From Tf-Idf to Learning-to-Rank: An Overview

From Tf-Idf to Learning-to-Rank: An Overview

Muhammad Ibrahim (Monash University, Australia) and Manzur Murshed (Federation University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8833-9.ch003
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Abstract

Ranking a set of documents based on their relevances with respect to a given query is a central problem of information retrieval (IR). Traditionally people have been using unsupervised scoring methods like tf-idf, BM25, Language Model etc., but recently supervised machine learning framework is being used successfully to learn a ranking function, which is called learning-to-rank (LtR) problem. There are a few surveys on LtR in the literature; but these reviews provide very little assistance to someone who, before delving into technical details of different algorithms, wants to have a broad understanding of LtR systems and its evolution from and relation to the traditional IR methods. This chapter tries to address this gap in the literature. Mainly the following aspects are discussed: the fundamental concepts of IR, the motivation behind LtR, the evolution of LtR from and its relation to the traditional methods, the relationship between LtR and other supervised machine learning tasks, the general issues pertaining to an LtR algorithm, and the theory of LtR.
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1. Introduction

In the last few decades, there has been an overwhelming increase in the volume of digital data due to the proliferation of information and communications technology. Getting the required information from this vast ocean of data has eventually become so formidable that people started using machines from late 1980’s1 to get assistance, thereby giving rise to information retrieval (IR) systems (i.e., search engines). In general, the task of an IR system is to return a ranked list of ‘items’ to the users in response to specific information need. This task appears in many domains such as document ranking, recommender system, automatic question answering, automatic text summarization, online advertising, sentiment analysis, web personalization, and so on. In fact, any task which presents the user on-demand a list of items ordered by a utility function is a ranking task. In this chapter, we survey only the document ranking research works without any loss of generality, as most of the discussed techniques are applicable to other ranking domains as well. We use the terms IR ranking and document ranking interchangeably throughout the chapter.

1.1 Scope of the Chapter

Several standard books on IR (e.g., Manning, Raghavan & Schütze, 2008) are available in the literature. These books, however, do not cover the learning-to-rank (LtR) systems with appropriate emphasis, mainly because these systems have emerged as a promising IR direction only a few years ago. There are a few survey papers on LtR; some of these are more focused on detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the LtR algorithms (Li, 2011; Liu, 2011), while some others are too short (Phophalia, 2011; He, Wang, Zhong & Li, 2008). Therefore, these reviews provide very little assistance to someone who, before delving into technical details of different algorithms, wants to have a broad understanding of the LtR systems, and their evolution from and relation to the traditional IR methods.

This chapter is complementary to the existing few surveys in the sense that we focus on the evolution of the LtR systems from the conventional methods. It also elaborately discusses some aspects of LtR that have so far been less-emphasized. Specifically, our main goals are the following:

  • 1.

    Familiarise the readers with the fundamental concepts of IR from scratch by emphasising on intuitive explanations.

  • 2.

    Discuss the motivation behind LtR; how it has evolved from and relates to the traditional IR methods.

  • 3.

    Show the relationship between LtR and other supervised machine learning tasks, namely, classification, regression, and ordinal regression.

  • 4.

    Discuss the general issues pertaining to the LtR algorithms. That is, to give a big picture of the existing LtR algorithms before delving into technical details of individual algorithms. Some of these issues are: relationship between LtR and other machine learning tasks and developing taxonomy of LtR algorithms.

  • 5.

    Relate the theory of LtR to various loss functions of existing LtR algorithms.

This chapter is not a comprehensive survey of all LtR algorithms—in fact, it is not feasible to discuss all of them in a single chapter as the number of research papers on LtR is more than a hundred, nor does it discuss the technical details of different algorithms.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Learning-to-Rank: Supervised machine learning techniques are used to predict the degree of relevancy of a document with respect to a given query.

Classification: A supervised learning task where the ground truth labels are integer numbers.

Regression: A supervised learning task where the ground truth labels are real numbers.

Supervised Machine Learning: Given some example patterns and their true labels, a supervised machine learning technique finds a function which can predict the labels of unseen examples.

Relevancy of a Document: The degree to which a document is relevant to a given query.

Rank-Based Metric: An evaluation metric that is used to measure the goodness of a ranking function. It usually gives more importance on the top part of a ranked list.

Ranking Function: Given a document representation and a query representation, a ranking function predicts a relevance score (usually real number) for the document with respect to the query.

Information Retrieval System/Search Engine: A system which takes queries from users, and returns a list of relevant documents for a given query. The documents are usually ordered by their degree of relevance with respect to the query.

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