“Avacado” or Avocado?

A simple search query correction heuristic for the resource-constrained At Instacart, our search engine is one of the most important tools customers rely on to quickly find their favorite grocery items in the digital aisles. But, oftentimes, some of the most common grocery goods are the trickiest to spell. We’re not all spellers or digital […]

A simple search query correction heuristic for the resource-constrained

At Instacart, our search engine is one of the most important tools customers rely on to quickly find their favorite grocery items in the digital aisles. But, oftentimes, some of the most common grocery goods are the trickiest to spell. We’re not all spellers or digital natives — if you mistype or forget how to spell 🥑 (it’s Avocado by the way) you’re not alone. But, that typo shouldn’t automatically mean you have a poor search experience.

Early Instacart users would see no results if they misspelled certain items in the search bar

Some of our most popular misspelled queries are:

  • Siracha ♨️
  • Zuchinni 🥒
  • Jalepeno 🌶
  • Cantelope 🍈
  • Parmesean 🧀

During the early days of Instacart our team was small and scrappy, and we used to manually add correction terms for commonly misspelled queries. But, this approach doesn’t scale. My first project as the first Machine Learning Engineer on Instacart’s Search & Discovery team 5 years ago, was to fix this problem. In technical terms, we wanted to improve the Recall of our search engine for misspelled queries.

The query correction problem

In general, we encounter two main query correction problems:

  • non-word query correction (spelling errors that result in non-words, for example, “avacado” for “avocado”)
  • real-word query correction (spelling errors that accidentally result in an actual word, for example “line” for “lime”)

Non-word query corrections can be solved by using a dictionary and some form of distance function to map the incorrect word with a correct word from the dictionary. Real-word query corrections are much harder problems and require more state-of-the-art techniques like building a language model. Peter Norvig wrote a great post on “How to Write a Spelling Corrector,” which walks through some of these concepts.

Given the short one-word queries we typically see with grocery searches, query correction is not an easy problem. There are thousands of papers on this topic and this is still a very active area of research. For us, the non-word query corrections were the most prevalent and accounted for most of the spelling errors that resulted in zero-result queries in the early days of Instacart.

For any given problem, there may be standard “state-of-the-art” solutions that are not always trivial to implement. In the early days, we had to solve a number of technical problems when building the Instacart marketplace, and it was impossible to prioritize each of these problems. So, we had to get scrappy vs. state-of-the-art when tackling these issues. Our commonly used approach to problem-solving in those days was — “can we use a simple approach that solves 80%-90% of the problem in a short period of time?” We often went for a quick, yet very effective, heuristic. It not only solved most of the incorrect spelling problems but also gave us the added benefit of helping with the query reformulation problem, which we’ll explain below.

The path to a successful query

After entering a search query, a customer will take one of the following actions:

  • Add an item to their cart if the query yields precise results with good recall (this event is called a conversion)
  • Search for a variation of the same query if they do not get any results or are not satisfied with the results
  • Search for a different query altogether if they decide to not convert on the given query
  • Go to the checkout page to place the order
  • Bounce off Instacart.com if they are not satisfied with the experience

For every query, each of these can be considered a different state the customer can move to in a Markov Chain. We are interested in helping the customer add an item to their basket (conversion state) as efficiently as possible.

If we take the misspelled query “avacado” for example, the transition probabilities look something like this:

If the most probable state the user transitions to next is a conversion, then we don’t have to correct the query. If it is any other state, then it most likely indicates a spelling mistake and we want to help the customer reach a converting state in a frictionless manner. By looking at historical search query logs, we can build this Markov model and correct bad queries and lead the user to a successful query.

The heuristic

We came up with the following heuristic to build this Markov Chain and easily generate query correction pairs:

  • Identify all consecutive search query pairs from historical search query data (the more data you have, the better)
  • Keep only those query pairs where the second query leads to a conversion
  • Identify the frequency of occurrence of these query pairs in history
  • Use a threshold for minimum frequency (say 10 or 100) and discard other query pairs
  • For each query, compute the probability of going to each subsequent query from the query pair data
  • Compute the Levenshtein Distance between the queries in each pair (it is basically the number of letters you need to change to get to the new query)
  • If the Levenshtein distance is less than a small threshold (we chose 2), then the pairs can be classified as spell correction pairs


Using this heuristic, we were able to correct all of our commonly misspelled queries:

>>> correct_query(‘avacado’)
>>> correct_query(‘siracha’)
>>> correct_query(‘zuchinni’)
>>> correct_query(‘jalepeno’)
>>> correct_query(‘cantelope’)
>>> correct_query(‘guac’)
>>> correct_query(‘parmesean’)

We also realized that by looking at pairs whose Levenshtein Distance is greater than the chosen threshold (say 2), you could infer potential query reformulations as well. For example:

>>> correct_query(‘organic ground pork’)
‘ground pork’
>>> correct_query(‘canned soup’)
>>> correct_query(‘cremini’)
>>> correct_query(‘prawns’)

In the above cases, customers didn’t necessarily misspell their queries, but we did not have relevant items for what they searched for. They themselves tried a different alternative for which we did carry relevant items and converted. We used that historical data to automatically rewrite their query to a more suitable one which would yield the most relevant results.

Getting results

Using the heuristic above, we auto-generated thousands of query correction and reformulation pairs and used them to automatically redirect customers to the query with the highest conversion probability when the original query did not yield any results. The resulting experience for customers looks like this:

Automatically corrected ‘avacado’ to ‘avocado’ and showed the relevant results

We were able to bootstrap our query correction and reformulation heuristic using our own data. In other words, we crowd-sourced our first search query correction heuristic 🙂

It’s not always necessary to start with the most sophisticated approach to solve a problem, especially when you’re just getting started. Often simple heuristics give you a lot of mileage on most of the problems. Over time, we deployed more advanced Machine Learning techniques to improve on this heuristic. Stay tuned for future blog posts on this topic!

Want to work on the next generations of Instacart Search? Our Algorithms team is hiring! Go to instacart.com/careers to see our current openings.

“Avacado” or Avocado? 🥑 was originally published in tech-at-instacart on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Instacart