3 Things We Learned About How Netflix Recommends Shows

You just finished watching (or re-watching) Breaking Bad on Netflix, what do you watch next? Perhaps, Switched At Birth? Wait, what? While you might not see the connection between a show about a high school chemistry teacher dabbling in the drug trade and a family drama about two teens switched at birth, the streaming service’s recommendation algorithm does — at least in the case of my viewing habits. 

For years, Netflix has been rather mum on how it determines which shows to recommend to viewers on their home screens. Now, the company is peeling back the curtain — albeit in a very, very small manner — shedding a little light on why it might recommend a Freeform drama to die-hard fans of Walter White’s shenanigans on the AMC show.

The Associated Press reports that there are several layers to Netflix’s recommendation process — here are three things we found interesting:

1. More Than Meets The Eye

While you don’t see the connection between a John Mulaney comedy special and Netflix’s documentary Making A Murderer, that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities.

To find this common ground, Netflix employs “taggers” who screen shows and assign descriptions to the programs. This information is then entered into the streaming service’s top-secret algorithm.

Once the shows are tagged, the algorithm assess viewers’ habits and determines which tags would be suited for that customer.

2. It’s Different For Everyone

You likely don’t have the same taste in shows as your grandma, so it makes sense that your Netflix homepage, and recommendations, would differ from dear ol’ gran.

To this end, Todd Yellin, Netflix vice president of product innovation, tells the AP that each customers’ homepage displays categories and shows in a different order than other viewers.

For instance, after the requisite “New Releases,” “Netflix Orginals,” and “Continue Watching” sections, my homepage shows: Because You Watched: Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later; Comedies; Top Picks, TV Shows.

Co-worker Mary Beth sees something entirely different on her screen: Comedies, Because you watched Glow; Because you watched The Keepers; Top Picks for Mary Beth.

It should be noted that both my and Mary Beth’s recommendations based on past viewing listed only original content or shows unique to Netflix.

3. It Apparently Works

The oddball connections Netflix makes might seem, well, odd and out-of-place for many viewers, but it seems to work for the service.

Netflix claims that four out of five shows watched were discovered by viewers through recommendations, the AP reports.

“It’s not like we could have guessed this ahead of time,” Yellin said. “We just track which shows tend to cluster together.”

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.