Baidu.com takes its name from a 900-year-old poem but its ambitions are ultramodern: to become the Chinese-language equivalent of Internet...

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BEIJING — Baidu.com takes its name from a 900-year-old poem but its ambitions are ultramodern: to become the Chinese-language equivalent of Internet search giant Google.


Little known abroad, 5-year-old Baidu.com says it already is the world’s sixth most-visited Internet site, thanks to a strong following from China’s 100 million-plus Web surfers.


Now the startup founded by two Chinese veterans of U.S. tech firms is preparing to follow Google’s example with an initial public offering in the United States, hoping to raise $45 million.


Baidu.com is in the front ranks of an emerging group of Chinese companies that are trying to create Internet services uniquely suited to their country’s ideogram-based language and the political restrictions of its communist government


Baidu.com was founded in 2000 by Robin Li, who earned a computer-science graduate degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo and worked for U.S. search-engine firm Infoseek; and Eric Xu, a Ph.D. from Texas A&M and a veteran of American biotech firms. Xu later left Baidu.


The name — pronounced “by doo” — means “one hundred times.” It comes from a Song dynasty poem and refers to a man ardently searching for his lover in a festival crowd.


Google bought 2.6 percent of Baidu.com last year in a move that outsiders thought might lead to it taking over the tiny Chinese startup. But Baidu.com has stayed independent.


Google’s influence shows, though, in Baidu.com‘s spare white site that is nearly identical to the American firm’s.


By contrast, rival 3721.com — bought in 2003 by Yahoo! — is a busier, colorful site with animated graphics.


Baidu.com‘s IPO is modest beside the $1.2 billion that Google raised last August. But its tentative price for the block of shares being offered values Chinese company at $650 million.


The company says it already makes money — $303,000 in the three months that ended March 31.


China’s government promotes Internet use for business and education. But it also has launched the world’s most sweeping effort to police what its people can see online, blocking access to material deemed subversive or pornographic.


The extent of the censorship controls has been highlighted by the changes foreign companies have made when they launch Chinese versions of commonly used services.


Free-speech activists criticized Microsoft when the blogging section of its recently launched China-based Web portal rejected such words as democracy, freedom and human rights, labeling them “forbidden language.”


Google has also taken heat for blocking access to material that Chinese leaders dislike.


A search on Google’s China-based service for such topics as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama or the banned spiritual group Falun Gong returns a message that says “site cannot be found.”


Baidu.com‘s decision to stay independent could help it with intensely nationalistic Chinese regulators, eliminating any doubts about divided loyalties, said David Wolf, managing director of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing consulting firm.


Internet firms with foreign partners have been challenged by regulators who demand assurances that Chinese managers will stay in place and not surrender control to outsiders.


Baidu.com and other Chinese search engines also face daunting linguistic challenges.


Chinese uses thousands of ideograms. On a computer, they usually are written by typing words phonetically in Roman letters, then using software to convert them to characters.


Making things even more complex, the mainland’s communist leaders simplified many characters after the 1949 revolution, while Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other societies use the old system.


So a search engine must sift through twice as many characters.


And Chinese is written without spaces between words, making it hard for a machine to figure out where one ends and the next begins.