Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hi, I'm "Pookie," and I have a video-finding problem (pause).

Netflix's page for Caddyshack offers "More Like Caddyshack" : Bart Got a Room, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Saint Ralph, Golfballs!, The Breakfast Club, The Jerk, Hairspray, Harold and Maude, Fletch, Fletch Lives, and Caddyshack 2.* It's in reverse order, but since these are the only 11 matches listed, I don't even need to analyze; the list speaks for itself. The systems that categorize movies (and recognize connections among them) don't work well enough, especially for a big business like Netflix. But they're not alone.

It's not as if Amazon is any better. Looking through a CV is awkward, since entering an artist's name won't yield pages by name; you only ever get a list of the artist's works. If you want to see everything Jung wrote, you type "Carl Jung" or a title of his and then click on the "Carl Jung" link. Using normal searches, it's the fastest way to see Amazon's catalog for one artist. This is way more complicated than it should be.

And I'd be bothered less if I hadn't looked at Amazon's page for "The Rolling Stones" mp3s. 2,666 hits sounds excessive, even assuming there are 8+ versions of "Satisfaction." Then look at the list sorted "by artist." You'll see there's many entries with random bands singing "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Rolling of the Stones."

It might be a bit much to expect their computers to automatically include or exclude cover songs and cameo work, but can't Amazon just show me a list of mp3s by one British rock band, 1962-20xx? Can't they do that when I look up "Exile on Main St." and click on the link that lists "The Rolling Stones" as the album artist? Even this method produces bad results! You can only get this right by typing the band into a search, then selecting "Amazon's The Rolling Stones Store" from the list that comes up.

But that's not all. Getting an exact match quickly is hit-or-miss, unless you use advanced searches. You can type in a complete and accurate title for something obscure and 5 other unrelated products may appear topmost on the list, presumably because they rank higher and contain 2+ search terms. It makes sense for online retailers to include ranking in searches, but a direct title result should always take precedence.

I'm pretty sure this is common sense, not nit-picking. It's all the more confusing because Amazon and Netflix are successful, long-standing tech companies. Since it's their livelihood, shouldn't their tech be first rate?

This leads us back to where I started: information and search management on these sites are surprisingly shaky. Since this goes to the core of their business model, they must lose money from frustrated customers who look for quicker alternatives. This is especially true given the depth and breadth of these problems. Let's run through this together, huh?...

Netflix pages for a particular movie aren't nearly as helpful as they could be. If a tv show or picture has sequels, multiple seasons, etc, this information isn't on its unique page. If you're looking at "Terminator" or "Columbo: Season 3," there's no fast way to know about or access any related flix. That's a big omission, don't you think? Common sense says a video rental service would have a section of every film page dedicated specifically to showing this; links to such should also be standard.

Of course, "Terminator 2" and "Columbo S5" may show up in the "More Movies Like" section, which you should remember from the first sentence above. This selection is unhelpfully at the very bottom of the screen, after many user reviews and all the movie info (i.e, widescreen, PG-13). In the end, you still can't be sure you'll see "T2" when you should because, as I explained at the top, the system is wonky.

For one thing, I've only seen it generate 5-11 mixed entries. It shows some movies that are nothing like the one you're looking at (e.g., no sequels, thematically different entries). Worse still, when you click the "not interested" button underneath a title, that movie still appears when you reload the page or return to it later. So what's the point of this button? It doesn't lower the odds that a movie is your first search hit. Isn't the whole feature under-utilized if it can only recognize/display 11 specific movies as being "Like Caddyshack?"

Let's be fair. Let's try "The Jerk" as another Netflix test case. The bottom of the page has a section called "More like The Jerk," and it reads thusly: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Roxanne, Into the Woods, Auntie Mame, Parenthood, Eddie Izzard: Unrepeatable, All of Me, Pink Panther 2, The Pink Panther, and Pennies From Heaven. This list makes some sense, since Steve Martin or Bernadette Peters are in almost every pic (save "Auntie Mame").

Still, there's only one movie from the same time as "The Jerk." And since "TJ" is considered a classic, and how many of those results are "great comedies?" How many seem far too recent? How many have a similar sense of humor? How many are Ugly Duckling stories that satirize race issues, or feature a sweet white fool who's raised black (and proud)?

This may not look like enough proof that there's a problem. Well, what happens when you add "The Jerk" to your DVD queue? A new page loads with "More Like The Jerk." (seriously, these pages makes the film title noticeably larger than the rest) On this page you'll find: Raising Arizona, Caddyshack, Jury Duty, Heartbeeps, Beverly Hills Ninja, Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Oh God!, The Toy, Slaves of New York, and Pink Cadillac. Off the bat, I know 4 of these movies share the same timeframe or comedic spirit. "B&BDA" and "Pink Cadillac" feature cross-country travel (but that's it), while 3 seem utterly out of place. No matter what, this bunch of suggestions is unsatisfying. It seems clear that Netflix, Inc. should be aiming higher...

Usability issues on Netflix don't end there, though. Like Amazon, typing a film title to find one specific movie produces uneven results. I decided to test Netflix's selection of Italian horror king Dario Argento. He's involved with two movies, "Demons" (for screenplay) and "Demons 2" (for direction). The following is the list of results when you search "Demons" :
Demons, Angels & Demons, Crusty Demons: A Decade of Dirt, Crusty Demons: The Beginning, Crusty Demons: Night of World Records, a "Crusty Demons Series" section, a "100 Demons" section, Crusty Demons: Global Assault Tour, Black Demons, and (of course!) Demon: The Unexpected Guest Tour: Live at Tiffany's 1982.

Doesn't it sound like Randall in Clerks, ordering new porn titles for the video store?

Once you stop laughing, join me for a recap of my problem here: For some reason, the sequel for the movie with the most direct title match did not appear on the page. It was the 5th entry on the second page of search results. That sort of thing isn't an "optional extra" for a money-making search engine, especially in 2010.

Imagine you were browsing the IMdB and typed "Cocoon." Now imagine that "Cocoon 2" is the 15th search result. You'd consider that search a failure, wouldn't you? I certainly call it failure when I look for films titled "Demons" and I see 5 hits for motocross videos ("crusty demons" is such a stupid name). As a final note, the first "Demons" didn't appear on Netflix's Dario Argento filmography, though he wrote the screenplay. How many ways can I show that this needs serious fixing?...

None of this is to say that Netflix (or Amazon) is somehow deficient. When you start to type a search term, there's an auto-complete feature; it provides a scrollable list of entries that are exact word hits. Amazon does the same thing. The big A offers 4 appropriate albums after listing Stevie Wonder by name, in addition to specific movie, music, and mp3 category results. As with Netflix, this all happens before you even load a new page.

I can understand why the companies here might feel that this function balances out the poor search pages. But I can't understand why Netflix wouldn't address the lack of "series" entries on their pages. And of course they have to correct the ironically-titled "More Like This" service, as well as the broken "not interested" button.

So is all this a wide-spread problem with search engines? I only know enough to make the complaints that I've already written. Still, while some searches require a little work better than others, it's the recommendation systems that are clearly a mess. Let's look at another biz that relies strongly on recommendations...

If you go to a show's page on Hulu, the first thing you'll see below the show banner is a horizontal list of episodes. A list of episode clips is below that, and then there's another sideways list entitled "You Might Also Like." Let's focus on their odd pairings...

Hulu's recommendations contain shows (a) from the same network, (b) with similar themes or (c) with the same leads. The last and the second make sense, but the second doesn't work so well. The first makes the least sense and works the worst (unless you want some random entries). Try some examples:
In the case of (c), if you're watching SyFy's "Sanctuary," (whatever that is), it will list the "Stargate" show because it has the same actress. If you watch an episode of "Cheers," then "Frasier" will appear (it hits for (b) and (c)). Option (a) is the most difficult, since USA's "Burn Notice" recommends 3 unrelated series from the same station. "White Collar," "Psych," and "In Plain Sight" have nothing to do with the adventures of an ex-spy in Miami who talks like a cooler MacGyver...

I can't fault Hulu for suggesting "House" when I look at "Grey's Anatomy." Both are medical dramas, of course, but I don't know that they're thematically similar or share a fanbase (outside of healthcare workers)... The page for "House" suggests USA's show, "Psych." What's the connection there? Lead males that are jerks? "Mystery" and comedy together?

Hulu's suggestions might not be worth mentioning if their search features were better. Try selecting "TV Shows" and then refining it to "Horror." Suddenly, all of the horror films on Hulu become part of the search. It's insanely hard to turn this off, to browse only through "tv>horror" offerings (I still don't know how). And it happens with any genre you type in, so it's not like their recommendation program has a command saying, "too few horror shows = include the movies too."

I'd expect less if Hulu's main banner wasn't divided into "TV" and "Movies." That alone indicates that you could browse one and not the other.

It's certain that Netflix and Amazon should be search-able like a dictionary. They don't live off ad revenue like Hulu does, they sell merchandise. And don't these problems hurt their cash flow? It makes sense that in this case, profits depend on how quickly and accurately customers can search for products.

Yet for all their flaws and problems, I like and regularly use these businesses. If you're reading this, I doubt you're new to the Internet, and odds say that not only have you used them, but you've probably encountered these issues already. Maybe you ignore or accept them. Have you noticed this too? Has it slowed you down in the past?

I only bother writing about "issues" like this because the Internet has become the main access to film for so many (in NYC, in America). Real-world rental franchises like Hollywood Video have gone the way of the dinosaur. If I'm going to write about movies, I don't want to restrict myself to reviews and film articles - I have to at least try to discuss directors, franchises, studios, as well as prices, legal issues, and access (not a complete list).

There's actually a productive goal here since I really hope something comes out of drawing attention to these faults: that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon actually become aware of these problems and then do something about it.

I'm absolutely certain I'm not the only one who holds the following opinion - if you're on a movie rental website and search for the word "Breakin" then "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" should be the second result (it's 4th on Netflix). I think it's just a no-brainer...

*When I took screen captures of the list, "The Jerk" and "Nick and Nora's" got replaced by "Wildcats" and "Bring It On Again." These are not improvements.

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