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Technology can help filter the mighty river of unstructured data flowing into your company’s marketing department, especially from sources like social media. But does it really enable you to understand what your customers are saying?

Does a tweet about a "cool pool" mean a hotel offers ideal water-based recreation -- or simply keeps the water too cold? Does a Facebook post that claims "you have to see it to believe it" reflect sincerity or sarcasm?

It's not always easy to find out, according to Alison Smith, an analyst at Forrester Research who specializes in sentiment analysis.

Though networks like Facebook and Twitter offer goldmines of insight about what customers say and do, the bigger challenge is looking for the meaning behind the words. That means digging deep enough to uncover emotions, opinions and attitudes -- a potentially far more challenging task.

Fatal Errors

“If we’re talking about exterminating bugs, works like ‘killing,’ ‘dying’ and ‘death’ would be positive,” Smith told CMSWire. “But if we’re talking about pharmaceutical drugs, ‘killing,’ ‘dying,’ and ‘death’ would be extremely negative.”

Understanding the contextual implications of words is no easy task for man or machine. Smith cited one recent academic study that showed humans reading the same passage could agree on its meaning only about 80 percent of the time.

“So there’s sort of a disconnect between users thinking that their sentiment tool should get them 95 percent, 98 percent or 100 percent accuracy when you think about how humans will only agree a certain amount of time,” she said.

Take the term “sentiment analysis.” What does that really mean? According to Smith, it is the technology of making the large amount of data digestible. The problem is that most sentiment analysis tools can’t discern the context because they rely on general algorithms.

So, Smith jokes, it can be hard to know what someone means when they say “this vacuum really sucks.” Will we ever know the answer to that question with 100 percent certainty? “I don’t think we’re every going to get there,” said Smith.

The Search for Meaning

While Smith noted the imperfection of sentiment analysis, others focus on its gains. Take Erin Olivo, a clinical psychologist, assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and an advisor at SmogFarm, a company that measures, tracks, and aggregates millions of individual emotions in real time.