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Recommendations: The 'secret sauce' for Netflix in Australia

As Australia prepares for the launch of Netflix in 2015, we look at its recommendation engine and how an astounding 75,000-plus genres will be driving what you watch and how the service develops.

Netflix original "Marco Polo". Phil Bray/Netflix

With the exception of a possible 200,000 people accessing the streaming service through VPNs, March 2015 will be the first time that Aussies get to experience Netflix and, more importantly, the Netflix recommendation engine.

Netflix is extremely proud of the algorithms that power the shows it recommends to you. When talking about the Australian launch, Cliff Edwards, director of corporate communications and technology at Netflix, jokingly said "There will be so much content we don't know how people will find what they want -- except for our great algorithms."

"The technology behind the service is our secret sauce," Edwards added.

The engine, of course, uses your viewing habits -- and a rather detailed survey called the Taste Preferences -- to compile an idea of what you like watching. This gets combined with the ratings from other Netflix users who are deemed to have "similar tastes in titles to you" and set against the various TV and movie genres that the service recognises.

But it's those genres that are the real point of difference here -- we're not talking about "arthouse" or "action". We're talking about genres like "visually striking violent action and adventure" or "period pieces about royalty based on real life" or even "critically-acclaimed emotional underdog movies".

The genres are so wildly, wonderfully and weirdly specific that back at the start of the year Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic tried to break down the algorithms to see just how deep the rabbit hole went -- they found 76,897 "micro genres".

Betsy Sund, senior manager of global media relations at Netflix, shared an anecdote with us about her own experiences with the service. In the lead up to her own wedding she ended up with a raft of suggested watching under the tag of "British-themed weddings".

The micro-genres aren't just machine-made, however. They have their genesis in a group of real live people who watch and tag movies and TVs on different criteria. These tend to be TV buffs and film fans, some of whom even have experience in the entertainment industry.

This system of recommendations is key to the Netflix experience -- the company previously estimated that as much as 75 percent of what people watch is driven by recommendations.

In Australia, Netflix is planning to launch somewhat light. "Day one will be the smallest amount of content you'll see," says Sund.

Edwards adds: "we want the local audience to be the programmers -- we'll be adjusting the content based on the usage, on what people are watching".

If the recommendation system ends up driving as much traffic in Australia as it does in the US, this means that -- in a slightly roundabout way -- it's that collection of predictive algorithms that will be shaping the content that Australian Netflix users see.

Netflix has a lot of confidence in the service it intends to offer in Australia, even given some of the potential issues around other subscription services having the local rights for some content traditionally associated with Netflix.

"When Netflix ordered some of its original content, we locked in rights for our current markets and imminent launches," says Lindsay Colker, senior manager of Originals publicity. "We'll be obtaining global rights wherever possible from now on."

That aside, Netflix is anticipating that Australians will take to the service -- even those who may be currently using the US version of Netflix. Edwards said that launching in a new market normally sees the so-called backdoor access via VPN to drop off. " People discover that the locally-based service that's tailored to the audience is actually kinda good."