What is heuristic algorithm

An algorithm is a self-contained step-by-step set of operations to be performed 4, typically interpreted as a finite sequence of (computer or human) instructions to determine a solution to a problem such as: is there a path from A to B, or what is the smallest path between A and B. In the latter case, you could also be satisfied with a 'reasonably close' alternative solution.

There are certain categories of algorithms, of which the heuristic algorithm is one. Depending on the (proven) properties of the algorithm in this case, it falls into one of these three categories (note 1):

  • Exact: the solution is proven to be an optimal (or exact solution) to the input problem
  • Approximation: the deviation of the solution value is proven to be never further away from the optimal value than some pre-defined bound (for example, never more than 50% larger than the optimal value)
  • Heuristic: the algorithm has not been proven to be optimal, nor within a pre-defined bound of the optimal solution

Notice that an approximation algorithm is also a heuristic, but with the stronger property that there is a proven bound to the solution (value) it outputs.

For some problems, noone has ever found an 'efficient' algorithm to compute the optimal solutions (note 2). One of those problems is the well-known Traveling Salesman Problem. Christophides' algorithm for the Traveling Salesman Problem, for example, used to be called a heuristic, as it was not proven that it was within 50% of the optimal solution. Since it has been proven, however, Christophides' algorithm is more accurately referred to as an approximation algorithm.

Due to restrictions on what computers can do, it is not always possible to efficiently find the best solution possible. If there is enough structure in a problem, there may be an efficient way to traverse the solution space, even though the solution space is huge (i.e. in the shortest path problem).

Heuristics are typically applied to improve the running time of algorithms, by adding 'expert information' or 'educated guesses' to guide the search direction. In practice, a heuristic may also be a sub-routine for an optimal algorithm, to determine where to look first.

(note 1): Additionally, algorithms are characterised by whether they include random or non-deterministic elements. An algorithm that always executes the same way and produces the same answer, is called deterministic.

(note 2): This is called the P vs NP problem, and problems that are classified as NP-complete and NP-hard are unlikely to have an 'efficient' algorithm. Note; as @Kriss mentioned in the comments, there are even 'worse' types of problems, which may need exponential time or space to compute.

There are several answers that answer part of the question. I deemed them less complete and not accurate enough, and decided not to edit the accepted answer made by @Kriss