Why it took a long time to build that tiny link preview on Wikipedia

Preview cards now show when you hover over a link ohhh yeeehh (and yes, I use Wikipedia’s mobile skin for my desktop browsing). Text from the Wikipedia articles on icebergs and water, CC BY-SA 3.0. Images left to right, top to bottom: #1 by Kim Hansen, CC BY-SA 3.0; #2 by Andreas Weith, CC BY-SA 4.0; #3 via the National Library of New Zealand, CC0.

A few days ago, my team completed the launch of  “page previews”—a feature now deployed to hundreds of language editions of Wikipedia. We are seeing up to half a million hits every minute to our API to serve those cards that show when you hover over any link.
On the surface it looks quite simple. It’s something many websites have already. It has an image and some text and shows when you hover over a link. Hardly groundbreaking stuff … or so it may seem.
The original idea was conceived four years ago, based on an idea from a volunteer/editor many years before that.
It’s thus taken a few years for us to get this out to everyone. That might seem strange, but like an iceberg, once you start looking below it, it all makes sense.

We had to choose a thumbnail

We have several millions of pages, all stored as raw wikitext. We couldn’t expect every single article to be edited to designate a thumbnail.
Way back in 2012, Max Semenik, a software engineer on our Community Tech team, built an extension that would algorithmically work out the most appropriate image for an article.
As with all algorithms, it wasn’t perfect and since it wasn’t designed for the use case of page previews, it also required tweaking.
We had to make updates to limit the image to the first section of the article. Working with algorithms is hard, but for this purpose essential.

We had to generate a summary

We have several millions of pages, all stored as raw wikitext. How to summarise that without asking our editors to go in and painstakingly do that for every article?
The busy Max Semenik who helped us with the thumbnails, also wrote an extension to generate extracts of articles. It was originally written primarily for plain text summaries. Our initial versions of page previews used this, but we realised it wasn’t the best fit for what we were trying to do.
So we stopped using this.
We realised HTML was very important. For instance chemistry articles featured chemical formulae which needs subscript which requires HTML.

Consider how HTML is needed to generate summaries for content where subscript is important such as the chemical formula of water, shown here. Text from the English Wikipedia article on water, CC BY-SA 3.0; image by Kim Hansen, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Many of our articles, begin with location information and pronunciation information. A lot of this content didn’t belong in our summaries and for other content it was less clear what belonged. The summaries had a lot of design input and we identified which content shouldn’t appear inside a preview. We wrote up a specification capturing the required behaviour.

Location information features at the beginning of many articles proving problematic for summarising Wikipedia articles…

… as does pronunciation information.

In the end we decided to build on top of an API that was originally built for our native Android and iOS apps. We created a new API specifically for this purpose.
We now generate the summary from the entire article HTML. We parse it just like a browser and per the specification identify the first “non-empty” lead paragraph of every article.
One of the big challenges here, was the decision to strip content inside parentheses. Since we support over 300 languages this had to be localised (not everyone uses the same character set!).
Not only that, but of course some parentheses are vital… edge cases are everywhere. We had to think about all their potential usage and how best to do them.

Sometimes content inside parentheses is important, as this example suggests. Identifying when they are important is hard. Text from the English Wikipedia article on the periodic table, CC BY-SA 3.0; image by Offnfopt, public domain.

Stripping parenthetical elements from user-generated HTML also turned out to be quite difficult. Whereas doing so in plain text requires a simple regular expression, things get more complicated when you consider nested HTML.
It was important to ensure the content continued to make sense with the content inside parentheses stripped and that we that we didn’t add any security vulnerabilities.
Thanks go to our Infrastructure team for helping us build out this API.

We work with our community

Our editing community cares a lot about our product. That’s why they write articles for you in their spare time for no monetary gain.
We include them in every part of the process, working with them tirelessly to fix every edge case (whether it be broken summaries, or inappropriate images) and to reassure them we know what we are doing, the impact of why we are doing and why we are continuing to do it.
Our initial version wasn’t good enough. Our community asked us not to go ahead with it. We answered by listening to them and making it better.
Thank you community and our community liaisons who helped facilitate those conversations!

Design design design

We did a lot of it. Our designer, Nirzar did a great write up so I won’t bother sharing any more here, but design was at every step of the process whether it was the initial prototypes (thanks Prateek Saxena!); discussing performance of the feature with our performance team; perfecting thumbnails and summaries; or talking to our community.
Thank you design team!

We had to instrument it

This was a big change to how people interact with our content. We care a lot about privacy in Wikimedia. We are likely to be one of the few (only?!) major websites who don’t install third party scripts to track you.
Our privacy policy forbids us from giving away data about you.
We don’t use vendors to A/B test or analyse our user’s behaviour.
Yet, despite all this, we don’t cut corners.
We don’t want to make dumb risky changes.
Every time we build something major we have to build out the infrastructure to evaluate it. We construct hypothesizes and tests to test those hypothesizes. We build it. We test it. We listen to the data. We adapt. We test again.
This means we juggle being a product team and an analytics team. Our development team wear multiple hats. Given the scale we work at have to deal with bugs. Occasionally, we find major bugs in browser vendors.
Our final A/B test by Tilman Bayer gave us many answers. It’s a great read!
Given the findings of that A/B test we also decided to start measuring “page preview views” as an additional metric to page views. That metric is firing 1000 events per second and our analytics team is kicking ass dealing with that sort of scale.
Thank you analysts, thank you analytics team!

We had to scale our API to support you

We are seeing 0.5 million hits to our API a minute.
We are seeing 0.5 million hits to our API a minute.
I say that twice because that’s a high volume of traffic.
Our traditional APIs were originally built for bots to help clean up your edits. They weren’t designed for readers.
The Wikimedia services team has been vital to the success of this project by providing the infrastructure to deal with, dealing with a lot of the caching (we rely heavily on Varnish) and making sure when content gets edited new summaries get generated. It’s well known that cache invalidation is one of the harder Computer Science problems.
Thank you services team!!

Thank you thank you thank you

Shipping something always feels good. I hope the “simple” preview my team with the help of many teams across the Wikimedia Foundation has shipped enriches your experience.
Lot’s of us have obviously been involved and we’re proud of what we’ve put out.
We’re not done. Software is never done.
We have code to clean up and new ideas for how to grow this small little feature.
Some might say we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

———

The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit and relies on donations from people like you to keep the site up and running in such a way that it lives up to our values. To help us continue to build features like this, please consider donating to us.
Jon Robson, Senior Software Engineer, Desktop & Mobile Web
Wikimedia Foundation

Want to learn more? See the original announcement and how we designed page previews.

This post originally appeared in “Down the rabbit hole,” our Medium publication, and was modified for re-publication on the Wikimedia blog. Both posts have since been edited to fix a typo—our API is receiving half a million hits per minute, not five thousand.

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

15 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Incredible, thank you so much for sharing the journey and all who worked tirelessly to solve and implement this terrific feature!

This is really neat, thanks for adding this and also for writing up the story of how it came into being! Two comments – a) it seems to fire off an XHR request every time I move the mouse cursor over a link, so I can keep waving my mouse over a link and keep generating new requests (i.e. no caching), and b) it fires off the request as soon as the mouse is moved, so a bunch of requests are fired off if a mouse moves over a page, without ever needing them. Maybe firing off the request only… Read more »

I appreciate your effort and commitment. You’re not only ice breaking, but also melting too. Thanks!

Next time a manager asks “but can’t you just…?” I’d like to point them to this page! Software is really complicated and hard. It isn’t easy and I want to applaud you for helping raise awareness for just how difficult being a software developer can be. With an industry hyper-focused on moving fast and treating professionals as just a dime a dozen the word needs to be spread. As a community we need to be better at explaining to the lay-person that just because you have an idea for an app does not mean it is easy. It can be… Read more »

thank you for making it accessible for keyboard-only users like blind persons!

Thanks for the write up. I’m happy to see that this feature finally got deployed on the English Wikipedia.
I’ve see previews on the Czech Wikipedia for a while now – is it the same implementation? Was English particularly complex? Was it the the size of EN Wikipedia (vs CS Wikipedia) that “delayed” deployment?
Thanks again!

I think one clear improvement would be to not make a call as soon as you move the mouse over the link, and maybe add a little bit of delay. It seems immediate right now and makes several calls when I am moving my mouse over page.

Great work! Thanks for sharing these behind-the-scenes stories and challenges, and thank you for valuing the input from the community!
Have you guys considered using a smaller font for the preview cards?

That’s pretty cool. Why do you need to strip content within parenthesis?

Hey all, I work with the team that built this feature. I wanted to give a few replies to you all. Sorry I can’t thread things here. 🙂 @umair Lead sentences can be incredibly verbose with information in parentheticals – without actually telling the reader anything about the topic of the article! User:Kaldari (among others) have written about this problem before. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2017-06-09/Op-ed @Yusuf Erdogan (@erdogany) There is a subtle delay in the previews. After research and testing the team settled on 500ms (half a second) of hover before they appear. @Josef “Jeff” Sipek Yes, folks on the other wikis have… Read more »

@ckoerner
Thanks for the reply. I can see there is a delay to show the popup but not for the api call. So without the need of seeing the popup the calls are being made. Not a big deal but I guess this could reduce your calls quite a bit… Thanks for this great feature.

In terms of processing performance, does the text extract omit processing (expensive) templates (e.g. infoboxes)?

In terms of processing performance, does the text extract omit processing (expensive) templates (e.g. infoboxes)?

Yusuf Erdogan (@erdogany) regarding delay… we had a super fascinating meeting between performance and design around that. The conclusion was summarised here: https://phabricator.wikimedia.org/T70861#3129780 but that whole conversation documents the arguments for and against and ultimate decision.

Nice feature, but had to turn it off. If there a right place for bug reports? If I open a new tab in background via mouse wheel click, the link I clicked becomes selected (underlined), and everytime I scroll this page a preview pops up, which is very annoying. Latest Chrome on Win10. Also it would be great to be able to fine-tune this feature (for example, turn off images).