Abstract The amount of digital video content has grown extensively during recent years, resulting in a rising need for the development of systems for automatic indexing, summarization, and semantic analysis. A prerequisite for video content analysis is the ability to discover the temporal structure of a video sequence. In this paper, a novel shot boundary detection technique is introduced that operates completely in the compressed domain using the H.264/AVC video standard. As this specification contains a number of new coding tools, the characteristics of a compressed bit stream are different from prior video specifications. Furthermore, the H.264/AVC specification introduces new coding structures such as hierarchical coding patterns, which can have a major influence on video analysis algorithms. First, a shot boundary detection algorithm is proposed which can be used to segment H.264/AVC bit streams based on temporal dependencies and spatial dissimilarities. This algorithm is further enhanced to exploit hierarchical coding patterns. As these sequences are characterized by a pyramidal structure, only a subset of frames needs to be considered during analysis, allowing the reduction of the computational complexity. Besides the increased efficiency, experimental results also show that the proposed shot boundary detection algorithm achieves a high accuracy.