SXSW: Hulu Plans Smarter Video Recommendations

Last week, the popular online video destination Hulu marked its one-year anniversary by unlocking new social features on its site. Visitors can now log in using their Facebook, MySpace, Gmail, Yahoo!, or AOL user name and password. That allows them to discover, for example, which of their friends also watch “30 Rock” regularly, and permit each comment or review they leave on the site to show up as a notification on those other social sites.

The primary goal is not for Hulu to become a social destination, says the company’s CTO Eric Feng. Rather, it’s to pool the viewing habits of friends and people with similar viewing tastes to deliver better recommendations on what they might like to watch.

Currently, a good portion of Hulu viewers pick out TV shows and movies based on lists of the most popular videos on the site. That’s beginning to be a problem for Hulu, because it perpetuates the popularity of a few hit shows, such as Fox’s “Family Guy and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, while burying most of the site’s 1,100 properties. The setup may also scare away potential content partners, concerned that their videos will never make it to the top of these lists.

Over the course of this year, Feng says Hulu will be rolling out new, personalized recommendation tools to help users discover movies and television shows they might like based on their activity as well as the activity of their friends. Feng says friend networks will help the company solve the “Harry Potter problem” encountered by other recommendation engines on the Web: Since so many shoppers on buy Harry Potter books, the site’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature recommended Harry Potter books for wildly unrelated products.

Feng admits that the same phenomenon occurs on Hulu’s existing “Related Videos” tool – the most popular shows sometimes appear as related videos regardless of whether they are similar. But now that Hulu has Facebook Connect and other social apps, the site can break apart the general population of its users into circles of friends with similar interests, and deliver more relevant video suggestions. Here’s a video I shot with Feng at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, in which he discusses his vision of a social recommendation engine. He also addresses Hulu’s recent controversy surrounding its ban of Boxee, a video aggregation site.

Eric Feng, Hulu from Arik Hesseldahl on Vimeo.

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