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What Netflix ratings really mean, and how they work

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:11PM EST
Netflix Ratings
Image: Netflix

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Given that Netflix has all sorts of secret codes that lets enterprising users browse through the most granular of movie genres (i.e critically-acclaimed dark French-language movies), it’s clear that there’s a lot more going on underneath Netflix’s pristine interface than meets the eye.

Even something as ostensibly straightforward as Netflix’s movie and TV show ratings are a bit more complex that you might otherwise assume.

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When you’re looking at movie’s splash page, for example, the corresponding rating you see isn’t a running average of how all Netflix users ranked the film. Rather, the ranking represents what users who have similar entertainment tastes as you thought of the movie. As a result, it’s entirely possible for the same movie to display two different ratings for two different accounts.

So while Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed only has a two-star rating for me (phew), it’s entirely possible that it has a 4-star rating for someone else.

The way this works is pretty straightforward and actually quite smart. Netflix effectively groups users with similar viewing tastes together in an effort to make its recommendation algorithm more helpful. So if you happen to be a viewer who has absolutely no interest in sports documentaries, you’re not going to be recommended a 30 for 30 episode even if it garners 5 star ratings across the board.

Similarly, if I see that shows like Prison Break and Breaking Bad have 5 stars, Netflix is basically saying that users with similar tastes to my own are really big fans of those two programs.

And of course, all of that data feeds directly into Netflix’s recommendation algorithm and helps determine what you see when you log in to the site.

As Netflix’s website explains:

How do ratings affect my Netflix recommendations?

We use a recommendation algorithm that takes certain factors into consideration, such as:

  • The genres of movies and TV shows available.
  • Your streaming history, and previous ratings you’ve made.
  • The combined ratings of all Netflix members who have similar tastes in titles to you.

The larger point here is that Netflix is simply trying to present users with content suggestions that they’re more likely to enjoy. Who can find fault with that?

Does this involve pigeonholing users? Sure, but Netflix’s primary concern is to keep users glued to their screens and watching content for as many hours as they can.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.