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Online Controlled Experiments and A/B Testing

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Encyclopedia of Machine Learning and Data Mining


The Internet connectivity of client software (e.g., apps running on phones and PCs), websites, and online services provide an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate ideas quickly using controlled experiments, also called A/B tests, split tests, randomized experiments, control/treatment tests, and online field experiments. Unlike most data mining techniques for finding correlational patterns, controlled experiments allow establishing a causal relationship with high probability. Experimenters can utilize the scientific method to form a hypothesis of the form “If a specific change is introduced, will it improve key metrics?” and evaluate it with real users.

The theory of a controlled experiment dates back to Sir Ronald A. Fisher’s experiments at the Rothamsted Agricultural Experimental Station in England in the 1920s, and the topic of offline experiments is well developed in Statistics (Box et al., Statistics for experimenters: design, innovation, and discovery. Wiley, Hoboken, 2005). Online-controlled experiments started to be used in the late 1990s with the growth of the Internet. Today, many large sites, including Amazon, Bing, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo!, run thousands to tens of thousands of experiments each year testing user interface (UI) changes, enhancements to algorithms (search, ads, personalization, recommendation, etc.), changes to apps, content management system, etc. Online-controlled experiments are now considered an indispensable tool, and their use is growing for startups and smaller websites. Controlled experiments are especially useful in combination with Agile software development (Martin, Clean code: a handbook of Agile software craftsmanship. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2008; Rubin, Essential scrum: a practical guide to the most popular Agile process. Addison-Wesley Professional, Upper Saddle River, 2012), Steve Blank’s Customer Development process (Blank, The four steps to the epiphany: successful strategies for products that win., 2005), and MVPs (minimum viable products) popularized by Eric Ries’s Lean Startup (Ries, The lean startup: how today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Crown Business, New York, 2011).

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Kohavi, R., Longbotham, R. (2017). Online Controlled Experiments and A/B Testing. In: Sammut, C., Webb, G.I. (eds) Encyclopedia of Machine Learning and Data Mining. Springer, Boston, MA.

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