Social Media Monitoring Tools Effectiveness Is Dependent on the Query

Social Media Monitoring Tools Are Not All the Same

There are so many social media monitoring tools out there, how can we tell the good ones from the bad ones? In all of the reviews I’ve read about social monitoring tools, they often seem to gloss over the one feature that I think is the most important, the query. In these tools, the query is the search string you specify to tell the tool what you want to have monitored. Have you ever heard of the computer cliché, “garbage in, garbage out”? Well, that term applies to monitoring social media as well. The social mentions that are found by your tool need to be exactly as you intended, otherwise any fancy analytics and reporting features will be skewed from irrelevant results being pulled in. The two biggest reasons why the results may be full of garbage are likely because the terms you are monitoring aren’t specific enough, or the tool itself has limitations on how specific your search can be.

We’ve explained the situation in depth in our white paper, “The Importance of the Boolean Search Query in Social Media Monitoring Tools ”. The white paper includes more details and examples of reasons to use social media monitoring, what to monitor, ways to express variations in keywords, Boolean search operators, post-search filters, the types of tool user interfaces for queries, and other things to consider when evaluating a social media monitoring tool to ensure it provides the best results for what you need.

Here’s a quick look at the problem.

Illustration of someone fishing, with each fish branded with social media site logos.

Monitor Brand Name Variations for More Thorough Results

Let’s say you have a company, brand or product name. Of course you know how to spell it and what the official way to represent it is. But what about everyone else? It’s important to do some brainstorming to make sure you’ve included every likely variation you can think of in your search for mentions. Other terms can also be monitored, like the names of people who are influencers, competitors and their products or industry terms to supplement your market research and look for opportunities.

There may be common misspellings or it may be often abbreviated or represented differently in a Twitter handle. It may be represented by a stock symbol or a nickname. Where does the apostrophe go in a company name such as “Actor’s/Actors’/Actors Studio”? And if you’re monitoring for additional keywords or industry terms, there might be variations for each of those as well! Just think of how many names you can come up with for beer (brew, draft, ale… ) Is there the likelihood that your keyword will be abbreviated, like svcs for services or doctor represented by Dr. or doc? Anything that includes a location name opens a can of worms for variations – like New York City, NYC, Manhattan, The Big Apple, and so on.

Required: Advanced Boolean Search Query Functionality

So let’s say you’ve done some research and have a wonderful and thorough list of keywords and variations of them to monitor. Can your social media monitoring tool support searching for all of these variations without having to create a separate query and alert for each variation?

Each tool is likely to have a different type of user interface where you can specify the query. In our sampling of social media monitoring tools, we found many to be inadequate when we wanted to construct a complicated Boolean search string. All tools seem to allow the basic Boolean search operators, AND, OR and NOT. You choose which words must be in the results (AND), which are optional (OR), and which results you want to exclude if they contain certain words (NOT). Here’s a rudimentary example that looks for mentions of two types of pie but not interested in finding recipes:

apple OR peach 
AND pie 
NOT recipe

Some tools let you type in the Boolean search string just as above. Other tools go about this by giving you fields for each operator, so you might have:

Screenshot of the social media monitoring tool, Mention, showing a query user interface where keywords are placed in separate fields for each Boolean search operator.

Query user interface for Mention

Looking at the above screenshot, how would you specify wanting any of five types of fruits (apple, peach, rhubarb, cherry, blueberry) that must appear with three possible types of dessert (pie, cobbler, tart)? That user interface is too restrictive to specify this and there are too many combinations to enter as separate keywords (this particular tool only allows five keywords and we’d have 15). If you could enter it as a Boolean search string, you could simply specify it as:

(apple OR peach OR rhubarb OR cherry OR blueberry) 
AND (pie OR cobbler OR tart) 
NOT recipe

One of the problems we found was that it’s impossible to be very specific without the use of these additional query operators such as parenthesis to specify the order or groupings of what you’re searching for, wildcards to allow for variations in the words without having to specify every possible tense or suffix, and proximity operators that let us specify that we want one word to follow the other within a certain number of words to add more context to the keywords we are searching for.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Some tools have ways to indicate if special characters are included in the search, like if you were looking for M&M’s, while others may not support such characters at all! You may be able to specify whether upper or lower case matters, only include or exclude mentions on specific web site URLs,  specific author names, web page titles or geographic locations. Also be aware that some tools have limitations on how long the query string can be, or how many keywords you can search on.

Try Creating a Search Query For This Example!

Want to see if your social media monitoring tool can handle a complex Boolean query? How about seeing if it can easily search on every variation of ways to express or misspell the store name P.C. Richard and Son. People may confuse whether the name has plurals, how to abbreviate the PC part, or whether or not to include spaces. When we looked at these variations, we came up with 40 permutations!

Diagram depicting the many permutations of ways the brand name P.C. Richard & Son could be spelled or misspelled.

How many ways can P.C. Richard & Son show up in social mentions?

We were able to boil down all of these variations into a short Boolean search string. This brand name is the perfect example because it requires the use of Boolean operators along with parenthesis, double quotes, special characters and proximity operators. We took this example search query and tried it out on a sample of social media monitoring tools with widely varying results. It really highlighted each tool’s limitations. Some totally failed with no way to specify multiple variations of the brand name, some would require the query to be broken into multiple separate queries (which would be a lot of unnecessary work to manage all the social mentions as numerous separate queries, alerts, analytics and reports), and others required some tweaks but gave us successful results. See our white paper for a detailed step by step case study of how we created a complex Boolean search string to cover the 40 permutations of P.C. Richard & Son.

So, if you’re shopping around and doing a social media monitoring tools comparison, take the time to do some due diligence and create a list of which features are required, and which are nice to have. Most importantly, seek out the list of which Boolean search operators are supported and find out if the tool’s user interface is flexible enough for you to create complex queries. The query functionality should be the most important factor in deciding whether the tool will work for you, before you bother looking any further into the tool’s analysis or reporting capabilities. Being able to drill down to precisely what you want to monitor and not open the flood gates with irrelevant results saves time, effort and money, and makes the analysis of the results more accurate.

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12 comments on “Social Media Monitoring Tools Effectiveness Is Dependent on the Query

AbeUchitelle

It’s crazy how much impact this feature can have. You would think everyone would be singing about queries from the mountain tops!


    Jannette

    AbeUchitelle When I did research for this subject, I was very surprised how little attention there was to the query functionality of these tools!


RicDragon

For me – that feature would be *de rigueur* – even if you, or your team are unfamiliar with working boolean – you will encounter a moment where you’ll need it. Then, yes, you’ll have the learning curve – but it’s not rocket surgery. Great post, Janette.


    Jannette

    RicDragon Makes me wonder how many users aren’t taking full advantage of the advanced boolean search functionality that some of these tools provide.


iancleary

Hey Jannette, great article.  You’re right about the limitations regarding entering the initial search query.  You sort of need a keyword research tool that will make suggestions based on what you type in.
Also you probably want a basic interface like mention.net but with an advanced option to allow people put in their boolean search query!
Ian


    Jannette

    iancleary I think that’s part of the challenge of monitoring – you need to do your homework and think about why you want to monitor, and then all the variations of ways to query it before you dig in and start building queries. I think it’s nice to provide both interfaces – Brandwatch does that – you can type in the boolean query string, or use the AND/OR/NOT boxes to enter keywords. While I prefer just typing in the string, having a simple user interface that could build the initial string, then the user can have the option to modify it – like a query “builder” would be an ideal solution that helps beginners and experts as well, without losing flexibility.


evboogie

With so many SM Tools today, i agree with you the importance of defining areas to measure one tool from another. The white paper is a terrifically researched study on query function and   this blog post complements the research. If SM tools had a Consumer Reports, the boolean query function would be one  criteria i would look into when selecting your tool of choice. Whether its BBQ grills or SM Tools, the same rule applies, research which one has the best services for your personal function. RESEARCH IS KEY!

Great post, Jannette.


    Jannette

    evboogie Interesting analogy Evan. Consider a consumer product like a GPS for your car. One criteria a Consumer Reports might measure is the map data used. If the map data in the GPS is substandard, so will your navigating experience (remember the iPhone map app?). If a tool’s effectiveness is dependent on the data it uses, then a social media monitoring tool needs a good query function to bring in the right data to analyze, like a car GPS needs up to date and accurate map information to steer you in the right direction.


socialmediaDACH

Thanks for this great post, Janette ! What you describe is one of the reasons why we find all common tool recommendations dubious, because these “studies” are often focussed on nice graphs and ready-to-go dashboards but not on basic issues like individual and unlimited query-builders. When talking about these basics we often feel like “from yesterday”, because the nerd generation is accustomed to and expects to get beneficial results without any brainwork, just delivered by “a tool”. And many tool companies support this error by offering “easy monitoring” etc., although the tools’ task is nothing but reporting what a human being requested with a configuration you gave bets examples for.


    Jannette

    socialmediaDACH What a great comment! Yes, I think current users expect tools to do much of the work for them – and while tools help do the repetitive or data gathering work, it is up to us humans to make sure the analysis is accurate. I am from the “old nerd generation” working in the software industry in the 1980s, when us geeks weren’t cool but were expected to be very technical. Perhaps this is why I ended up writing about the Boolean query. My generation was used to not having such fancy tools, and we manually gathered data and analyzed the data ourselves, and an excel spreadsheet was just about as good as it gets. Tools are just that – tools. A screwdriver and hammer cannot build a house themselves. It is up to the user to know how to use them and make sure they produce the desired results.


be3d

This is dead-on. There’s always more out there, room to improve queries to net more of what we’re looking for. No out of the box tools (or queries, for that matter) are good enough for the serious monitoring initiative.


    Jannette

    be3d Thanks Ian! Do you think some tool interfaces “dumb it down” so they’re not accused of being too complicated to learn, but as a result, limit the power of their queries?