Can Query Expansion Improve Generalization of Strong Cross-Encoder Rankers?

Minghan Li
Jimmy Lin
Proceedings of the 47th International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval (SIGIR ’24)(2024)


Query expansion has been widely used to improve the search results of first-stage retrievers, yet its influence on second-stage, crossencoder rankers remains under-explored. A recent study shows that current expansion techniques benefit weaker models but harm stronger rankers. In this paper, we re-examine this conclusion and raise the following question: Can query expansion improve generalization of strong cross-encoder rankers? To answer this question, we first apply popular query expansion methods to different crossencoder rankers and verify the deteriorated zero-shot effectiveness. We identify two vital steps in the experiment: high-quality keyword generation and minimally-disruptive query modification. We show that it is possible to improve the generalization of a strong neural ranker, by generating keywords through a reasoning chain and aggregating the ranking results of each expanded query via selfconsistency, reciprocal rank weighting, and fusion. Experiments on BEIR and TREC Deep Learning 2019/2020 show that the nDCG@10 scores of both MonoT5 and RankT5 following these steps are improved, which points out a direction for applying query expansion to strong cross-encoder rankers.