“Because you watched”: Netflix finally explains why it recommends titles that seem to have nothing in common

They have more in common than you’d think.
They have more in common than you’d think.
Image: Jessica Miglio/Netflix
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I recently watched The Keepers on Netflix—a documentary series about the unsolved murder of a Catholic nun and its ties to a sexual-abuse scandal at the Baltimore high school where she taught. It was a gripping non-fiction crime drama, like Making a Murder, so in a row titled “Because you watched The Keepers,“ Netflix recommended that series and Spotlight and The People vs. OJ Simpson. Also buried in that list was the NBC comedy series The Office.

A similar thing happened after I binged Marvel’s The Defenders over the weekend. Netflix recommended titles with obvious similarities like Arrow and Captain America: Civil War, but also White Gold, a Netflix original comedy about “the ruthless world of window sales.”

The streaming-video giant, which prides itself on its personalized recommendation engine, finds titles that seem to have nothing in common, but may actually be brilliant picks because its algorithms look beyond genre. They identify similar characters, familiar plot lines, or actors or directors that a user has shown an affinity for to recommend titles they’re likely to watch, the company explained in a blog post today. It also makes obscure connections based on what other members with similar viewing habits have enjoyed, as Netflix has said.

And those recommendations regularly defy genre. One in five people who watched Stranger Things had never watched anything from the horror genre on Netflix before, for example. And one in eight who watched Netflix’s Marvel series had never watched any other comic book-based titles before.

Viewers who watched Luke Cage were also drawn to crime documentaries like Amanda Knox or series like Black Mirror that exposed the dark side of society, even though they’re not obvious gateways to a superhero show. Members who watched Jessica Jones demonstrated a penchant for other series with smart humor, like Friends and Master of None, or titles with strong female leads like Orange Is the New Black. And fans of Daredevil watched shows like Bloodline and Breaking Bad that grappled with morality.

And it’s working. Netflix says more than 80% of shows watched over the last two years come through its own recommendations, as opposed to someone searching for a particular show and watching it.