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Normalization (equivalence classing of terms)

Having broken up our documents (and also our query) into tokens, the easy case is if tokens in the query just match tokens in the token list of the document. However, there are many cases when two character sequences are not quite the same but you would like a match to occur. For instance, if you search for USA, you might hope to also match documents containing U.S.A.

Token normalization is the process of canonicalizing tokens so that matches occur despite superficial differences in the character sequences of the tokens.[*] The most standard way to normalize is to implicitly create equivalence classes , which are normally named after one member of the set. For instance, if the tokens anti-discriminatory and antidiscriminatory are both mapped onto the term antidiscriminatory, in both the document text and queries, then searches for one term will retrieve documents that contain either.

The advantage of just using mapping rules that remove characters like hyphens is that the equivalence classing to be done is implicit, rather than being fully calculated in advance: the terms that happen to become identical as the result of these rules are the equivalence classes. It is only easy to write rules of this sort that remove characters. Since the equivalence classes are implicit, it is not obvious when you might want to add characters. For instance, it would be hard to know to turn antidiscriminatory into anti-discriminatory.

Figure 2.6: An example of how asymmetric expansion of query terms can usefully model users' expectations.
\textbf{Query term} & \textbf{Terms in documen...
... Windows, windows, window \\
window & window, windows

An alternative to creating equivalence classes is to maintain relations between unnormalized tokens. This method can be extended to hand-constructed lists of synonyms such as car and automobile, a topic we discuss further in Chapter 9 . These term relationships can be achieved in two ways. The usual way is to index unnormalized tokens and to maintain a query expansion list of multiple vocabulary entries to consider for a certain query term. A query term is then effectively a disjunction of several postings lists. The alternative is to perform the expansion during index construction. When the document contains automobile, we index it under car as well (and, usually, also vice-versa). Use of either of these methods is considerably less efficient than equivalence classing, as there are more postings to store and merge. The first method adds a query expansion dictionary and requires more processing at query time, while the second method requires more space for storing postings. Traditionally, expanding the space required for the postings lists was seen as more disadvantageous, but with modern storage costs, the increased flexibility that comes from distinct postings lists is appealing.

These approaches are more flexible than equivalence classes because the expansion lists can overlap while not being identical. This means there can be an asymmetry in expansion. An example of how such an asymmetry can be exploited is shown in Figure 2.6 : if the user enters windows, we wish to allow matches with the capitalized Windows operating system, but this is not plausible if the user enters window, even though it is plausible for this query to also match lowercase windows.

The best amount of equivalence classing or query expansion to do is a fairly open question. Doing some definitely seems a good idea. But doing a lot can easily have unexpected consequences of broadening queries in unintended ways. For instance, equivalence-classing U.S.A. and USA to the latter by deleting periods from tokens might at first seem very reasonable, given the prevalent pattern of optional use of periods in acronyms. However, if I put in as my query term C.A.T., I might be rather upset if it matches every appearance of the word cat in documents.[*]

Below we present some of the forms of normalization that are commonly employed and how they are implemented. In many cases they seem helpful, but they can also do harm. In fact, you can worry about many details of equivalence classing, but it often turns out that providing processing is done consistently to the query and to documents, the fine details may not have much aggregate effect on performance.

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