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Universal Search LLC's Steve Harnsberger Talks OTT Discoverability

What are some of the challenges of enabling ecosystem-level search for OTT devices like Roku and Fire TV and leveling the playing field for niche OTT services? Steve Nathans-Kelly, VP and Editor-in-Chief of Streaming Media, sits down with Steve Harnsberger, Founder & CEO, Universal Search for an in-depth chat about the ways his company approaches these issues.

“I think we all understand that one of the big problems with the OTT experience, both from the user level and also at the channel level, is discovery, right?” Nathans-Kelly says. “Discoverability is the difficulty of finding what you want to see…I think one of the first things that struck me at Streaming Media at a conference was a guy on a panel who said, ‘What's the point of looking for a show on Netflix if it takes you longer to find it than it takes you to eat a slice of pizza? I think that problem is just magnified if you're a channel provider and you can't get your show seen…”

Harnsberger laughs and says, “Yeah, I think it was last week at another conference where the industry panel thought that the biggest problem in the streaming industry for consumers is they spend 25 minutes, and they can't find what they're trying to watch. It's both search and discovery, as you said, both on the side of the consumer experience being bad, but then on the side of having a streaming channel, the biggest problem is there are 5,000 competitors and nobody's heard of their channel. And that's where Universal Search comes in. And I think what's important is, first of all, let's define it, what is Universal Search? It is a streaming search at the platform level on the homepage of Roku, on the homepage of Fire TV, on the homepage of Samsung, Apple TV, or Google TV – there is a search function."

Universal Search Function is on the Homepage of Every Streaming Ecosystem

Universal Search Function is on the Homepage of Every Streaming Ecosystem

"So someone goes in and searches by voice or by text and requests. It could be a contextual search or it could be a title, or it could be an actor…and it is the content that is marketing the channel.

So they're looking for Midnight in Paris and they see, ‘I have to pay for it on Vudu,’ or they're looking for Squid Game, they didn't know it was on Netflix. So the channel is marketed by the content and the app logo is placed next to the search results. But you can't buy that placement. You can't buy search results; you have to do it through metadata engineering.”

) Roku Universal Search Shows a User What Channel to Playback Content From and at What Price

Roku Universal Search Shows a User What Channel to Playback Content From and at What Price

“And so that's where you come in,” Nathans-Kelly says. “You work with the channel vendors…how does that work?”

“Well, actually, the company was founded in 2017 after had created Universal Search,” Harnsberger says. “First of all, it's not universal. There are only a couple hundred apps. Roku has the most…over 500 that have onboarded their library to search. And each platform, Roku included, has a separate metadata spec. You have to reconfigure your data to match their JSON spec. You have to do deep links; you have to give them box art. And it's not a software skill that is normal for an app engineer or a content management engineer. It's a metadata feed configuration engineer. So Roku hired the team that I have now to onboard the majority of the first hundred apps to Roku search because, at that time, they only had five that were willing to go through the process. And in doing so, we were introduced to TNT and TBS, and all of a sudden, we're like, this is a business. These apps need help! It's typically a three-six -month process to onboard. And once in, they're one of the select 100 to 200 channels whose results come up in search…their app logo appears in search, and then someone can click install and play for a free ad. Or you can do a trial for a subscription app.”

“And then with the companies you've worked with and the channels you've worked with, they've seen some pretty remarkable results in terms of their visibility,” Nathans-Kelly says.

“The search results were so powerful, it actually shocked us,” Harnsberger says. “The one thing about the algorithms inside of Apple and Amazon or Roku…this is not like the Google search engine where you actually do your site map, and you can see what your top terms are, and you know what the most popular terms are or how someone came to your app. It's all obfuscated. It's not public knowledge. So the only thing you can see is after you put your data in, you don't know what's happening inside the search algorithm. You can see your app installs, your streaming hours, your unique users, daily users. So what we saw [in] our last 4 case studies, the worst one saw a 500% increase in new app installs and that was the worst one! So say they were doing a thousand app installs on the first of the month from the last month. And they ended up doing 5,000 new app installs in the next 30 days.”

Roku Universal Search Case Study with Revry an LGBT AVOD/FAST App Shows a 500% Increase I App Installs

Roku Universal Search Case Study with Revry an LGBT AVOD/FAST App  Shows a 500% Increase I App Installs

Streaming search really is the most effective user acquisition tool that 90% of the apps are not using today

Harnsberger highlights additional very successful case studies. “We had one that was 10x…an independent film app called Gravitas. And what it was is basically people have heard of the content. The content is marketing the app now. And so an app install is worth a dollar. If you pay for an ad on…on Roku, the screensaver, you pay $2 or $3 per app install. So, based on our model, it's probably about 10 cents or 20 cents that you're paying to get the opportunity to have a new user. So…search really is the most effective user acquisition tool that 90% of the apps are not using today.”

Roku Universal Search Case Study with Indie Film App Gravitas Shows a 1000% Increase I App Installs

Roku Universal Search Case Study with Indie Film App Gravitas Shows a 1000% Increase I App Installs

“And so how do companies actually find out that this is possible?” Nathans-Kelly asks.

Harnsberger responds, “I think that this is the biggest problem…they're not aware of it. An app team, when the engineers are told “the boss says you need to go live on Roku, Apple, and Amazon” and the engineers build the app, they go through the whole process, they launch the app and we're done. And nobody said, ‘hey, there's a secondary process that you have to apply for, first of all, and be approved at Amazon and at Apple and Google. They're not aware that [of] this highly effective marketing tool because the engineers were building apps when they onboarded. The marketing team then comes in and says, “well, how do I grow my audience?” But the marketing team is not in the backend of the app. They're not on the front end of the app engineering side either. I don't think they're aware of it. I mean, Netflix knows, and Paramount knows, and the top 50 channels they're in search because they know that if you can't be found, then you don't exist. The truth is, I think it's lack of awareness, that search is this incredibly powerful tool and that you have to go through the process of onboarding your metadata, either with us, do it yourself, or work with your engineering team…”

“That makes sense because, you know, Netflix, HBO…these are so few of the companies in this vast OTT marketplace now,” Nathans-Kelly says. “I mean these are the giant trees and then there are the niche content providers that just can't be seen.”

“Actually, the truth is the niches are the most important,” Harnsberger says. “So if you have the crafty channel, it's quilting and knitting and all of this, well, how are they going to find you? You likely have a small budget, but if anyone search[es] for quilting, or knitting, that will pop right up and say go to the channel. So if you're in a niche of whatever it is…yoga meditation…if you're the Ted Channel, climate change…We're working with an app called the Disability Network right now., how do they get discovered?  And if you search disability streaming, there's no one that's really owned this genre. So I think actually the smaller apps that have gone after a particularly targeted audience, they're the most important to be in search. Because you can really identify the people [who] are searching, they are self-identify saying, ‘Hi, I want a quilt, or hi, I want to watch The Seventh Seal on the Criterion Channel. So they've actually announced that they are the perfect candidate for the content inside the channel before they've even installed the channel. So the audience, the search prospect is possibly the highest quality prospect to discover for the app that they previously never have heard of. And they didn't realize that connectivity. So search is the bridge between the library and the user. The channel must have onboarded the content library metadata so the search engine can find and deep link to it, install the app and play the title. That is what we do, ingest the content data to connect the search to the channel.

“The users are looking for the content, but they don't know who has it,” Nathans-Kelly says.

“That's the number one thing,” Harnsberger says. “The previous company we came out of was called GuideBox. And that was an app to help you find which app to play the content you wanted to see. For example,  I don't know where to watch Home Alone, I just don't know what channels, I mean who has the rights to let me see Home Alone 2? And the big one this year is who has which season’s right to play Yellowstone ? The rights were all chopped up in different apps. Season Four is in a different place [from] Season Three… If they know what they want to watch. If you actually know what's in your watch list…the search will tell you, oh, it's over here. It's in Peacock or it's in Gravitas, it's in Criterion. And it will also show you, it's free on the Sinclair STIRR app to see Dr. Phil, but it's $1.99  TVOD on Amazon. Prime. And this is the other problem we have, right? ‘Oh shoot, I bought the whole series Happy Valley on Prime and it was on Netflix free,  and I paid 39 bucks for it when I could have watched it free on Netflix. I actually did that, right? I was like, and I'm in the business. So, you know, search can save a consumer ‘s money and it can also be a very successful consumer experience.”

“Well, yeah,” Nathans-Kelly says. “And you know, I'm in the business too, right? And I often feel like when I get results on Roku that I'm not really seeing all the results that are out there. I don't think I'm seeing the whole picture.”

“In this case, because the search engines are obfuscated, we don't know what they're doing,” Harnsberger says. These are businesses that…they can take someone when they say the Carol Burnett Show, well it might be inside of the Roku Channel, and it might be inside of the Shout Factory Channel, and it might be inside of the FreeVeeChannel. So the question is, how are those results being presented to a consumer so that they can actually see all of them? And sometimes it will be watched on Freevee, right? And there'll be another button. It'll say click here if you want to find it anywhere else on Amazon, right? So that's a way of sending the searcher to your own app where you have a possibly better revenue share model on it. And that's just smart business, right? But the user experience, perhaps you want to see all of the app choices you know, and you want to see the free ones, the subscription ones, and the transactional ones. Because maybe you don't want to subscribe and you'll pay $3.99 once because who wants to sign up for a trial, right?

But universal search actually works and it works very well for those channels that have thought about it, and onboarded their metadata to the search engine.  Apps  that had a search and data strategy [that] said, ‘I'm going to get my data out there everywhere possible so I can get my app discovered  organically by the person who's looking for the very product  or title in my library.”

Roku Universal Search Case Study with ShoutFactoryTV

Roku Universal Search Case Study with ShoutFactoryTV

Nathans-Kelly asks Harnsberger to clarify the term “ecosystem-level search.”

“We all work in multiple streaming ecosystems on the television,” Harnsberger says. “Roku is number one  OTT platform in the United States – 50% of the streams – then there's Fire TV [at] number two, then there's Apple TV, and then you have Samsung growing, and Vizio…each one of them has built a streaming ecosystem and a data silo that has transactional, TVOD, subscription SVOD, ad-supported  AVOD and FAST apps all inside their service.  So in terms of onboarding your channel content library and data to each data silo, these are locked proprietary silo, and each platform built its own search engine and everyone else has to configure their content data to meet each platform’s proprietary metadata specification. And they're completely different. So…if you want to distribute to one ecosystem, it's like you must learn their language, so you have to learn Portuguese. So if you want to go to another ecosystem, Apple, you have to learn the Apple flavor, and that data spec is like learning Chinese. If you want to go to Amazon, you have to do the Amazon flavor, you know, and that's Norwegian. So you would actually have to learn a whole different metadata feed language 10 times to get into the 10 different data silos in 10 different streaming ecosystems..

That’s why there's only 120 channels in search that have gone through the data onboarding because it's a friction-filled process that might take six to 12 months to onboard your data, to get it QC tested to have the deep links function and to get everything to work. But just imagine…you know, the Chargers versus the 49ers game, that was a Sunday night, right? Searching for some high-valued sports content that's barely functioning just now. We haven't gotten the live sports searching working. Most of search is VOD and FAST EPGs are not wired up yet, that’s coming though.  And discoverability is a real problem for FAST EPGs too, so when search links to live FAST that will be a big deal as its rolled out.

 These data silos in the streaming ecosystems that we're working within, they're literally constrained by their business objectives. And the business objectives can make it difficult for many channels that have to onboard their content data across all of the ecosystems to get their data successfully onboarded.  It is not a simple process.  That’s why we are here to make universal search in streaming accessible to any streaming channel”

“Well it sounds like we still have a ways to go, but Universal Search is helping us get there,” Nathans-Kelly says.

“It actually works pretty well, but at the same time, the fact that we're limited to a hundred or two hundred apps when we're asking Siri and Alexa…and you know, we had 500 channels back in the day with Comcast cable right?” Harnsberger says. "And now there are thousands of channels.. What we're doing is we're missing out on a lot of the niche content. All the smaller apps aren't bubbling up and search and discovery is even more important for the smaller channels.   Our team had to have a different pricing model for the smaller niche apps to help them because they can't pay the bills the same way that the big channels can. If you can see a 500% increase in new daily users from being in search on Roku and you're not doing it, well then apps have to start thinking about what's on the roadmap for next year. We think Universal Search itself is the number one most powerful user acquisition tool that people aren't using. That's basically it. And they need to figure out how to get their app and content into search in this year’s roadmap, one way or another.”

“And that's critical because without [the reach], they can't sell ads,” Nathans-Kelly says. “They can't survive.”

“Because they can't find things in search, we think that's why they're going to the FAST channels because it's just clicking down, down, down,  OK I’ll watch the funny cat video play. FAST channels have actually grown because searching and finding what to watch isn't working perfectly,” Harnsberger says. “FAST channels are making discovery easy. You just fall into a channel, you push play, and you hang around, right? So it's still an evolving marketplace. We'll see where it's headed, but we think streaming video universal search is a highly effective user acquisition tool, in terms of discovery. Getting apps into search is the best thing going on.”

Steve Harnsberger: steve@universalsearch.io

Learn more about OTT discoverability at Streaming Media East 2023.

[Editor's note: This is a sponsored interview with Universal Search LLC. Streaming Media conducts sponsored interviews based solely on their value to our readers.]

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