Recommender Systems

Internet users encounter what are referred to as recommender systems on a daily basis. Sites like Amazon, Pandora, Netflix, Last.fm are a few of the pioneers in employing highly-functioning, advanced and accurate recommender systems. A recommender system takes information from an individual user, whether its purchasing history, habits or reports likes and dislikes, and has the ability to suggest items that the user will likely enjoy. This is achieved through extensive databases that contain information about songs, movies, tastes, genres, artists, possible user traits, etc. The databases are accessed and utilized through algorithms that quickly search through data and generate the recommendations. There are four major types of recommender systems: collaborative filtering, cluster models, search-based, and item-to-item.

Each of these systems represent a sort of evolution within the field of recommender systems. Traditionally collaborative filtering bases recommendations on similar users, which does not do much in the way of refining recommendations, leading to recommendations that are less likely to fit the taste of the custom. Cluster models assign users to groups based on a consistent quality that all of the users possess, however this can also lead to less specific recommendations because these users aren't necessarily the most alike. Search-based systems look at user history and recommend items with the same or similar traits. The main constraint in search-based systems is that recommendations have the potential to be extremely limited, and there is not much room for discovery. The fourth most common, and probably the most advanced in recommendations, is the item-to-item system. This focuses on the traits of items and recommending new things to users without the implicit inclusion of other users' traits, but simply based on item traits.

Amazon is the forerunner in e-commerce sites, with its recommendation system to thank for sales and user trust. Amazon operates with an item-to-item recommendation system, which allows for the usability and accessibility to site's vast amount of items for sale. Items are not only classified by what their basic description is, for example a CD, but also classified by the type of music, the artist, the year it was released, to name a few potential traits. This allows users to get in-depth and more tailored recommendations in spite of the gigantic database of items. Recommendations also take into account user-generated item rankings, which can make items more recommended and entice more purchasing. Additionally, Amazon includes some recommendations based upon what other users have purchased when two or more users have a purchase in common. However, this differs from basing recommendations solely on other users because users aren't bound together simply because of a few similarities.

Internet personalized radio service and music recommendation generator Pandora began as The Music Genome Project, which is essentially a database of songs broken down into descriptions with the smallest of traits, or "genes." There are 2,000 potential traits that can be assigned to songs. Pandora's recommender would also qualify as an item-to-item recommendation system because recommendations come through similar qualities of songs, not similar qualities in users. Interestingly, Pandora has a partnership with Amazon so that users can purchase albums or MP3s of songs they have heard on their personalized stations. Pandora allows users to rank songs through the labeling of "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," in addition to banning tracks. All of these options affect potential recommendations for each user. The more feedback that Pandora receives, as with most sites generating recommendations, the more personalized recommended songs become.

Last.fm is an online music recommendation service, as well as a social network. It does base a fair amount of its recommendations on similarities between users. The site generates both personalized radio stations, as well as stations based on artists or genres. User likeness is ranked and listeners are grouped together based upon artists listened to that they share. Last.fm, much like Amazon, also tracks user activity, and in this case it is the listening habits both online and offline, plus searches and rankings. This fusion of clustering and item-to-item recommendations, which is more apparent here than at Amazon, hints that Last.fm, like all others, is a work in constant progress. In addition to the Last.fm database, a user can tag artists with traits of the user's choice, which impacts can impact whether or not other users might hear artists. This is dependent on other users' activities on the site, but makes users stakeholders in ensuring that they are tagging responsibly.

Netflix is an online DVD rental service with one of the most enviable recommendation systems in existence. Its personalized movie recommendations are very similar to Amazon's system of trait-based databases, while simultaneously employing user-generated ratings. The main operator here is an item-to-item system. Netflix's algorithm for generating recommendations is called Cinematch, and the company is holding a contest, with a $1,000,000 prize, for someone to improve the Cinematch algorithm by 10%. The improvement in the system is not for higher speed or holding more data, but improving the likelihood of a user getting a recommendation that he will actually enjoy by 10%.

Netflix's realization that, although they have a highly successful recommendation system, someday the system will be surpassed is truly the future in this field. The brilliance behind holding a contest to improve its own system will prevent people from developing algorithms for their own ventures and keeping Netflix on the cutting edge of recommendation system technology. In this online world of recommendation systems, the user is king. Senseless and inaccurate recommendations have the potential to drive users away. This makes incessant innovation an absolute necessity. As evidenced through the merging of item-to-item filtering and recommendations based on similar users, this field is burgeoning and nowhere near the finish line in terms of any company having a flawless recommendation system. Methods will continue to evolve and bleed into one another, and perhaps all become somewhat antiquated eventually. In seeing how these systems have already morphed into stronger and more reliable ones, its easy to imagine that recommendation systems will be a topic constantly in the stage of innovation. That's absolutely where the field is at the moment.

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