The battle for search-result relevance has a new front: Hulu. The Web-streaming TV company has just added the ability to search captions so you can hunt for a keyword in the text of a show you like. On top of that, they've added analytics about which parts of each show are being viewed the most. Is this a maneuver to beat Google?
The feature is currently in beta test mode inside the Hulu Lab (which sounds like Google right from the start). But it is fully operational and lets you "search the captions for thousands of videos across hundreds of shows." The idea's pretty simple, it's essentially a keyword search function for any show that has closed captions packaged along with the audio and video.
Why on Earth would you want to do that? Well, it's an excellent way to sate your curiosity: Imagine a character in a show refers to a real-life person that you're not familiar with, and you're not even sure how to spell their name. A quick caption search should be able to give you the answer, and among the search results you'll probably be able to find a video that will furnish you with the details you need to know (Hulu's even got a hover-preview function built into the results so you don't have to see the whole clip). The other reason it's useful is if you want to watch a particular episode of a show you like, but can't remember which exact episode it is: Search for some keywords you remember, and you should be able to quickly work out which one you want.
Along with this familiar search system, Hulu's also implemented what it's dubbed a "heat map." For any show with closed captions and enough user views and searches, a pop-up graph is available that charts user interest as a function of time through the show. Hulu's not saying exactly what metrics it's using to calculate the results, but it does cite the map as a useful way to navigate to a popular part of the show (making it easy to find, say, the bit of the Colbert Show that everyone's talking about without you having to hunt through the whole thing). The graph would seem to be a handy curio for most Hulu users, but it's easy to imagine media business and advertising folk finding many uses for the data. And Hulu, in its blog announcement about the new system, even provides a more light-hearted example: Want to know when Morena Baccarin slinks onto the screen in the pilot episode of V? Check the heat map:
The reason Hulu's doing all this, of course, is to keep its users engaged and logged onto the site. The search function is an extremely clever way of attracting you back to watch a show you half-remember. And that, of course, is in Hulu's interest as it tries to grow viewing figures in it's battle to beat cable TV and be the Web's TV channel. Given the recent lucrative (reported $25 million) tie-up between Twitter, Bing, and Google, maybe Hulu's even hoping that its caption feed can earn it some licensing dollars with a similar search engine deal. Though perhaps Google's not a viable target, with its interests definitely focused on developing YouTube: It too has experimented with captions recently, but as an automated system for user-submitted clips.