July 14, 2024

“Grey’s Anatomy” is “soapy” and “emotional.” “Emily in Paris” is “campy” and “quirky.” “Our Planet II” is “relaxing” and “captivating,” while “Gravity” is “suspenseful” and “visually striking.”

Words such as these — displayed near the synopsis and movie-poster-style tile for each one of the thousands of titles on Netflix — appear to be scooped out of a grab bag.

In fact, they are a critical tool to induce viewers to click play, and a key to Netflix’s dominance.

The two- or three-word tags, meant to convey the gestalt of a show or movie, regularly help viewers choose a show from the service’s nearly endless library, the company says. The words are selected by about 30 employees — so-called taggers.

“Imagine magazines that have no cover lines, and there were just photographs on them,” said Allan Donald, a director of product at Netflix. “Tags make as much of a difference as a cover line in that snap ‘this is for me’ decision.”

As Netflix widens its Secretariat-like lead in the so-called streaming wars, the descriptive, if sometimes banal, tags stand out as an example of how the company stays ahead. Most rival streaming services don’t bother displaying tags, or don’t have the same financial resources to support a group of employees to do all the work behind them.

Netflix made around $4.5 billion in profit over the last four quarters, while most of its competitors continued to lose money in streaming. It commands 247 million subscribers worldwide, more than double many other streaming services. It accounted for 7.4 percent of total television use in the United States in November, according to Nielsen, far outpacing Amazon Prime Video (3.4 percent), Hulu (2.7 percent) and Disney+ (1.9 percent).

One of the reasons Netflix’s engagement is so high is that it deploys numerous tools to coax a viewer to watch. And that’s no small matter. There are more than 10,000 titles on Netflix and thousands more on other streaming services. Picking a show or movie is often tedious and frustrating.

Through years of testing, Netflix executives know the tools — what they call “promotional assets” — have essentially less than a minute to work. “On average, if you haven’t gotten someone to hit play within 53 seconds, the likelihood goes down precipitously” that the person will watch anything, said Eunice Kim, Netflix’s chief product officer.

The assets include the movie poster-style tiles, as well as trailers and synopses. Tags are another, providing a mini-preview to a viewer. Netflix also uses them to help populate theme rows of titles on the service, like “Goofy TV Shows” and “Girls Night In.” Like the image tiles, the three tags that a subscriber is shown — out of the handful attributed to each show — are based on the person’s viewing history.

Each time the company has removed tags altogether as an experiment, engagement has plummeted, executives said.

“People would take much longer to choose,” Mr. Donald said. “They would drop out of a title because they didn’t like it too much or because they didn’t know what they were getting.”

Julia Alexander, the director of strategy at the research firm Parrot Analytics, said the tags probably worked on a subtle level. As potential viewers, “when we see the term ‘gritty’ or we see the term ‘cerebral,’ we understand intrinsically what that means,” she said.

Not all of Netflix’s efforts to help subscribers find content have worked. In 2021, the company introduced a “Surprise Me” button, similar to the “I’m Feeling Lucky” search button on Google. Clicking it gave viewers something that Netflix’s algorithm was fairly certain they would like.

Even though executives felt “incredibly confident” that the algorithm was right, viewers rejected it. Apparently they wanted more choice, and the button was abandoned early last year.

The company now features a “Match” button, which tells subscribers, down to a percentage, just how much a show would be to their liking. That tool is apparently a bit confounding to most members, and it is probably on the way out.

But tags have persisted since Netflix’s DVD days. Ms. Kim said, diplomatically, that its competitors often chose, instead, a more “minimalistic” approach heavy on the artwork.

“We’ve been around longer, so we probably have just done more experimentation to learn what works for our members,” she said.

There are more than 3,000 tags, and their selection and creation are the subject of vigorous debate. The most-used tags are “romantic,” “exciting” and “suspenseful.” The least used? “Occupation: farmhand.”

In a recent meeting with 14 of the taggers — some with backgrounds as librarians or in information science — there was a discussion about whether they should try to eliminate a few tags that seemed to have overlapping definitions.

“Let’s start with something that’s been bubbling up from the analysts doing all of our tagging,” a senior tagger, Sherrie Gulmahamad, said in the meeting, held on the 10th floor of one of Netflix’s Sunset Boulevard offices in Hollywood. “We have ‘falling in love’ versus ‘finding love,’ and we also have ‘looking for love.’ Do we think we need to squish these down into one tag? Or do we think that they’re nuanced and there is a difference between them?”

That kicked off a debate, including about how the change would affect scripted series, reality shows and international markets. After a 10-minute conversation, it was settled that all three tags were distinct enough and should be left alone.

Likewise, there were discussions about whether tags like “cozy” and “villainous crush” should be introduced. Some taggers thought “cozy” was too subjective, and worried that describing a villain as crush-worthy was editorializing a bit much. A final decision was punted to a future meeting.

Mr. Donald said that when he interviewed prospective taggers, he gave them the “cocktail party test.” How would they describe a film to a person they had just met at a cocktail party? He offered a suggestion: “Oh, God, I saw this film, you should absolutely watch this, this sort of slick, cyberpunk thriller you’ll love.’”

In Mr. Donald’s view, that brief description — a slick, cyberpunk thriller — could provide the make-it-or-break-it moment for a viewer at home.

“If you’re on the fence with a title and you’re like, ‘OK, the box art looks catchy, and it’s popular, so everyone’s watching it — but is it for me?’” he said. “And then you’re like, ‘OK, it’s suspenseful — yes, this is for me.’ That’s what made you go click.”