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“I hope that Review Signal becomes the FiveThirtyEight of the review industry.”

Review Signal

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Review Signal was founded by Kevin Ohashi in February 2011. Kevin’s goal was a review site you could trust. The foundation for Review Signal came from his Master’s thesis entitled ‘Measuring Word of Mouth in Real-Time: A Study of “Tweets” and Their Dynamic Relation to Movie Sales and Marketing Efforts.’ The goal was to understand and model online word-of-mouth by capturing Twitter messages and predicting box office sales.

Review Signal is about turning the opinions we share on social media into a review site for consumers. Review Signal collects filters and analyzes opinions and tries to present the most accurate and up to date picture of a company based on what their customers are saying about them.

Review Signal’s technology is best suited for comparing intangible products and services because they are inherently hard to measure and compare apples-to-apples on pure features. The technology builds a picture of what consumers think about a company but also breaks down the language used to describe the company to understand things like how happy their users are with their customer support. In short, it’s measuring consumer happiness with regards to a company.

MO: How did your Master’s thesis help inspire the concept for creating Review Signal?

Kevin: My Master’s thesis was the foundation for Review Signal. The Master’s program was entitled International Marketing and Brand Management, and I wanted to work with tracking brands online and picking up signals in social media. I had originally planned on building a brand monitoring system called Brand Research. I even won a business plan competition in Sweden with the idea. However, while I was working on my thesis it became very apparent that the space was extremely crowded. I found a white paper comparing 400 different options in the area. That was probably the final nail in the coffin for the idea of building a brand monitoring system.

Regardless, I finished my thesis and the technology definitely worked. It wasn’t until I begun playing with brand monitoring again, half a year later, that the current idea for Review Signal came to me. I was feeling burnt out and challenged myself to a 7 day hackathon where I needed to produce a new concept every day. Around day 4 or 5 I built a toy brand monitoring system called Buzz Scanner using a lot of the old Master’s thesis work. And while I still didn’t want to build a brand monitoring system I begun looking for other applications of the technology and idea of generating value from that data. Eventually, Review Signal was born in February 2011.

MO: How does Review Signal work? How do you rate customer happiness?

Kevin: The simplest way to explain Review Signal is that we have automated the process of asking your friends for opinions. Except, instead of asking only your friends, we are collecting the opinions of everyone on Twitter. In many ways we try and hide the complexity behind Review Signal, we break our reviews down to a very simple number, Overall Rating. But, we also expose a lot of data and our methodology (http://reviewsignal.com/howitworks) for the curious and technically inclined. And every review used to calculate our scores are publicly viewable and sourced to their original posting location.

The biggest challenge we, as consumers, face is conflicting opinions. Every major company is going to have some proportion of users who aren’t happy. Instead of being focused on the long form reviews that people write, we focus on the average experience, or Overall Rating.

Our Overall Rating is what I often call Customer Happiness. In math terms, Customer Happiness = [Happy Users] / [Happy + Unhappy Users]. It’s a simple measure of what percent of users are expressing positive sentiments towards a company versus negative sentiments. Our basic hypothesis is, the higher proportion of users that are happy with a company, the better the company.

MO: The first market that Review Signal is covering is web hosting reviews. What other niches are you personally or professionally interested in expanding into next?

Kevin: The next industry we will cover is Domain Registrars. It’s a pretty natural expansion for many reasons. The biggest reason is that web hosting and domain registrars are like peanut butter and jelly. There is an incredibly high chance that you need both web hosting and a domain name. Many of the companies that provide one of those services also provide the other. A more personal reason is that I’ve been connected to the domain industry for 10 years now professionally. It also fits the bill for the type of companies that our system should work well for. Domain registrars provide a service and while many compete on price, many also compete on service. Service is hard to measure in a comparison matrix, so Review Signal should work well to tell you which companies have happy customers.

MO: You’re currently offering your reviews for free. What does your business model look like?

Kevin: Our business model is simple, we have affiliate deals in place with some of the companies listed. We make money when you sign up with one of those companies. The biggest concern people have is – how can we trust you / your rankings if you earn money from some companies? That’s a very valid concern. We are very upfront about it and we’ve designed a system that attempts to maximize transparency. We publish our ranking methodology openly here: http://reviewsignal.com/howitworks. Every single review is shown to all users and linked directly to the social media account it originated from. You’re welcome to trust us, but you’re also able to verify what we’ve done.

Going forward, we’re looking at other options to monetize. I prefer monetization options that don’t detract from the users’ experience. The best kind of monetization integrates seamlessly or even benefits our users. For example, we’re exploring the idea of using lead generation to help customers get custom quotes on web hosting from companies who would pay us to offer these people their services.

MO: Has anything about the data that you’ve been collecting and analyzing surprised you so far? Have you noticed any specific trends?

Kevin: I find it fascinating to read people’s thoughts. I often find myself laughing at the colorful ways people come up with to express themselves and their opinion of some companies. Those messages also make my life miserable. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of new ways to say negative things about a company. The positive ones are a lot more tame and follow more specific patterns.

Some of the larger trends that I’ve observed are more event specific. When something big happens there is generally an echo in the data. For example, I’ve been working on analyzing how Hurricane Sandy impacted web hosting companies. I can see which companies had problems, which ones people were concerned about, and the precautions some companies took to protect their customers.

MO: Why did you think that it was important to add a new level of transparency by connecting each review to the source they came from?

Kevin: One of the biggest concerns about reviews is trust and once we’ve gone beyond our network of trusted friends, we get very skeptical. Most online review sites that use user submitted reviews don’t have any sort of identity attached to them. Anyone can sign up and write whatever they want. It’s quasi-anonymous and many people aren’t comfortable with that. By connecting a profile picture and link to the original source, we are saying ‘check out this person for yourself.’ Also, we’re not perfect, we make mistakes. Giving our users access to the data gives them the ability to report mistakes and help us improve our system.

MO: Can you elaborate on why you’re excited to get an opportunity to start analyzing and visualizing the data you’ve collected? Do you have any ideas or expectations of what your research will reveal?

Kevin: How could I not be excited? I am getting the chance to read thousands of people’s thoughts and opinions. What events made them say certain things? It’s like reverse engineering people’s online behavior. Each message is a story, some of them overlap. I am mostly interested in the big stories that many people are connected to and the message that ties them all together. I find it fascinating to get a chance to learn about people and try to re-tell their stories.

Most of my research begins as exploratory. If I see an interesting pattern or want to test out a giant ‘what if?’ situation. Sometimes I have an idea about a story. If we go back to the example of events, GoDaddy had a DNS outage in September. You can clearly see a drop in the trend graph that correlates with this major event. I would go in with some idea that this event might be connected to the negative drop. But I am not tied to any specific conclusion at the start. In fact, it would be far more interesting to see if something else caused the drop in rating.

MO: MO.com was lucky enough to have you write a few interviews for us in the past. Did you pick up any insights or tips on entrepreneurship during your time writing for the site?

Kevin: The most interesting thing I learned from writing interviews for MO was the diversity of entrepreneurship opportunities. The most fascinating people to talk to were the ones who were solving problems in a space I didn’t have any idea existed. I think the tech world has a very insular view of the world and ignores a lot of the interesting stories happening outside the bubble. Writing for MO gave me a broader perspective and helped me appreciate the creativity and opportunity around me.

Another idea that was reinforced was there are no rules in entrepreneurship. We are constantly bombarded with best practices and rules in the media, but the actual stories behind people’s success are very different from the prescriptions often touted in the media. What worked for someone may not work for someone else, every action we take is tied to a specific moment in time and the circumstances of that moment. It helps me appreciate entrepreneurial diversity.

MO: Where would you like to see Signal Review in 5 years’ time?

Kevin: In an ideal world, Review Signal will be a household brand. I would like to expand beyond internet infrastructure reviews (web hosting, domain registrars, etc) into more traditional consumer areas like entertainment, travel and local businesses. I think these areas present a greater challenge because the competition is far more entrenched and the stakes are higher.

I also hope that statistics backed information becomes more widely accepted and popular with the mainstream media and consumers. I see Nate Silver’s work at FiveThirtyEight being a fantastic example of data crunching being accepted widely in the politics space. I hope that Review Signal becomes the FiveThirtyEight of the review industry.


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