Search Is The Ticket, For Movie Distributors

We thought that superior search would be a high priority for online movie distributors. They are feeling the competitive heat, right?

In reality, there seems to be a correlation between search expertise and how movies are delivered, sold, and a few other attributes. Let's review this entertainment landscape.

When buying or downloading a movie, you typically search title, actor and director. Sometimes you also refine the search by genre, year, MPAA rating or studio. Search results vary tremendously, due mostly to available movie inventory.

The Movie Retailers:

Larger e-commerce sites have set the bar, moving beyond basic search to recommendation engines. Amazon uses its own suggestion paths based on the movies themselves and your current session. When personalized, Amazon makes suggestions related to what you have browsed or purchased earlier. See more in this recent ReadWriteWeb summary.

Netflix and Blockbuster also take pride in their recommendation engines for movie customers. They both offer subscription plans for their large lending libraries. Netflix operates its Cinematch (tm) engine and seeks to improve through its $1 million search contest. Likewise, Blockbuster enables its own engine based on your interests.

The Movie Downloaders:

All the downloaders revert to basic search again. Distributors like Apple's iPod, AOL and MovieLink require customers to pay for each movie download. iPod and AOL offer movies from specific studios, while MovieLink appears to sell or rent more library selections. Regardless of the user interface and sizzle, all provide searches by title/actor and not much more.

When the business model changes, search practices become less consistent. Vongo and Netflix require customers to sign up for subscriptions. Vongo provides basic search, while Netflix uses its recommendation engine. Perhaps these practices reflect industry roots:

* Vongo comes from the TV world, and offers unlimited viewing on your TV or computer. Through a Microsoft deal, they are the exclusive movie provider for Windows Vista this year. Vongo promotes its first run and current movies from Starz.

* Netflix has roots in the e-commerce world, and now delivers online viewing through your browser. Engadget reports on how viewing time is pegged to monthly payments. Netflix plans to roll out thousands of library titles.

The Search Divide:

At this point, there's a dividing line between the searchers and recommenders. At least one stalwart, Lycos, believes entertainment and suggestion-based search matters. They even filed a patent lawsuit this month against Netflix, Blockbuster and Tivo. We don't think this literally places recommendation engines at risk, but goes after how these engines work. It will be important to monitor the outcome.

There's no question that you need differentiators when the movies are all the same, everywhere. If recommendation engines keep customers engaged and involved, there's a good chance that search will be a key factor in movie distributor success for now. With such a competitive field, we'll likely see some parity over time -- and maybe another search leap forward we haven't envisioned yet.