Over the past few months I’ve been on a journey through the world of online social monitoring tools. The task was one I’d taken on before (about 18 months ago), and  it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. So, what is the best monitoring tool out there?

After careful research, advice from other social professionals, and over two dozen white papers, PowerPoints, and one-sheets later I decided on six tools to demo and review. I chose these six based on the available collateral, the demo process, and availability.

At the start of each demo, I explained that Clockwork was an interactive web design agency who also provided social strategy as a service. I was interested in these tools on behalf of our current and future customers so we could make an educated and informed suggestions for those clients.

The six companies, and their products, are as follows (in alphabetical order):

Alterian: SM2
SM2 has been around for a while, and was recently acquired by a company called Alterian. This tool is priced really decently for all it can do, including monitoring Twitter, blogs, video and other media, as well as forums and message boards. Where this tool falls short is in user interface. It’s not nearly as polished as some of the other tools, and some views — like the map overlay — are confusing to even look at. In addition to their pricing based on your number of search results they also offer price breaks for agencies who are looking to resell the tool, and they are more than willing to brand the dashboard with your company’s logo for an additional fee.

Summary: Great when it comes to the data you can get from it, but lacks the polish and ease-of-use that many of the other tools possess.

Google: Google Alerts
Google Alerts is a free tool from Google that uses their search functions to “watch” for your brand or any search term you’re interested in watching for. The initial and obvious downside of Google Alerts is that search results aren’t always displayed in real time, and there’s no real way to get results based on a specific date range. A major plus this option has on its side is that it’s historical data is almost limitless. In other words, “Google never forgets.”

Summary: For the low price of “free”, don’t expect it to be as all-encompassing as the paid sites, but with coupled with other free tools (like BackTweets, Twitter Search, and Google Analytics), you an have a pretty decent free option. Good for a low-cost, DIY approach (often ideal for smaller organizations or those just getting started with social media monitoring).

Jive: Jive SBS
I learned about Jive SBS from a colleague. It is by far the best enterprise and internal community builder option I’ve seen: it really does facilitate collaboration. Built into its social monitoring software is a function that allows extensive tagging, commenting and assigning within an organization. In addition, it allows you to create an internal social media community specific to your company, and then monitor those results as well. Jive features a broad list of media that it can monitor including Twitter, blogs, videos (and other media) as well as news feeds. It features some historical data, but won’t firmly specify how much.

Summary: Great for larger organizations that plan on having multiple people watching and responding in the social space, or are interested in an internal social community.

People Browsr: PeopleBrowsr & Analytic.ly
PeopleBrowsr came recommended to me from a colleague as well. Their tools are very campaign- and Twitter-focused, so if you’re a company like BlackBerry (the example they used in their demo) their tools make perfect sense! Another cool thing about their tools is you can access Analytic.ly for a very small monthly investment, no contracts required. Their demo wasn’t very interactive, instead it was filled with a lot of campaign results and data. They do offer a trial, but after weeks of waiting I’ve given up on my sales associate ever sending me the login information I need.

Summary: These tools are great for real-time, Twitter-focused campaigns and monitoring. But, if you want to dig deeply into some of the other media like blogs and Facebook it’s not the best option.

Radian6: Radian6
Radian6 is the monitoring tool I used at my previous employer for both daily monitoring and monthly reports. The interface is gorgeous, but not 100% intuitive. They offset this with fairly extensive training for new customers. Pricing is based both on the number of users accessing the program, and the number of search profiles. The data reach is very extensive including Twitter, Blogs, Video (and other media), as well as mainstream media. Radian6 lets you login to a dashboard and have multiple search “widgets” active at the same time, so toggling between all media and just microblogging is a snap. Additionally you can compare different date ranges very easily.

Summary: A data-rich tool that’s easy on the eyes.

Sysomos: MAP & Heartbeat

Sysomos was a company I hadn’t heard of before when researching monitoring tools. They had an impressive customer list, and multiple products to chose from: MAP and Heartbeat. Like many other tools the interface was polished and professional, and — to my delight — fairly intuitive for the number of layers it had. This tool allows for comparison, but loads a new page with each search rather than having multiple widgets running at once. Of all the tools I reviewed, this one was one of few to include a deep reach into the giant known as Facebook. Their results include publicly-viewable Facebook information such as status updates, notes, and wall comments. They also boasted the most historical data with archived data going back 4 years in MAP.

Summary: Both tools are impressive, with the most inclusive data by far; but, you’ll pay dearly for it.