Yana Khare — Updated On November 2nd, 2023
Beginner Clustering Machine Learning


Have you ever wondered how vast volumes of data can be untangled, revealing hidden patterns and insights? The answer lies in clustering, a powerful technique in machine learning and data analysis. Clustering algorithms allow us to group data points based on their similarities, aiding in tasks ranging from customer segmentation to image analysis.

In this article, we’ll explore ten distinct types of clustering algorithms in machine learning, providing insights into how they work and where they find their applications.

Machine learning | Clustering algorithm
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What is Clustering?

Imagine you have a diverse collection of data points, such as customer purchase histories, species measurements, or image pixels. Clustering enables you to organize these points into subsets where items within each subset are more akin to each other than those in other subsets. These clusters are defined by common features, attributes, or relationships that may not be immediately apparent.

Clustering is significant in various applications, from market segmentation and recommendation systems to anomaly detection and image segmentation. By recognizing natural groupings within data, businesses can target specific customer segments, researchers can categorize species, and computer vision systems can separate objects within images. Consequently, understanding the diverse techniques and algorithms used in clustering is essential for extracting valuable insights from complex datasets.

Now, let’s understand the ten different types of clustering algorithms.

A. Centroid-based Clustering

Centroid-based clustering is a category of clustering algorithms that hinges on the concept of centroids, or representative points, to delineate clusters within datasets. These algorithms aim to minimize the distance between data points and their cluster centroids. Within this category, two prominent clustering algorithms are K-means and K-modes.

1. K-means Clustering

K-means is a widely utilized clustering technique that partitions data into k clusters, with k pre-defined by the user. It iteratively assigns data points to the nearest centroid and recalculates the centroids until convergence. K-means is efficient and effective for data with numerical attributes.

2. K-modes Clustering (a Categorical Data Clustering Variant)

K-modes is an adaptation of K-means tailored for categorical data. Instead of using centroids, it employs modes, representing the most frequent categorical values in each cluster. K-modes are invaluable for datasets with non-numeric attributes, providing an efficient means of clustering categorical data effectively.

Clustering AlgorithmKey FeaturesSuitable Data TypesPrimary Use Cases
K-means ClusteringCentroid-based, numeric attributes, scalableNumerical (quantitative) dataCustomer segmentation, image analysis
K-modes ClusteringMode-based, categorical data, efficientCategorical (qualitative) dataMarket basket analysis and text clustering

B. Density-based Clustering

Density-based clustering is a category of clustering algorithms that identify clusters based on the density of data points within a particular region. These algorithms can discover clusters of varying shapes and sizes, making them suitable for datasets with irregular patterns. Three notable density-based clustering algorithms are DBSCAN, Mean-Shift Clustering, and Affinity Propagation.

1. DBSCAN (Density-Based Spatial Clustering of Applications with Noise)

DBSCAN groups data points by identifying dense regions separated by sparser areas. It doesn’t require specifying the number of clusters beforehand and is robust to noise. DBSCAN particularly suits datasets with varying cluster densities and arbitrary shapes.

2. Mean-Shift Clustering

Mean-Shift clustering identifies clusters by locating the mode of the data distribution, making it effective at finding clusters with non-uniform shapes. It is often used in image segmentation, object tracking, and feature analysis.

3. Affinity Propagation

Affinity Propagation is a graph-based clustering algorithm that identifies examples within the data and finds use in various applications, including image and text clustering. It doesn’t require specifying the number of clusters and can identify clusters of varying sizes and shapes effectively.

Clustering AlgorithmKey FeaturesSuitable Data TypesPrimary Use Cases
DBSCANDensity-based, noise-resistant, no preset number of clustersNumeric, Categorical dataAnomaly detection, spatial data analysis
Mean-Shift ClusteringMode-based, adaptive cluster shape, real-time processingNumeric dataImage segmentation, object tracking
Affinity PropagationGraph-based, no preset number of clusters, exemplar-basedNumeric, Categorical dataImage and text clustering, community detection

These density-based clustering algorithms are particularly useful when dealing with complex, non-linear datasets, where traditional centroid-based methods may struggle to find meaningful clusters.

C. Distribution-based Clustering

Distribution-based clustering algorithms model data as probability distributions, assuming that data points originate from a mixture of underlying distributions. These algorithms are particularly effective in identifying clusters with statistical characteristics. Two prominent distribution-based clustering methods are the Gaussian Mixture Model (GMM) and Expectation-Maximization (EM) clustering.

1. Gaussian Mixture Model

The Gaussian Mixture Model represents data as a combination of multiple Gaussian distributions. It assumes that the data points are generated from these Gaussian components. GMM can identify clusters with varying shapes and sizes and finds wide use in pattern recognition, density estimation, and data compression.

2. Expectation-Maximization (EM) Clustering

The Expectation-Maximization algorithm is an iterative optimization approach used for clustering. It models the data distribution as a mixture of probability distributions, such as Gaussian distributions. EM iteratively updates the parameters of these distributions, aiming to find the best-fit clusters within the data.

Clustering AlgorithmKey FeaturesSuitable Data TypesPrimary Use Cases
Gaussian Mixture Model (GMM)Probability distribution modeling, mixture of Gaussian distributionsNumeric dataDensity estimation, data compression, pattern recognition
Expectation-Maximization (EM) ClusteringIterative optimization, probability distribution mixture, well-suited for mixed data typesNumeric dataImage segmentation, statistical data analysis, unsupervised learning

Distribution-based clustering algorithms are valuable when dealing with data that statistical models can accurately describe. They are particularly suited for scenarios where data is generated from a combination of underlying distributions, which makes them useful in various applications, including statistical analysis and data modeling.

D. Hierarchical Clustering

In unsupervised machine learning, hierarchical clustering is a technique that arranges data points into a hierarchical structure or dendrogram. It allows for exploring relationships at multiple scales. This approach, illustrated by Spectral Clustering, Birch, and Ward’s Method, enables data analysts to delve into intricate data structures and patterns.

1. Spectral Clustering

Spectral clustering uses the eigenvectors of a similarity matrix to divide data into clusters. It excels at identifying clusters with irregular shapes and finds common applications in tasks like image segmentation, network community detection, and dimensionality reduction.

2. Birch (Balanced Iterative Reducing and Clustering using Hierarchies)

Birch is a hierarchical clustering algorithm that constructs a tree-like structure of clusters. It is especially efficient and suitable for handling large datasets. Therefore making it valuable in data mining, pattern recognition, and online learning applications.

3. Ward’s Method (Agglomerative Hierarchical Clustering)

Ward’s Method is an agglomerative hierarchical clustering approach. It starts with individual data points and progressively merges clusters to establish a hierarchy. Frequent employment in environmental sciences and biology involves taxonomic classifications.

Hierarchical clustering enables data analysts to examine the connections between data points at different levels of detail. Thus serving as a valuable tool for comprehending data structures and patterns across multiple scales. It is especially helpful when dealing with data that exhibits intricate hierarchical relationships or when there’s a requirement to analyze data at various resolutions.

Clustering AlgorithmKey FeaturesSuitable Data TypesPrimary Use Cases
Spectral ClusteringSpectral embedding, non-convex cluster shapes, eigenvalues and eigenvectorsNumeric data, Network dataImage segmentation, community detection, dimensionality reduction
BirchHierarchical structure and scalability, suited for large datasetsNumeric dataData mining, pattern recognition, online learning
Ward’s MethodAgglomerative hierarchy, taxonomic classifications, merging clusters progressivelyNumeric data, Categorical dataEnvironmental sciences, biology, taxonomy


Clustering algorithms in machine learning offer a vast and varied array of approaches to address the intricate task of categorizing data points based on their resemblances. Whether it’s the centroid-centered methods like K-means and K-modes, the density-driven techniques such as DBSCAN and Mean-Shift, the distribution-focused methodologies like GMM and EM, or the hierarchical clustering approaches exemplified by Spectral Clustering, Birch, and Ward’s Method, each algorithm brings its distinct advantages to the forefront. The selection of a clustering algorithm hinges on the characteristics of the data and the specific problem at hand. Using these clustering tools, data scientists and machine learning professionals can unearth concealed patterns and glean valuable insights from intricate datasets.

Frequently Asked Question

Q1. What are the types of clustering?

Ans. There are just a few types of clustering: Hierarchical Clustering, K-means Clustering, DBSCAN (Density-Based Spatial Clustering of Applications with Noise), Agglomerative Clustering, Affinity Propagation and Mean-Shift Clustering.

Q2. What is clustering in machine learning?

Ans. Clustering in machine learning is an unsupervised learning technique that involves grouping data points into clusters based on their similarities or patterns, without prior knowledge of the categories. It aims to find natural groupings within the data, making it easier to understand and analyze large datasets.

Q3. What are the three basic types of clusters?

Ans. 1. Exclusive Clusters: Data points belong to only one cluster.
2. Overlapping Clusters: Data points can belong to multiple clusters.
3. Hierarchical Clusters: Clusters can be organized in a hierarchical structure, allowing for various levels of granularity.

Q4. Which is the best clustering algorithm?

Ans. There is no universally “best” clustering algorithm, as the choice depends on the specific dataset and problem. K-means is a popular choice for simplicity, but DBSCAN is robust for various scenarios. The best algorithm varies based on data characteristics, such as data distribution, dimensionality, and cluster shapes.

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Yana Khare

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