Applying associative retrieval techniques to alleviate the sparsity problem in collaborative filtering

Zan Huang, Hsinchun Chen, Daniel Zeng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

519 Scopus citations


Recommender systems are being widely applied in many application settings to suggest products, services, and information items to potential consumers, Collaborative filtering, the most successful recommendation approach, makes recommendations based on past transactions and feedback from consumers sharing similar interests. A major problem limiting the usefulness of collaborative filtering is the sparsity problem, which refers to a situation in which transactional or feedback data is sparse and insufficient to identify similarities in consumer interests. In this article, we propose to deal with this sparsity problem by applying an associative retrieval framework and related spreading activation algorithms to explore transitive associations among consumers through their past transactions and feedback. Such transitive associations are a valuable source of information to help infer consumer interests and can be explored to deal with the sparsity problem. To evaluate the effectiveness of our approach, we have conducted an experimental study using a data set from an online bookstore. We experimented with three spreading activation algorithms including a constrained Leaky Capacitor algorithm, a branch-and-bound serial symbolic search algorithm, and a Hopfield net parallel relaxation search algorithm. These algorithms were compared with several collaborative filtering approaches that do not consider the transitive associations: a simple graph search approach, two variations of the user-based approach, and an item-based approach. Our experimental results indicate that spreading activation-based approaches significantly out-performed the other collaborative filtering methods as measured by recommendation precision, recall, the F-measure, and the rank score. We also observed the over-activation effect of the spreading activation approach, that is, incorporating transitive associations with past transactional data that is not sparse may "dilute" the data used to infer user preferences and lead to degradation in recommendation performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)116-142
Number of pages27
JournalACM Transactions on Information Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2004


  • Associative retrieval
  • Collaborative filtering
  • Recommender system
  • Sparsity problem
  • Spreading activation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • General Business, Management and Accounting
  • Computer Science Applications


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