The Recommendation Engine

I was recently browsing through Amazon and guess what ? All that was displayed to me were a bunch of books, books which probably I might never buy at all. I wasn’t quite surprised about the choices Amazon laid out to me. One reason for this is, I am a very dormant online buyer. So the choices Amazon laid out to me is a reflection of the fact that,it doesn’t know me well at all. But wait a minute, did I just say, that Amazon doesn’t know me ?? How can a website know me ? Knowing , understanding , taking care are all traits supposed to be associated with living entities, and not with a static webpages. If you are also thinking the same way, then you are in for a huge surprise. Static webpages are part of old dispensation, the new mantra is making everything,  from webpages to billboards and every facets which touch customers, teeming with life. All these are made possible through advances made in field of machine learning. Yes, machines are equipped with sufficient intelligence to learn based on their interaction with customers . So that they also start taking care of you and me. This is the new dispensation. In this post, I would like to unravel one such application in the field of machine learning, which lies at the heart of online stores like Amazon , E bay etc. : The Recommendation Engine :

You as an avid online buyer would have noticed that before logging in to any of these online stores, if you just browse these sites, you will be shown a bunch of items scrolling before you. Now these could be items which are totally unrelated to your tastes. However Amazon or any online store decided to recommend it to you because these are their top selling or trending items. Bereft of any intelligence about you as a buyer this is the best, the website could lay out to you. This kind of recommendation is called the Non Personalized recommendations. Such recommendations are made based on the top items which are being bought or searched on the site.

Now once you log in, it would be a totally different world. Based on  your level of activity on the site, you would realize that many of the products which are recommended to you are more aligned to your tastes. The more your level of activity, more aligned to your tastes the products recommended to you. This is the part which I referred to you in the beginning about the site understanding you. The more it understands you, the better it would take care of you. Interesting isn’t it ? These type of recommendations falls under the genre called the personalized recommendations.

Personalized recommendations predominantly works on an algorithm called the collaborative filtering. A very simple analogy of the collaborative filtering algorithm is a huge table, where the rows of the table will be users like you and me and the columns of the table will be the items which you or me has bought or has shown interest in. So this table is one huge table with millions and millions of items and as many customers in it. Each time you buy something or even browse something, against your name against the corresponding item column,some value will be updated . However one interesting point to note is that, you as an individual customer at the most would not have bought more than hundreds of types of items. This is quite minuscule compared to the millions of items which adorn the columns of the huge table. This is the case for most of the other users too. The number of items which any user would have shown interest  would be quite minuscule  in comparison to the total number of items in the table. This kind of representation is called the sparse representation.

So naturally you would think, if you as a customer buys or shows interests in only a small percentage of items, how come Amazon recommends new things to me. That’s where the intricacies of the collaborative filtering algorithm kicks in. As I said earlier, the table is a large table with millions of users. So considering the millions of users and the varied tastes each user will have, there would be some transactions which would have happened against all the items in the table. The essence of the collaborative filtering algorithm is to find similarities from this huge table. Similarities between users who would be have bought similar kinds of items, similarities between items which are usually bought together etc. It is these similarities extracted from that huge table, which forms the basis of the recommendations. So the idea is like this, if you and me like casual dressing, we would be more inclined to browse for such brands. So based on our transactions, the algorithm will combine both of us as people having similar tastes. Now next time you go ahead and buy a new Polo shirt, the algorithm will assume that I might also like such a shirt and will recommend the same kind of shirt to me too. This is how the collaborative filtering algorithm works. In addition to the similarities between users, the algorithm also finds similarities between items too, to further enhance the ability to recommend products.

In addition to the above, there is another type of recommendation.  Say you want to buy an ice bucket and you start browsing for various models of ice buckets. Once you zero in on the model you like and decide to add it to the cart, you might get a recommendation for an Ice Scoop saying – “Items usually bought together”.  This is an example of similarities between items and is called Market Basket Analysis. The idea behind this algorithm is also similar to the one mentioned above. In this type of algorithm, the huge table is again analysed and transactions where two or more similar items are bought together are identified and is often recommended when one of them is being bought.

Now the base of all these data products is the transactions you do on the virtual world. All the websites you browse, things you rate, items you buy, something which you comment on , all these generates data which would be channelized to make you buy more. And all these happens without you realizing whats going on.  So next time, you browse the net and suddenly you find an ad for a new Polo shirt,do not be surprised. “Somebody is Watching”

Watchin you


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