Rules of Machine Learning:

The following terms will come up repeatedly in our discussion of effective machine learning:

  • Instance: The thing about which you want to make a prediction. For example, the instance might be a web page that you want to classify as either “about cats” or “not about cats”.
  • Label: An answer for a prediction task ­­ either the answer produced by a machine learning system, or the right answer supplied in training data. For example, the label for a web page might be “about cats”.
  • Feature: A property of an instance used in a prediction task. For example, a web page might have a feature “contains the word ‘cat'”.
  • Feature Column: A set of related features, such as the set of all possible countries in which users might live. An example may have one or more features present in a feature column. “Feature column” is Google-specific terminology. A feature column is referred to as a “namespace” in the VW system (at Yahoo/Microsoft), or a field.
  • Example: An instance (with its features) and a label.
  • Model: A statistical representation of a prediction task. You train a model on examples then use the model to make predictions.
  • Metric: A number that you care about. May or may not be directly optimized.
  • Objective: A metric that your algorithm is trying to optimize.
  • Pipeline: The infrastructure surrounding a machine learning algorithm. Includes gathering the data from the front end, putting it into training data files, training one or more models, and exporting the models to production.
  • Click-through Rate The percentage of visitors to a web page who click a link in an ad.


To make great products:

do machine learning like the great engineer you are, not like the great machine learning expert you aren’t.

Most of the problems you will face are, in fact, engineering problems. Even with all the resources of a great machine learning expert, most of the gains come from great features, not great machine learning algorithms. So, the basic approach is:

  1. Make sure your pipeline is solid end to end.
  2. Start with a reasonable objective.
  3. Add common­-sense features in a simple way.
  4. Make sure that your pipeline stays solid.

This approach will work well for a long period of time. Diverge from this approach only when there are no more simple tricks to get you any farther. Adding complexity slows future releases.

Once you’ve exhausted the simple tricks, cutting­-edge machine learning might indeed be in your future. See the section on Phase III machine learning projects.

This document is arranged as follows:

  1. The first part should help you understand whether the time is right for building a machine learning system.
  2. The second part is about deploying your first pipeline.
  3. The third part is about launching and iterating while adding new features to your pipeline, how to evaluate models and training-serving skew.
  4. The final part is about what to do when you reach a plateau.
  5. Afterwards, there is a list of related work and an appendix with some background on the systems commonly used as examples in this document.

Before Machine Learning

Rule #1: Don’t be afraid to launch a product without machine learning.

Machine learning is cool, but it requires data. Theoretically, you can take data from a different problem and then tweak the model for a new product, but this will likely underperform basic heuristics. If you think that machine learning will give you a 100% boost, then a heuristic will get you 50% of the way there.

For instance, if you are ranking apps in an app marketplace, you could use the install rate or number of installs as heuristics. If you are detecting spam, filter out publishers that have sent spam before. Don’t be afraid to use human editing either. If you need to rank contacts, rank the most recently used highest (or even rank alphabetically). If machine learning is not absolutely required for your product, don’t use it until you have data.