Are Neural Rankers still Outperformed by Gradient Boosted Decision Trees?

Zhen Qin, Le Yan, Honglei Zhuang, Yi Tay, Rama Kumar Pasumarthi, Xuanhui Wang, Michael Bendersky, Marc Najork

[ Abstract ] [ Livestream: Visit Oral Session 6 ] [ Paper ]

Despite the success of neural models on many major machine learning problems, their effectiveness on traditional Learning-to-Rank (LTR) problems is still not widely acknowledged. We first validate this concern by showing that most recent neural LTR models are, by a large margin, inferior to the best publicly available Gradient Boosted Decision Trees (GBDT) in terms of their reported ranking accuracy on benchmark datasets. This unfortunately was somehow overlooked in recent neural LTR papers. We then investigate why existing neural LTR models under-perform and identify several of their weaknesses. Furthermore, we propose a unified framework comprising of counter strategies to ameliorate the existing weaknesses of neural models. Our models are the first to be able to perform equally well, comparing with the best tree-based baseline, while outperforming recently published neural LTR models by a large margin. Our results can also serve as a benchmark to facilitate future improvement of neural LTR models.

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