I have a poorly performing query:

SELECT  user_id, count(item_id) as count
FROM table items 
WHERE category = 'magazine'
AND created_at > 1384754400
GROUP BY user_id
ORDER BY count(item_id) desc

Whats the optimal indexing strategy in order to optimize this query?

Table Details

500million records with the following structure / cardinalities:

  • PRIMARY KEY (item_id) - cardinality: 500 M
  • user_id - cardinality: ~ 25 M
  • category - cardinality: ~ 2.5 M
  • created_at - cardinality: ~ 150 M


  • I have individual indexes on each the user_id, category and created_at fields

I also have the following covering indexes:

  • (category, user_id) - this is the one the query optimizer defaults to when running explain
  • (category, created_at)
  • (category, created_at, user_id) - this is one I attempted to create in order to optimize this query, however, it doesn't seem to be working very well.
  • 1
    What does "mm" mean? Do you mean "m" as millions?
    – fejesjoco
    Jan 17, 2014 at 8:45
  • mm means millions.
    – alex
    Jan 17, 2014 at 14:08
  • 2
    no, "mm" means millimeters, and "M" means millions :)
    – fejesjoco
    Jan 17, 2014 at 14:16
  • @fejesjoco "M" could also mean thousand :)
    – alex
    Jan 17, 2014 at 23:14
  • M = 1024 * 1024 :-) Jan 26, 2015 at 11:35

2 Answers 2


If you ONLY want to optimise for this query. This is the best index:

ALTER TABLE items ADD INDEX (category, created_at, user_id)

This optimises the value of the filters, which reduces the total amount of data you touch. By adding user_id, item_id at the end of the query, you make the index covering and it saves you a lookup into the primary index.

We can assume that item_id is NOT NULL (as it is the PRIMARY index).

However, because the MySQL optimiser is pretty stupid, you may need to rewrite like this:

SELECT  user_id, SUM(count) AS count
  SELECT category, created_at, user_id, COUNT(*) as count
  FROM items
  WHERE category = 'magazine'
  AND created_at > 1384754400
  GROUP BY category, created_at, user_id
) AS d
GROUP BY user_id

I would delete all indexes and start fresh. I think a category index is sufficient, or a (category, created_at) at most. Given one category, there should be around 200 matches, so it depends whether the created_at filter discards a lot of rows or not. Can you show query plans and numbers to verify how the query is performing? Also I don't know if it matters or not, but count(1) would be sufficient as well, instead of naming a column.

  • Thanks for the reply. You're right that it depends on whether the created_at filter discards a lot of rows or not...but 200 matches might not be right. For some categories, there are a upwards of 1 million matches. The other issue with using (category, created_at) is that it adds a "hidden join". It would need to get each primary key pointer, and then grab the entire row of data in order to get the user_id field value, instead of getting all of the needed field values straight from the index (a non-trivial, and large operation, since this table has many other columns).
    – alex
    Jan 17, 2014 at 14:11

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