I've attended several interesting talks so far on my first day of RailsConf, but the one that got me the most excited to go out and start trying to shoehorn it into my projects was Building Mini Google in Ruby by Ilya Grigorik.
In terms of doing Google-like stuff (which I'm not especially interested in doing), there are three steps, which occur in order of increasing level of interestingness. They are:
- Crawling (mundane)
- Indexing (sort of interesting)
- Rank (neato)
Passing over crawling, Indexing is sort of interesting. You can do it yourself if you care about the problem, or you can hand it over to something like ferret or sphinx. I expect it's probably time for me to invest some time investigating the use of one or more of these, since I've already gone up and down the do it yourself road.
The interesting bit, and the fascinating focus of Ilya's presentation were the explanation of the PageRank algorithm and the implementation details as well as some application ideas. Hopefully I don't mess this up too badly, but as I understand it, it simplifies down to something like this.
A page is ranked to some degree by how many other pages link to it. This is a bit too simple, though, and trivially gamed. So, you make it a little more complex by modeling the following behavior, a random surfer will surf from one page to another by doing one of two things. They will either follow a link or randomly go to a non-linked page (sort of how I surf Wikipedia). There is a much higher probability (.85) that they will follow a link than that thay will teleport (.15). If you model this (hand waving here) then you come up with a nice formula (more hand waving) that can be used to calculate the page rank for a page in a given data set. A data set in this case is a collection of crawled pages.
For large data sets, these calculations can be somewhat intensive, so we are recommended to the good graces of the Gnu Scientific Library and the appropriate Ruby wrappers and the NArrary gem to do the calculations and array management.
One suggestion of a practical applications of this technology is to apply it to sets of products purchased together in a shopping cart to provide recommendations of the sort for 'people who bought that also bought this.' I'm pretty excited to try to implement this in Spree. But...
...what really piqued my interest was the idea that this could be applied to any graph. The Taxonomies/Taxons/ProductGroups with products could give me a nice big (depending on the size of the data set of course) directed graph to play with. The question, I suppose, is what the PageRank applied against such a graph means.