Chinese internet users will be able to download more than 1 million tracks
Pulling the L-plates from a service that launched in trial mode a year ago, the downloads service marks an aggressive move by Google to take on the Chinese search site Baidu.com, which has more than twice the market share of the California-based technology giant.
Users looking for artists and song titles on Google's search site in China will be able to browse an extensive catalogue of artists on Warner Music, EMI, Universal Music and Sony BMG. Tracks can also be searched by mood, tempo and genre, and Google also says it is working on a voice search technology for the site.
The site is a partnership with the popular Chinese music site Top100.cn, co-founded by Chinese basketball star Yoa Ming, and music labels will share related advertising revenue with Google.
Google China's president, Lee Kai-Fu, admits the launch was a "huge leap of faith". "We are offering free, high quality and legal downloads," he said. "We were missing one piece ... we didn't have music." Google accounted for 16.6% of China's search market in 2008, according to the Chinese Internet Network Information Centre, while Baidu has a 76.9% share. But illegal music accounts for a significant amount of traffic to Baidu and, until now, Google has not been able to compete.
Lee said there were no plans to extend the service beyond China, which has a particularly acute piracy problem with an estimated 99% of all music files circulated illegally. China accounted for less than 1% of the world's legal music download market last year at just $76m, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Western web firms have been keen to increase their audience in China, which overtook the US last year as having the world's largest population of internet users.