Thiago Martins
Thiago Martins
Vespa Data Scientist

Build a News recommendation app from python with Vespa: Part 3

Part 3 - Efficient use of click-through rate via parent-child relationship.

UPDATE 2023-02-14: Code examples are updated to work with the latest releases of pyvespa.

This part of the series introduces a new ranking signal: category click-through rate (CTR). The idea is that we can recommend popular content for users that don’t have a click history yet. Rather than just recommending based on articles, we recommend based on categories. However, these global CTR values can often change continuously, so we need an efficient way to update this value for all documents. We’ll do that by introducing parent-child relationships between documents in Vespa. We will also use sparse tensors directly in ranking. This post replicates this more detailed Vespa tutorial.

Decorative image

by Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

We assume that you have followed the part2 of the news recommendation tutorial. Therefore, you should have an app_package variable holding the news app definition and a Docker container named news running the application fed with data from the demo version of the MIND dataset.

Setting up a global category CTR document

If we add a category_ctr field in the news document, we would have to update all the sport’s documents every time there is a change in the sport’s CTR statistic. If we assume that the category CTR will change often, this turns out to be inefficient.

For these cases, Vespa introduced the parent-child relationship. Parents are global documents, which are automatically distributed to all content nodes. Other documents can reference these parents and “import” values for use in ranking. The benefit is that the global category CTR values only need to be written to one place: the global document.

from vespa.package import Schema, Document, Field


We implement that by creating a new category_ctr schema and setting global_document=True to indicate that we want Vespa to keep a copy of these documents on all content nodes. Setting a document to be global is required for using it in a parent-child relationship. Note that we use a tensor with a single sparse dimension to hold the ctrs data.

Sparse tensors have strings as dimension addresses rather than a numeric index. More concretely, an example of such a tensor is (using the tensor literal form):

    {category: entertainment}: 0.2 }, 
    {category: news}: 0.3 },
    {category: sports}: 0.5 },
    {category: travel}: 0.4 },
    {category: finance}: 0.1 },

This tensor holds all the CTR scores for all the categories. When updating this tensor, we can update individual cells, and we don’t need to update the whole tensor. This operation is called tensor modify and can be helpful when you have large tensors.

Importing parent values in child documents

We need to set up two things to use the category_ctr tensor for ranking news documents. We need to reference the parent document (category_ctr in this case) and import the ctrs from the referenced parent document.


The field category_ctr_ref is a field of type reference of the category_ctr document type. When feeding this field, Vespa expects the fully qualified document id. For instance, if our global CTR document has the id id:category_ctr:category_ctr::global, that is the value that we need to feed to the category_ctr_ref field. A document can reference many parent documents.

from vespa.package import ImportedField


The imported field defines that we should import the ctrs field from the document referenced in the category_ctr_ref field. We name this as global_category_ctrs, and we can reference this as attribute(global_category_ctrs) during ranking.

Tensor expressions in ranking

Each news document has a category field of type string indicating which category the document belongs to. We want to use this information to select the correct CTR score stored in the global_category_ctrs. Unfortunately, tensor expressions only work on tensors, so we need to add a new field of type tensor called category_tensor to hold category information in a way that can be used in a tensor expression:


With the category_tensor field as defined above, we can use the tensor expression sum(attribute(category_tensor) * attribute(global_category_ctrs)) to select the specific CTR related to the category of the document being ranked. We implement this expression as a Function in the rank-profile below:

from vespa.package import Function

                expression="sum(attribute(category_tensor) * attribute(global_category_ctrs))"
                expression="closeness(field, embedding)"
        first_phase="nearest_neighbor * category_ctr",

In the new rank-profile, we have added a first phase ranking expression that multiplies the nearest-neighbor score with the category CTR score, implemented with the functions nearest_neighbor and category_ctr, respectively. As a first attempt, we just multiply the nearest-neighbor with the category CTR score, which might not be the best way to combine those two values.


We can reuse the same container named news created in the first part of this tutorial.

from vespa.deployment import VespaDocker

vespa_docker = VespaDocker.from_container_name_or_id("news")
app = vespa_docker.deploy(application_package=app_package)
Waiting for configuration server, 0/300 seconds...
Waiting for configuration server, 5/300 seconds...
Waiting for application status, 0/300 seconds...
Waiting for application status, 5/300 seconds...
Waiting for application status, 10/300 seconds...
Finished deployment.


Next, we will download the global category CTR data, already parsed in the format that is expected by a sparse tensor with the category dimension.

import requests, json

global_category_ctr = json.loads(
    'ctrs': {
        'cells': [
            {'address': {'category': 'entertainment'}, 'value': 0.029266420380943244},
            {'address': {'category': 'autos'}, 'value': 0.028475809103747123},
            {'address': {'category': 'tv'}, 'value': 0.05374837981352176},
            {'address': {'category': 'health'}, 'value': 0.03531784305129329},
            {'address': {'category': 'sports'}, 'value': 0.05611187986670051},
            {'address': {'category': 'music'}, 'value': 0.05471192953054426},
            {'address': {'category': 'news'}, 'value': 0.04420778372641991},
            {'address': {'category': 'foodanddrink'}, 'value': 0.029256852366228187},
            {'address': {'category': 'travel'}, 'value': 0.025144552013730358},
            {'address': {'category': 'finance'}, 'value': 0.03231013195899643},
            {'address': {'category': 'lifestyle'}, 'value': 0.04423279317474416},
            {'address': {'category': 'video'}, 'value': 0.04006693315980292},
            {'address': {'category': 'movies'}, 'value': 0.03335647459420146},
            {'address': {'category': 'weather'}, 'value': 0.04532171803495617},
            {'address': {'category': 'northamerica'}, 'value': 0.0},
            {'address': {'category': 'kids'}, 'value': 0.043478260869565216}

We can feed this data point to the document defined in the category_ctr. We will assign the global id to this document. Reference to this document can be done by using the Vespa id id:category_ctr:category_ctr::global.

response = app.feed_data_point(schema="category_ctr", data_id="global", fields=global_category_ctr)

We need to perform a partial update on the news documents to include information about the reference field category_ctr_ref and the new category_tensor that will have the value 1.0 for the specific category associated with each document.

news_category_ctr = json.loads(
    'id': 'N3112',
    'fields': {
        'category_ctr_ref': 'id:category_ctr:category_ctr::global',
        'category_tensor': {
            'cells': [
                { 'address': {'category': 'lifestyle'}, 'value': 1.0}

This takes ten minutes or so:

for data_point in news_category_ctr:
    response = app.update_data(schema="news", data_id=data_point["id"], fields=data_point["fields"])

Testing the new rank-profile

We will redefine the query_user_embedding function defined in the second part of this tutorial and use it to make a query involving the user U33527 and the recommendation_with_global_category_ctr rank-profile.

def parse_embedding(hit_json):
    embedding_json = hit_json["fields"]["embedding"]["values"]
    embedding_vector = [0.0] * len(embedding_json)
    for val in embedding_json:
        embedding_vector[i] = val
    return embedding_vector

def query_user_embedding(user_id):
    result = app.query(body={"yql": "select * from sources user where user_id contains '{}'".format(user_id)})
    embedding = parse_embedding(result.hits[0])
    return embedding
yql = "select * from sources news where " \
      "({targetHits:10}nearestNeighbor(embedding, user_embedding))"
result = app.query(
        "yql": yql,        
        "hits": 10,
        "ranking.features.query(user_embedding)": str(query_user_embedding(user_id="U33527")),
        "ranking.profile": "recommendation_with_global_category_ctr"

The first hit below is a sports article. The global CTR document is also listed here, and the CTR score for the sports category is 0.0561. Thus, the result of the category_ctr function is 0.0561 as intended. The nearest_neighbor score is 0.149, and the resulting relevance score is 0.00836. So, this worked as expected.

    'id': 'id:news:news::N5316',
    'relevance': 0.008369192847921151,
    'source': 'news_content',
    'fields': {
        'sddocname': 'news',
        'documentid': 'id:news:news::N5316',
        'news_id': 'N5316',
        'category': 'sports',
        'subcategory': 'football_nfl',
        'title': "Matthew Stafford's status vs. Bears uncertain, Sam Martin will play",
        'abstract': "Stafford's start streak could be in jeopardy, according to Ian Rapoport.",
        'url': "'s-status-vs.-bears-uncertain,-sam-martin-will-play/ar-BBWwcVN?ocid=chopendata",
        'date': 20191112,
        'clicks': 0,
        'impressions': 1,
        'summaryfeatures': {
            'attribute(category_tensor)': {
                'type': 'tensor<float>(category{})',
                'cells': [
                    {'address': {'category': 'sports'}, 'value': 1.0}
            'attribute(global_category_ctrs)': {
                'type': 'tensor<float>(category{})',
                'cells': [
                    {'address': {'category': 'entertainment'}, 'value': 0.029266420751810074},
                    {'address': {'category': 'autos'}, 'value': 0.0284758098423481},
                    {'address': {'category': 'tv'}, 'value': 0.05374838039278984},
                    {'address': {'category': 'health'}, 'value': 0.03531784191727638},
                    {'address': {'category': 'sports'}, 'value': 0.05611187964677811},
                    {'address': {'category': 'music'}, 'value': 0.05471193045377731},
                    {'address': {'category': 'news'}, 'value': 0.04420778527855873},
                    {'address': {'category': 'foodanddrink'}, 'value': 0.029256852343678474},
                    {'address': {'category': 'travel'}, 'value': 0.025144552811980247},
                    {'address': {'category': 'finance'}, 'value': 0.032310131937265396},
                    {'address': {'category': 'lifestyle'}, 'value': 0.044232793152332306},
                    {'address': {'category': 'video'}, 'value': 0.040066931396722794},
                    {'address': {'category': 'movies'}, 'value': 0.033356472849845886},
                    {'address': {'category': 'weather'}, 'value': 0.045321717858314514},
                    {'address': {'category': 'northamerica'}, 'value': 0.0},
                    {'address': {'category': 'kids'}, 'value': 0.043478261679410934}
            'rankingExpression(category_ctr)': 0.05611187964677811,
            'rankingExpression(nearest_neighbor)': 0.14915188666574342,
            'vespa.summaryFeatures.cached': 0.0


This tutorial introduced parent-child relationships and demonstrated it through a global CTR feature we used in ranking. We also introduced ranking with (sparse) tensor expressions.

Clean up Docker container instances: