. Zhihu received investment from both Tencent and Sogou in 2015 and is strategically aligned with Sogou search. Now there are both WeChat and Zhihu search channels on Sogou’s search site.
It won’t take long before we know whether WeChat’s search engine is being taken up with any enthusiasm by its sizeable user base and whether WeChat search is likely to pose a threat to existing search engines like Bing, Baidu, 360 or even its partner Sogo.
This new update also allows users to synchronize their Moments with their QQ Zone, Facebook and Twitter. It creates links to external sites and also attempts to drive traffic back to WeChat. On May 17th, Tencent published WeChat’s Q1 2017 MAU as being 938 million, which represents a 23% increase from last year. Having such a big user base and owning all their users’ behavioral data, once again has allowed WeChat to reposition itself to now provide search engine services, thereby continuing its quest to become much more than a simple instant messaging app. These new functions further strengthen WeChat’s user experience, underpinning its long-term vision to provide a powerful multifunctional app and to be the gateway to an entire online ecosystem of services, solutions and connectivity-based functionality for both the online and offline economies.