Aston Villa will need search success to become the most famous football club in China

Recently relegated Aston Villa have become the latest UK football club to benefit from huge overseas investment. The money is coming from Chinese businessman Dr Tony Xia – and with it the aim to turn the club into "the most famous football club in China". However, he faces a battle not only on the pitch but also with Chinese internet users if he’s to top their local search league table.

Over the last decade overseas investment in UK football has been massive: Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City all have foreign owners and it was recently reported that foreign investors have collectively doubled the value of 24 English clubs.

Football clubs, like every other business, constantly seek out new customers; it’s normal now for leading Premier League teams to tour in the off season to widen their fanbase, especially to the home countries of their rich owners.

This globalisation of UK football can bring huge success on home turf and abroad. But will Xia’s reported £65m investment and outreach to Chinese football fans guarantee success for Villa?

We took a look at local search results in Baidu (China’s leading search engine) and can reveal that the club's notoriety in China is lagging far behind established Premier League teams, for both Chinese and English search terms.

Top of the table is Leicester City – a position the club is getting used to after this season’s shock Premier League success. Leicester’s recent triumph brought the club international attention, something which may, in part, account for their huge search volume in China.

Competition for the lesser places is fierce, with other football franchises making concerted efforts to cater to their international audiences online: Arsenal appear to be the clear leader over the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, with a staggering 12,570 searches per day. Key to this is their content – and Aston Villa have some catching up to do as some clubs already post content in up to seven languages, helping them sell fan kit and memorabilia.

Clearly Xia has big ambitions on the pitch, but how might he be setting up Aston Villa to win online? Well, we’ve spotted a Chinese site in the making, but how should he be localising this so it ranks for key search terms locally?

Emily Mace, head of international SEO at Oban said: “There’s a big opportunity for Premiership football teams in China as we can see from the number of searches per day Arsenal is getting. To make the most of this Dr Xia needs to make sure that the Chinese site is focused on the different algorithm for Baidu as the rules can be quite different in China.”

Some of the main differences which will need to be considered include:

  • Domain Strategy is slightly different in Baidu as a local domain name (ccTLD) is generally preferred.
  • YouTube is banned so videos need to be embedded on the site using another platform to avoid Chinese visitors being unable to see the site.
  • Site speed is a massive part of the Baidu algorithm, even more so than in Google, so Aston Villa will need to consider using local hosting or a CDN to speed up the site for Chinese visitors.

Reaching specific, local social networks might also be key to his strategy – we can see there are already links to popular Chinese social networks Youku and SinaWeibo from the UK Aston Villa site.

While it’s clearly possible to excite overseas interest in the beautiful game, it does look as if Xia and Aston Villa have a tough season ahead of them; the club has just been relegated and in terms of search, it’s very much at the bottom of the table.

But could he really make Villa the biggest club in China? Well, if 12 months ago we asked you if Leicester City could win the Premier League, what would you have said?

Kezia Bibby is head of content strategy and Mark Pawlak is content strategist at Oban Digital

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