Baidu, China’s dominant search engine by some distance, is reeling over attacks on its reputation following the death of a student from cancer who found questionable treatment from a hospital that advertised on Baidu.
Wei Zexi, 21, suffered from a rare cancer and was looking for treatment online when he found a hospital in Beijing, through Baidu’s promoted search platform, that offered treatment.
After his family pooled together around US$30,000 for the treatment, Wei later learned that it was far less effective than advertised. His health deteriorated and he posted his anger online before his death on 12 April, claiming he was misled by Baidu and saying "I had no idea Baidu was so evil at the time."
The post went viral and Baidu has since been savaged in both social and traditional media for allegedly promoting questionable medical treatment in exchange for profits. Medical paid search makes up 30 percent of Baidu’s advertising revenue.
In a statement, Baidu said: "Our deepest condolences go out to Wei Zexi’s family. Baidu is a trusted company and we uphold extremely high standards to make our platform safe and trustworthy."
The Cyberspace Administration of China has confirmed it is investigating Baidu over the incident and its CEO, Robin Li, has been summoned for questioning. The news led to a more than 7 percent drop in Baidu’s share price.
Earlier this week the traditional media wrote scathingly of the company. The People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, said: "There have been hospitals making profits at the cost of killing patients who were directed by false advertisements paid at a higher rank in search results."
Meanwhile Xinhua, the largest state-owned media agency, implied that Baidu valued money over user welfare in an editorial, adding that the company’s reputation had taken a "huge battering".
"From where we are standing, there seems to be a growing disconnect between Baidu and its corporate social responsibility," Xinhua said.
On social media consumers are attempting to organise a boycott of Baidu,
State broadcaster CCTV has also reported that the Beijing hospital in question has suspended all new admissions.