An Interview with Ivan Yuen: Creator of Wattpad's Ranking Algorithm

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IY: Wow, lots of questions! But I'm glad you care enough to ask, so I will try my best to answer - I have done so in the order of your questions.

Tell us about yourself and your credentials. Are you a math/stats guy, a computer scientist, a bit of both, or just a pure genius? :)

IY: I have a background in computer engineering, but my real credentials lie in being an avid reader.

When you first conceived YuenRank, did you look to other algorithms for inspiration? Many people look to Google for instance. Is Google's ranking algorithm something you looked at?

IY: Two websites were the initial influence: Digg and Reddit. Both rely on the community of users to determine which items are most popular based on how much social activity there is.

How has Wattpad changed your life? Are you pretty much the same person, just busier? 

IY: The biggest change is that I get to meet a lot more people (like yourself) which is great, the only downside is I don't have as much time to read anymore.

Edit (ML): Awww...shucks! :D

The current incarnation of YuenRank is one of the fairest and most difficult to game that I've seen. You must be very proud of that. Can you name the one or two things that you are most proud of when it comes to YuenRank?

IY: The ranking has evolved over the years (and will continue to do so). The thing I'm most proud of is that we constantly come up with new ideas to improve it. It doesn't always work well but we listen to feedback and are quick to react.

If you ever wrote a book on Wattpad, how do you think you'd do on the rankings (LOL!) :)

IY: If I wrote a book on Wattpad, I probably wouldn't do so well... simply because I'm not a good writer :)

Edit (ML): I actually took the time to sample a few of Ivan's works. He's actually a darned good writer! Check out his books? :D

Google has begun to delve into semantic searches with its Hummingbird algorithm. Is semantic parsing something you've considered doing for YuenRank to identify "literary quality" among works? Or is that something you would prefer to leave to Wattpad's audience?

IY: We are planning to test "quality" factors in the ranking. We will probably start with something more objective like using spelling or grammatical correctness to influence the ranking.

Edit (ML): This is quite possibly one of the most exciting things that came out of this interview. If Wattpad begins to implement semantic capabilities and quality factors that into its ranking algorithm to determine what makes a book good, it would certainly address many of the concerns legitimate writers have about Wattpad being just a popularity contest. This very exciting stuff!

I recognize it's a difficult balancing act to have to manage Featured Stories and Published Authors' Works and also have to bring attention to unknown writers. YuenRank manages to blend that very well at this time. I am sure a lot of conversations were had around that subject. How do you see the inter-relationships between published/established authors, featured authors, and unknown authors who nonetheless have the talent to spin a good tale?

IY: The most important factor is, and will always be social signals. If readers like the story then it doesn't matter if it is from an unknown author. One of the joys on Wattpad is that as an unknown aspiring writer, your works can appear next to someone well-known and established.

Edit (ML): I really loved Mr. Yuen's comment on this topic! Reading into this a little more, social signals are essentially proof of activity around a particular story. The fact that Wattpad is looking into this is a very good sign that they are determined to push smaller books into the limelight!

I noticed you read quite a bit, looking at your library. Do you have any favorites? What else do you do in your spare time (if any)? Does a work with a high number of reads influence your decision to read it? 

IY: I read almost all kinds of stories, but my favorite is science fiction short stories. I grew up inspired by stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, P.K. Dick, etc. I tend to hunt down stories with little reads, and when I find a good one I will recommend it to as many people as possible.

Edit (ML): Again, here I find it interesting that Mr. Yuen has a particular preference for "Undiscovered Stories". This shows that Wattpad is taking great care to make sure that the newer authors aren't just getting buried in the pile.

This might be a difficult question, so I apologize if so: If you could do something over again, what would it be? Is there something you regret doing on Wattpad that you'd like to correct?

IY: I can't think of anything I would do differently right now.... 

Spam is a hot issue for Wattpad at this time. Without getting into details, what steps are you taking to combat this?

IY: We are working hard to deal with spam and we are tackling it from several fronts. Continue to make our spam detection stronger (it needs a lot of work still) have the Wattpad community team actively review and purge spam, and empowering the ambassadors to remove spam.

If you and Allen Lau stepped into a boxing arena, who would win and why? :D

IY: Allen and I in a boxing ring? I'd knock him out. He's too nice to throw the first punch.

Edit (ML): :D

What's the best advice you can give an aspiring writer looking to do well on Wattpad? If possible, please give advice that isn't generic! :D

IY: My advice to aspiring writers on Wattpad - if you don't know what to write or not sure how to start, start by finding stories you like, get to know the writers and see how they work. Keep reading, learn from other writers and ask for  advice. Most writers will be glad to help.

Final Question: What's next for YuenRank? As good as it is now, are you exploring other avenues for expansion? 

IY: What's next? Kind of touched on this earlier. Explore using quality indicators to help with the ranking. Also find early signals for popularity and amplify that, spot trends earlier to help stories move up in ranking faster.

Edit (ML): We've certainly seen this at work in the last  week or so, which means Ivan Yuen is really backing his words with action. I've personally noted that there have been "tiny-read" books from unknown authors that are going toe-to-toe against published authors and featured authors on the Hot List at this time.

The balance has been quite good these days, though if I might be honest, I'd like to see less Featured Authors like myself ranking well and more low-read works showing up; though I can see why Wattpad would take a particular focus on Featured works at this time. Despite that, it's still a very good balance, and I'm not entirely sure I'd like to see it change because I'm personally benefiting from it right now, LOL!

Still, the combination of evaluating quality indicators, social signals and early indicators of popularity and then using those cues to amplify works that would otherwise be lost in the Wattpad slushpile is wonderful.

Basically, if a work has a lot of activity around it (relative to its tiny reads), or is particularly well-written, YuenRank could potentially spot that diamond in the rough and cause it to rank well on the algorithm - which is remarkable. I've seen a few books with under 1K reads (heck even under 500 reads!) make it to the first page of the Hot List, and that is very inspiring to see.

If Ivan Yuen and team can truly implement these new changes, it would make for an unbeatable ranking algorithm!

IY: I hope that was ok, it was a lot of fun for me!

Edit (ML): The pleasure is all ours, Mr. Yuen! :)

I would respectfully like to thank Ivan Yuen for  graciously taking time out of his busy schedule to provide us with insights.

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