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While big brands and agencies have the luxury of resources and money, local businesses don’t. What they need is a social-media dashboard — an all-in-one, Web-based monitoring tool for Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites where customers hang out — that can optimize their online presence, engage with users and manage social campaigns. But that tool needs to meet three criteria: cheap, easy to use and automated. With that in mind, here’s a list of the top four that I find particularly well-suited for business use.

HootSuite One of the original players, HootSuite allows users to monitor all of their social profiles, including popular networks Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The company recently announced it would start charging users; the cheapest paid plan is $5.99 a month, which gives unlimited services (you can still use it with limited access for free). The tool allows users to collaborate with teams, assign tasks, and schedule updates. VentureBeat uses HootSuite internally to manage its social media interactions.

Netvibes This neat little tool started as an RSS feed reader, but it now allows you to create a custom dashboard based on your interests. The Netvibes dashboard pulls content from around the Web, including social networks. It pulls updates from Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, but also photo and video services like Flickr and YouTube, making it ideal for businesses monitoring a wide range of interactions with multimedia content that they publish online. (A wedding photographer, for example, might monitor comments on sample photos and videos.) It’s also handy for business owners on the go. The company recently partnered with Orange — the world’s fifth largest telecom operator — to deliver widgets to 130 million mobile users. The partnership will bring Netvibe’s catalog of some 200,000 widgets to Orange’s mobile users throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East across a wide variety of handsets.

Jungle Torch A large number of customers find local business services and products through search engines like Google and Yahoo. So local businesses should be thinking about search engine optimization, or SEO. Jungle Torch is a SEO dashboard which determines your current position among search engines, compares your ranking to competitors, and suggests keywords and links. It also monitors buzz about your company on blogs and other online properties, which can influence your business’s search ranking.

Trackur This tool, a personal favorite, allows users to easily monitor based on keywords and phrases, track trends, gauge influence of blogs and consumers as well as gain detailed reporting. Trackur is a paid service, but a basic monthly plan is just $18. Even the highest-priced plan, the Ultimate, is just $377 a month. Other services, like Radian6 and Visible Technologies, will cost you at the minimum $500 a month — making them designed for big businesses with big budgets.

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