When and Why to Standardize Your Data?

A simple guide on when it is necessary to standardize your data
Zakaria Jaadi
September 4, 2019
Updated: April 7, 2021
Zakaria Jaadi
September 4, 2019
Updated: April 7, 2021
how to standardize data

Standardization is an important technique that is mostly performed as a pre-processing step before many Machine Learning models, to standardize the range of features of input data set.

Some ML developers tend to standardize their data blindly before “every” Machine Learning model without taking the effort to understand why it must be used, or even if it’s needed or not. So the goal of this post is to explain how, why and when to standardize data.



Standardization comes into picture when features of input data set have large differences between their ranges, or simply when they are measured in different measurement units (e.g., Pounds, Meters, Miles … etc).

These differences in the ranges of initial features causes trouble to many machine learning models. For example, for the models that are based on distance computation, if one of the features has a broad range of values, the distance will be governed by this particular feature.

To illustrate this with an example : say we have a 2-dimensional data set with two features, Height in Meters and Weight in Pounds, that range respectively from [1 to 2] Meters and [10 to 200] Pounds. No matter what distance based model you perform on this data set, the Weight feature will dominate over the Height feature and will have more contribution to the distance computation, just because it has bigger values compared to the Height. So, to prevent this problem, transforming features to comparable scales using standardization is the solution.


How to standardize data?


Z-score is one of the most popular methods to standardize data, and can be done by subtracting the mean and dividing by the standard deviation for each value of each feature.

z-score standard deviation

Once the standardization is done, all the features will have a mean of zero, a standard deviation of one, and thus, the same scale.

There exist other standardization methods but for the sake of simplicity, in this story i settle for Z-score method.


When to standardize data and why?

As seen above, for distance based models, standardization is performed to prevent features with wider ranges from dominating the distance metric. But the reason we standardize data is not the same for all machine learning models, and differs from one model to another.

So before which ML models and methods you have to standardize your data and why ?

1- Before PCA:

In Principal Component Analysis, features with high variances/wide ranges, get more weight than those with low variance, and consequently, they end up illegitimately dominating the First Principal Components (Components with maximum variance). I used the word “Illegitimately” here, because the reason these features have high variances compared to the other ones is just because they were measured in different scales.

Standardization can prevent this, by giving same wheightage to all features.

2- Before Clustering:

Clustering models are distance based algorithms, in order to measure similarities between observations and form clusters they use a distance metric. So, features with high ranges will have a bigger influence on the clustering. Therefore, standardization is required before building a clustering model.

3- Before KNN:

k-nearest neighbors is a distance based classifier that classifies new observations based on similarity measures (e.g., distance metrics) with labeled observations of the training set. Standardization makes all variables to contribute equally to the similarity measures .

4- Before SVM

Support Vector Machine tries to maximize the distance between the separating plane and the support vectors. If one feature has very large values, it will dominate over other features when calculating the distance. So Standardization gives all features the same influence on the distance metric.

Support Vector Machine
Source: Arun Manglick: arun-aiml.blogspot.com

5- Before measuring variable importance in regression models

You can measure variable importance in regression analysis, by fitting a regression model using the standardized independent variables and comparing the absolute value of their standardized coefficients. But, if the independent variables are not standardized, comparing their coefficients becomes meaningless.

6- Before Lasso and Ridge Regression

LASSO and Ridge regressions place a penalty on the magnitude of the coefficients associated to each variable. And the scale of variables will affect how much penalty will be applied on their coefficients. Because coefficients of variables with large variance are small and thus less penalized. Therefore, standardization is required before fitting both regressions.


Cases when standardization is not needed? 

Logistic Regression and Tree based models

Logistic Regression and Tree based algorithms such as Decision Tree, Random forest and gradient boosting, are not sensitive to the magnitude of variables. So standardization is not needed before fitting this kind of models.


Wrapping up data standardization

As we saw in this post, when to standardize and when not to, depends on which model you want to use and what you want to do with it. So, it’s very important for a ML developer to understand the internal functioning of machine learning algorithms, to be able to know when to standardize data and to build a successful machine learning model.

N.B: The list of models and methods when standardization is required, presented in this post is not exhaustive.


Zakaria Jaadi is a data scientist and machine learning engineer. Check out more of his content on Data Science topics  on Medium.


References :

  • [365DataScience.com]: Explaining Standardization Step-By-Step
  • [Listendata.com ]: when and why to standardize a variable


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