South Korea's internet giant
Now or Naver
At home, South Korea's biggest web portal has thrashed Yahoo and kept Google at bay.
Now its owner plans to conquer the world with its messaging service
Cutesy characters cost extra
DOWN jackets are typically stuffed with duck, not chicken, feathers. Why? Ask Naver.
So ran an ad in 2003 for a South Korean web portal of that name featuring an innovative, crowdsourced question-and-answer service.
In spite of such features, Naver's chances looked slim as it was launched into a crowded market dominated by Yahoo of America and Daum, another South Korean company.
Last year Naver indexed its 100-millionth question: a user asking for the title of a particular song, that begins with a giggle.
An answer took just 14 minutes to arrive: Blow, by Kesha, an American singer.
Every day around 18m people visit its homepage.
It has almost 80% of the South Korean search market, making the country one of just three where Google is not top.
Google accounts for just 4% of searches; Yahoo, now trailing behind as the tenth most-visited portal, stopped producing specialist content for the South Korean market in 2012.
When Naver was set up, there were not many web pages written in Korean.
So the Q&A service was a masterstroke—the users who answered others' questions provided lots of free content.
Naver handed out grades, from commoner to superman, to encourage them to keep writing.
Everyone wanted to be God in cyberspace, says Lim Wonki, the author of The Secret of Naver's Success, published in 2007.
Some Western web portals are suffering declining ad revenues, but Naver's are still rising.
Jay Park of Samsung Securities, a stockbroker, says the portal's online-advertising sales, which provide three-quarters of Naver's revenues, grew by 7.7% last year.
He expects it to keep growing at this sort of rate.
As the money rolls in, it no longer has to rely on free material from users, and can buy up lots of exclusive content, from encyclopedias to videos, which it blocks rival search engines from accessing.
Unsurprisingly, this annoys them.
In 2012 Kim In-sung, who built up Empas, a search engine, published a critical book, Naver's Two Faces.
He says it is heaven for users but a black hole for content providers.
News organisations grumble that Naver pays them a pittance for licensing their stories.
Naver started out as an in-house venture by the IT division of Samsung, the country's largest industrial conglomerate.
But Samsung had sold the last of its shares in the company by 2004 and Naver is now the sixth-largest of the companies in the local KOSPI share index.
Mr Kim says it has begun to exhibit some of the least attractive traits of the chaebol, in particular by buying up smaller potential rivals and by using its market power to stop other portals getting access to content.
In 2013 the country's Fair Trade Commission threatened the firm with a big fine, for allegedly unfair business practices.
Naver persuaded it to drop this in return for it spending 100 billion won on helping smaller internet firms and on educating consumers about their rights.
Naver responds to all this by arguing that users still have a choice of portals:
when a nude video of a Korean singer went online last November, visits to Google spiked because Naver had blocked it.
Naver also says it is itself suffering unfair conditions in the mobile market, because 90% of South Korean smartphones run on Google's Android operating system, which offers Google as the default search engine.
Despite this, Google has only 15% of the mobile search market.
Go abroad, go mobile
A bigger threat is KakaoTalk, a mobile platform and messaging app that, like Naver, offers games, e-books, photo storage and other services, launched in 2010 by a founder of Naver who left the firm. South Koreans now spend more time on it than they do on Naver.
KakaoTalk's domestic success spurred Naver to go abroad and go mobile.
When a tsunami hit Japan in 2011, Naver's employees there huddled at the office and, in one-and-a-half months, created Line, a free mobile messaging and call service that is now being promoted as the Facebook of Asia.
Within 18 months it hit the 100m-user mark, which took Facebook and Twitter around four years; in November 2013 it surpassed 300m downloads, making it a serious rival for WhatsApp, an American messaging service Facebook is paying $19 billion for.
If, as Mr Park predicts, Naver owes half of its revenue to Line in five years, it will have become one of Korea's few global players among internet firms.
However, Naver's shares fell sharply on February 20th, after Facebook announced its takeover of WhatsApp—on the assumption that the social network's backing would make WhatsApp impossible to beat.
Naver's shares recovered this week on rumours, which it denied, that a big Japanese tech firm, Softbank, was offering to buy a stake in Line.
Naver's early attempts to get into big foreign markets went badly.
Plans aired in 2009 for a Naver California and a Naver Korean-American never took off.
Another big rival to Line, WeChat, is the most popular messaging app in China and, like KakaoTalk, is backed by Tencent, Asia's biggest internet firm.
So Naver is concentrating on two smaller countries where Line already has a foothold, Thailand and Taiwan, and on places where smartphone use is low but set to boom, such as India and Mexico.
In the past year it has spent around 250 billion won on marketing its messaging app in these and other countries.
But Naver's real strength abroad, says Mr Park, is its decade of experience in the portal business, doing everything from games to shopping to online newspapers.
Line can do all these too, whereas WhatsApp is, until Facebook gets its hands on it, mainly a messaging service.
Facebook still relies heavily on advertising, but Line makes 70% of its money from games and electronic stickers—oversize and elaborate emoticons, with names such as Cony the Rabbit and Brown the Bear, which users can insert into picture messages.
Coca-Cola and Barcelona football club have paid Line to design special stickers for them.
It is unclear if smartphone users in Europe and America will warm to such cutesy characters, but Naver hopes to draw those wary of Facebook's open network to Line Band, a closed social-networking service.
Though Mr Park expects Line's valuation to converge with that of Facebook in the long term, for now it is tiny by comparison—about 9% the size.
Nevertheless, in 2010 Naver's founder, Lee Hae-jin, chided employees for slacking and reminded them of their company's master plan: a first decade struggling; a second decade, marching to number one.
1.stuff with 使塞满；灌输某种思想
Rihanna seen strutting her stuff with her new hair and blackberry.
It can always pay its bills, because it prints the stuff with which bills are paid.
2.ask for 请求;要求
We ask for a glass of barolo each.
Dare to ask for something you've always wanted.
3.set up 建立；准备；安排
Saudi arabia has set up an anti-corruption agency.
The students also set up debating teams.
4.hand out 分发；拿出
They said that excellent companies actively look for excuses to hand out rewards.
Plans were under way at his center to hand out maps so people would understand which areas were at risk.