Masters of Search in the streaming era

Search Experience on Netflix, Amazon Prime and You Tube

Across both audio and video formats, the online media consumption in our generation is higher than ever before.

This growing consumption by an ever increasing base of consumers will also mean varied consumer journeys – i.e. how the content gets discovered and consumed may have multiple paths.

I believe SEARCH plays a critical role in enabling many of these consumer journeys.

Yet, many of the leading players have a highly sub-optimal search.

Let me start with a few examples. (NOTE: these are mobile-app-experiences, the on-TV-experience may vary)

  1. I heard this song – Chal chalen apne ghar (don’t ask me why this song? I loved it until I saw it. ) – on the radio while driving. As soon as I reached home, opened up Amazon Music (if you are asking why Amazon Music? wait for the later sections) to search for it. And I just couldn’t find it. Whereas on YouTube, it came up instantly and under multiple spelling combos (critical for non-English language content)

2. I have been learning Spanish on Duolingo lately. And just wanted to have fun and watch a Spanish movie without subtitles.

I had similarly stumbled upon Fauda – an Israeli series that I really liked. And went looking for other Israeli series and movies across both Netflix and Amazon Prime. The Netflix search popped up the kinda results I was looking for, while those on Prime.. well.. have a look for yourself.

3. Searching for Ben Affleck movies. This one is interesting. While one can put the phrase “Ben Affleck Movies” in the app and see a list (don’t miss the 4th row in Netflix), its interesting how the cast section is leveraged across Prime and Netflix. Prime links it to a separate IMDB powered trivia section on the star, but no quick way to list ALL the Ben Affleck movies on Prime. Wouldn’t it be cool to just click on any of the cast or crew and see all their movies immediately.

You get the picture, right?

It got me thinking, these are big companies with millions of dollars in revenue and having the best technology and product talent, why then is the search experience sub-par?

There are a few hypotheses I could come up with.

Possible search/indexing challenges:

  • User-generated-uploaded-content vs original/copyright content – One big advantage YouTube has that the same song (as in the example above) is uploaded by thousands of users, each giving it their own vernacular spelling etc. This creates a rapid directory of possible variations all leading to the same underlying song. On the other hand, on Amazon Music there is just one instance of this song – the original version that is available. If the cataloging team failed to populate variations, search will always be failing on those cases. And there is clearly a tradeoff – while the chances of discovery are high on YouTube, the quality may not match that on Amazon Music or other such services.
  • Vernacular content – The search challenge becomes enhanced with vernacular content, because you are typing a non-English word in English – something that is prone to variations. Should I write it as Chalen or Chalein? So what’s the best solution? Start prompting possible matches as early as possible. But that’s easier said that done. Requires a very robust mapping of such variations and a link back to the content directory
  • Understanding the search context – Ben Affleck has been an actor, producer, director and even a writer. So when one is searching for “Ben Affleck movies” what are we really looking for? Maybe the best option is to ask the user in such instances or show all results – with tags – actor, writer, producer,director etc
  • What all are we indexing – while the above point is about understanding the consumer’s context during search, it is equally critical to decide what is powering the search. E.g. if a movie’s story has a Mossad character, does it qualify to come under “Israeli movies”. I guess we can argue it both ways.
  • Maybe it’s deliberate – It could be that the platforms have been intentionally designed to build suggestions as the primary driver for discovery. By the time I had seen my 3rd Israeli movie/series, my feed had a whole list of similar recommendations.

Search is not a boundary case, but…

Mapped a few dominant journeys for content discovery (as shown below) and few aspects become clearer

A few Consumer Journeys in content discovery
  • Search is NOT an edge case. But it is hard, especially in a non-UGC environment with vernacular content
  • It is super easy to implement the recommendation workflow. It carries a deep link and is highly scalable
  • Algos are scalable and provide a more reliable path towards solving for the key metric – # of hours watched on the platform. The algo recommendations can uncover titles that the user may never knew existed and hence would have never uncovered during the search-powered flow.

Maybe that’s why there is so much focus on optimizing the recommendation engine. The web is full of articles decoding the Spotify recommendation engine.

I am pretty sure that once the platforms hit an algo-powered-plateau of discovery and views , someone would decide to double down on solving for search.

Until then, let the bot and friend recommendations keep flowing.



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