Evaluating recommender systems is notoriously tricky as offline measurements don’t always align with online outcomes, but offline metrics nonetheless have an important place in the toolset of a recommender system’s engineer. In this post, I’ll cover some popular offline metrics that are used for evaluating recommender systems.

Since the whole point of a recommender system is to aid the user in discovery by reducing the amount of items they have to consider, we will assume that our recommender system is only allowed to make a maximum of \(k\) recommendations for each user. We’ll further assume that the recommendations are outputted as a ranked list, where higher positions imply that the recommender system has higher confidence or score for those items.

To give more concrete context to the metric calculation, let’s imagine that we created a music recommendation system and we want to evaluate how well it works on some held-out data. Our evaluation data will be split across each user, that is for each user we’ll have some data that will be fed to the recommender system as input and some hidden data that will be used to evaluate the output of the recommender system.

For each of the defined metric, I’ll provide a simple Python implementation to make it easy to play around with different values and gain more intuition. These implementations are by no means efficient, they are simply meant to provide more insight.

Precision and Recall

Precision and recall are the most popular and probably the most intuitive metrics you can calculate. Recall measures what percentage of the user’s liked items did we recommend, while precision computes what percentage of the recommended items were part of the user’s liked items.

\[\text{Precision}_{k} = \frac{|\{\text{Liked Items}\}| \cap |\{\text{Recommended Items}\}|}{k}\] \[\text{Recall}_{k} = \frac{|\{\text{Liked Items}\}| \cap |\{\text{Recommended Items}\}|}{|\{\text{Liked Items}\}|}\]
def precision_k(relevant: list,
                predicted: list,
                k: int) -> float:
    return len(set(relevant).intersection(predicted[:k])) / k

def recall_k(relevant: list,
             predicted: list,
             k: int) -> float:
    return len(set(relevant).intersection(predicted[:k])) / len(relevant)

Notice that both metrics have the same numerator, you can use that fact to compute the precision and recall in one function and share the computed numerator between the two. Here’s a tiny implementation in Python:

def precision_recall_k(relevant: list,
                       predicted: list,
                       k: int) -> Tuple[float, float]:
    num_hits = len(set(relevant).intersection(predicted[:k]))
    precision_at_k = num_hits / k
    recall_at_k = num_hits / len(relevant)
    return precision_at_k, recall_at_k

For both recall and precision the values are in between 0 and 1, where 1 is the best possible value. Although, note that if the user has not liked at least \(k\) items, then even the perfect system will get precision that is less than 1. Same goes for recall, if the user has greater than \(k\) liked items, the recall of the best possible system will be less than 1.


Precision and recall can be seen as a trade-off, we can usually arbitrarily increase recall by increasing \(k\), the number of recommended items, however with higher \(k\) the precision usually decreases. On the flip side, reducing \(k\) usually leads to higher precision at the cost of lower recall. Having a metric that can capture both at the same time for a given, fixed \(k\) would be great. That’s exactly what F1-score does. It’s the harmonic mean of precision and recall.

\[\text{F1}_{k} = \frac{2 \cdot \text{Precision}_{k} \cdot \text{Recall}_{k}}{\text{Precision}_{k} + \text{Recall}_{k}}\]

The F1-score is high when both recall and precision are high and is low when either one or both of them are low.

def f1_score(relevant: list,
             predicted: list,
             k: int) -> float:
    precision_at_k, recall_at_k = precision_recall_k(relevant,

    return (2 * precision_at_k * recall_at_k) / \
           (precision_at_k + recall_at_k)

Average Precision (AP) and Mean Average Precision (MAP)

One of the downsides of using precision and recall as a metric is the fact that they ignore the order of the recommendations. For instance, let’s imagine we have two different recommender systems with the following outputs for some user:

\[\text{System}_A(\text{user}) = [6, 2, 1, 0, 3]\] \[\text{System}_B(\text{user}) = [4, 1, 7, 2, 6]\]

And let’s say that the only relevant items for the user are items 2 and 6. The precision and recall for both of the systems are identical, but we’d probably want System A to be preferred since it ranked the relevant items higher than System B. One of the ways this difference in the two systems can become apparent is if we plot a precision-recall (PR) curve by calculating precision and recall from 1 up to k for both systems.

But although plots are great for analysis, ideally we want the difference to be comparable using a single number. Luckily that’s exactly what AP does. AP is (roughly) an approximation of the average area under the PR curve 1. To compute AP, we compute precision at each position that had a relevant recommendation for a user and then take the average of that.

\[\text{AP}_{k} = \frac{1}{n} \sum_{i=1}^{k} \text{Precision}_{i} * \text{rel}_{i}\]

Where \(\text{rel}_{i}\) is equal to 1 if item \(i\) is relevant and 0 otherwise and \(n\) is the number of relevant items in the entire recommendation set.

def ap_k(relevant: list,
         predicted: list,
         k: int) -> float:
    relevant_idx = []
    # Find indices of predicted items that were relevant
    for i, item in enumerate(predicted[:k]):
        if item in relevant:
            relevant_idx.append(i + 1)

    # Compute precision at each index of predicted relevant item
    precisions = []
    for idx in relevant_idx:
        # Using the precision_k function we defined earlier
        precision_at_idx = precision_k(relevant, predicted, idx)

    return float(np.mean(precisions))

Now, the MAP is just the mean of APs across a collection of users.

\[\text{MAP}_{k} = \frac{1}{N} \sum_{j=1}^{N} \text{AP}_{k}(j)\]
def map_k(relevant_batch: List[list],
          predicted_batch: List[list],
          k: int) -> float:
    return np.mean([ap_k(relevant, predicted, k)
                    for relevant, predicted
                    in zip(relevant_batch, predicted_batch)])

Reciprocal Rank (RR) and Mean Reciprocal Rank (MRR)

Different from the previous metrics, reciprocal rank only cares about the rank of the first relevant recommendation. Let the \(\text{rank}_{k}(\text{user}_{i})\) be a function that returns the rank of the first relevant item in the \(k\) ranked recommendations for user \(i\). The reciprocal rank (RR) is then defined as:

\[\text{RR}_k = \frac{1}{\text{rank}_{k}(\text{user}_{i})}\]

Note that RR is undefined if the \(k\) recommendations do not contain any relevant items, in such a case we set the RR to zero.

def rr_k(relevant: list,
         predicted: list,
         k: int) -> float:
    rank = 0
    for i, item in enumerate(predicted[:k]):
        if item in relevant:
            rank = i + 1
    return 1. / rank if rank else 0.

Now, MRR is just the mean of RRs over a collection of users \(U\):

\[\text{MRR}_k = \frac{1}{N}\sum_{i=1}^{N} \frac{1}{\text{rank}_{k}(\text{user}_{i})} = \frac{1}{N}\sum_{i=1}^{N} \text{RR}_{i}\]

Where \(N\) is the number of users \(U\). We can utilize the implementation for RR to implement the MRR:

def mrr_k(relevant_batch: List[list],
          predicted_batch: List[list],
          k: int) -> float:
    return np.mean([rr_k(relevant, predicted, k)
                    for relevant, predicted
                    in zip(relevant_batch, predicted_batch)])

Normalized Discount Cumulative Gain (nDCG)

So far, all of the metrics we discussed assume that item relevancy is binary, i.e. either something is relevant to the user or not. But often times in real applications, we not only know if an item is relevant, but we also have some information on how relevant the item is to the user. Going back to the music recommender, instead of just looking at what songs the user liked, we could additionally consider the listen counts and use it to measure the degree of relevancy. In this setting, the goal will be to recommend items that have high degree of relevancy to the user at higher positions in the recommendation output. In order to understand if we’re achieving that, we need a metric like nDCG.

Let \(s_{i}\) be the relevancy score for the item at position \(i\) in our recommended item list. Then the DCG is computed as:

\[DCG_{k} = \sum_{i=1}^{k}\frac{s_{i}}{\log_{2}({i + 1})}\]

We normalize the DCG by dividing it by the best possible DCG score that is achievable for the given user. We refer to this quantity as the ideal discount cumulative gain or IDCG for short. The IDCG is simply the score we would get if we recommended all the user’s relevant items in descending order of relevancy score. The nDCG then is computed as the ratio of the DCG and the IDCG:

\[nDCG_{k} = \frac{DCG_{k}}{IDCG_{k}}\]
import numpy as np

def ndcg_k(relevant: list,
           relevancy_scores: list,
           predicted: list,
           k: int = None) -> float:
    # Create a relevancy array for the predicted items
    relevancy_scores_dict = dict(zip(relevant, relevancy_scores))
    predicted_item_relevancy_scores = []
    for item in predicted:
        if item in relevant:

    # Convert it to a ndarray
    predicted_item_relevancy_scores = np.array(predicted_item_relevancy_scores)

    # Compute the DCG
    dcg = _dcg_k(predicted_item_relevancy_scores, k)

    # Compute the ideal DCG
    idcg = _dcg_k(np.sort(relevancy_scores)[::-1], k)

    # return normalized DCG
    return dcg / idcg

def _dcg_k(relevancy_scores: list, k: int) -> float:
    discounts = 1.0 / np.log2(np.arange(1, min(k, len(relevancy_scores)) + 1) + 1)
    return float(np.sum(relevancy_scores[:k] * discounts))
  1. For more information, check out Evaluation of ranked retrieval results