What are Algorithms?

This video is an introduction to the basic ideas of algorithms. It explains how computers, websites and digital products need instructions that answer the question “what should I do next?” in order to complete tasks, serve customers and gather information. It teaches:

  • Why algorithms are similar to offline customer service
  • How to think about and visualize an algorithm
  • Why algorithms run our favorite websites
  • How a popular music website might use algorithms

Video Transcript:

When you visit your local coffee shop, it’s a nice feeling when they recognize you.

You don’t see it, but you can imagine the barista following a set of simple instructions in their mind when you walk in.

It may go like this: A new person arrived. Do I recognize them? If no, say “Hi!” If yes, go to the next step. Do I remember their name? If no, say “Welcome back.” If yes, address them by name.

Every day, this process repeats and customers experience great service. For a coffee shop, it works well because the baristas remember dozens of regular customers.

When we use things like websites and computers, a similar process happens. These technologies rely on instructions that are programmed to make decisions like the barista in our coffee shop.

These sets of instructions are called algorithms and they are a part of nearly everything we do in the digital world.

For example, when we take a digital photo, move a mouse, or type a word in the real world, algorithms are working behind the scenes to turn these actions into something digital on the screen.

But on the web is where you’re likely to see the magic of algorithms in action. Whether it’s search results, your news feed, or your favorite app, algorithms are working behind the scenes to figure out what to show you next.

For example, a popular website may have algorithms that, in a blink of an eye, go through thousands of steps for millions of visitors every day.

Consider a music website that must always account for new music, changing user tastes and their business. Designing better algorithms can be a big way that they make their website better.

Here, algorithms help them understand who their visitors are, What music is likely to appeal to some users, How often songs are played by different types of users, And who should see the latest offer.

It’s going through steps like these and thousands of others that are the building blocks of algorithms on popular websites. And they matter. Teams of people are constantly designing and updating algorithms to reflect changes over time.

When they’re working as designed, they can make your favorite websites feel more personal and useful.

You may even start to feel like the website knows you better than your local barista.

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