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Should you use a specialized--and pricey--online search engine to help you track what bloggers say about your products and services?

Online opinion makers are more important to business success then ever before. Blog buzz is today's digital equivalent of word-of-mouth that can make or break a new product.

How can a business determine if opinions expressed online are positive and will aid marketing efforts or are negative and may damage both reputation and sales? RelevantNoise from Zeta Interactive offers an interesting solution. It's a subscription-based online search service that mines social media for business intelligence.

RelevantNoise can help a business monitor the blog buzz about its products, services, and company reputation, plus those of its competitors. You can save searches to see how opinion trends change over time. For example, a RelevantNoise customer might have been able to predict that negative online opinion about HD DVD would hurt that high-def media format.

RelevantNoise isn't cheap--$5000 per month for five users--so it's not for casual searches. It's aimed at the business that is serious about monitoring online opinion. Its social media tracking and reporting capabilities are far more sophisticated than those of the obvious alternatives, the freebie search engines.

How RelevantNoise Works

RelevantNoise can track and analyze Web postings in multiple ways--in this example, Blu-ray vs. HD DVD.
According to Zeta Interactive, RelevantNoise tracks posts in about 75 million of the estimated 100 million active blogs and discussion forums. It updates every 60 seconds and saves the posts so you can search and analyze them in several different ways.

You can search for data about virtually any product, service, or company. For each search request, you can view great-looking charts that display the number of posts per day over a period of up to 90 days. The service also provides graphic representations of the tone of the posts--whether they express a positive or negative opinion. The tone is rated by a proprietary algorithm that works well most of the time. You can drill down through the aggregate results to examine the text of posts in detail.

In some cases, you can even examine blogger demographics. The company says RelevantNoise knows the gender of about half the bloggers and can accurately determine their age range about 25 to 35 per cent of the time.

RelevantNoise also assesses the relative influence of the blogger, using factors such as their tenure, how often they post, and the number of incoming links to help you determine how much the opinion really matters.

You may save searches and use the "ping me" capability to notify you by e-mail of new posts related to your topic.

Why Use RelevantNoise?

RelevantNoise and other social media monitoring services can give marketers early indications of image problems so that they can be addressed--perhaps by changing the company's policy, the product or service, or its marketing--before they spell a disaster.

Similarly, unexpected positive buzz may indicate a new market or use for the product that the business may not have previously considered. The business could then use this insight to fully capitalize on a new market.

To use the HD DVD example, a comparative search in RelevantNoise for Blu-ray and HD DVD over a recent three-month period actually showed that HD DVD had about one-quarter more blog buzz than Blu-ray (click on the thumbnail chart above). Discussion of both high-definition video formats spiked in mid-February (this was a time when several companies were announcing they would no longer support HD DVD).

Yet deeper analysis revealed that even though Blu-ray was the topic of fewer posts, it received more positive buzz--58 per cent compared to 42 per cent for HD DVD, throughout the period.

RelevantNoise may have picked up the sound of the canary in the coal mine, the bloggers who were down on HD DVD. A savvy marketer might have interpreted the data to foresee that HD DVD's image problem with online opinion makers would lead to the demise of that video format.

Limitations of RelevantNoise

If bloggers rarely mention your product or company--for example, if there are only 10 or fewer relevant posts per day, RelevantNoise would probably be overkill. There isn't a lot of data to analyze.

In such cases, a quick search using a general search engine such as Google or a blog specialty service such as Technorati may provide all the information you require. However, these free search services do not offer deeper analysis, such as assessing the overall tone of the posts and changing opinion trends over time.

Determining the tone of a blog post isn't a perfect science. RelevantNoise might perceive a posting about a product or service with an unfavorable term in its name, such as the movie and musical The Evil Dead, as having a negative tone even though the blogger praises it. RelevantNoise says it's working on improving its analysis algorithm to deal with such issues.

Searches that cover more than a couple of weeks' worth of data or that request analysis of the tone of the posts don't deliver instantaneous gratification. You may need to wait a minute or two before your report is complete--it shows up in several sections, each covering a few weeks. It's not an onerous wait, but it may seem like a long time if you're used to the near-immediate response of, say, a Google query.

RelevantNoise's $5000, five-user monthly subscription fee covers unlimited searches. The company will also consider arrangements for a more expensive license permitting more users or a less expensive license for more limited usage. Consulting help is also available.

Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your connected small to midsize business via e-mail . PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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