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IBM has become the latest big name IT vendor to try and cash in on the "Web 2.0" hype, tapping companies' paranoia about the potential impact that a growing wall of online noise can have on their brand.

The Public Image Monitoring Solution from IBM sifts millions of blogs, consumer reviews and news wires from Factiva, compiling the results in graphical charts to summarize the "tone" of coverage, assess negativity, and identify hot topics of discussion.

The service delivers new insight into brand reputation and customer, competitor and public opinion and allows a company to act quickly on what it sees, IBM told The Register.

By channeling multiple feeds, IBM believes it can help the brand-conscious sift and analyze the explosion in information and publishing sparked by technologies like RSS, blogging, chat rooms and peer-to-peer sites.

Mark Andrews, IBM director of strategy and business development for unstructured information, said the impact public opinion can have, when expressed through collaboration forums, is starting to worry large companies in retail and manufacturing. He pointed to the fact retail giant Wal-Mart recently set up a "war room" to track what's being said about it.

Wal-Mart has slipped from retail wunderkind, with its RFID and supply chain management stories, to becoming buried under an avalanche of class action law suits over alleged discrimination and sustaining criticism over a claimed policy of hiring "healthy" staff while providing workers inadequate coverage, blocking staff unionization, and accusations it is killing local businesses and hurting the environment.

"People are more likely to spout an opinion on a blog than call a company and complain," Andrews said. "Organizations are starting to learn about what potential issues consumers are have having with their companies and services. That market is difficult for companies to actively monitor."

Of course, any PR or marketing department worth it's salt has been tracking and analyzing coverage for years. IBM's service, though, comes at a time of growing paranoia among PRs and marketing types about the potential impact blogs can have on campaigns, messaging and positioning.

IBM's offering seems ready to exploit further those niggling concerns.

Knowledge also comes at quite a price, charged in the "$100,000s" range, with no guarantee of absolute insight as customers will be required to fine tune the system using their own skills, or those of IBM's men in black over at consulting. "It's not going to be 100 per cent 'noise' free," Andrews said of the results.

"You make trade offs: do you want to get everything that's relevant or do you want to miss some things? The feedback I'm hearing from companies is, if you can get them 50 per cent or 80 percent there, that makes a huge impact," Andrews said.

Instead, Public Image Monitoring Solution should be used as a supplement to actually reading blogs, he observed.

IBM's offering follows Microsoft's launch of last week of "live software", which also capitalized on the growing taste among IT vendors for Web 2.0. Live software is a potpourri of concepts spanning blogging, social networking, collaboration and "software as a service".

The snappily named Public Image Monitoring Solution uses the IBM WebSphere Integrator OmniFind Edition, the first commercial deployment of IBM's Unstructured Information Management Architecture (UIMA), for a context-based approach to searching unstructured information held in different sources.

IBM released code from UIMA to the open source community in August to provide a ready-made framework and standard for third-parties' search tools to plug into.

The ability to recognize the context of blogs, news pieces or consumer reviews is provided with the addition of linguistics software from Nstein Technologies. Nstein can detect tone and identify key topics based on how a subject is referenced.®

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