Now that Google and Bing have access to Twitter's firehose, the speculation about over how Twitter data could eventually be used as a search engine ranking factor has begun.
Since there's not a whole lot of text (and context) in 140 character tweets, it seems likely that if Google and Bing want to use Twitter as some sort of ranking factor, they'll look to the links that are spread on Twitter and who is spreading them.
A simple example: if popular Twitter users with 'trust' and 'authority' are all retweeting a particular link, that would arguably be a good signal for a search engine to consider.
Unfortunately, it probably won't be that simple. That's because the 'link economy' is even more easy to manipulate on Twitter than it is on the web at large. After all, it doesn't take much to send a tweet. And that means just about everybody can send a paid one. At least on the web, somebody has to build a website before they can sell a paid link.
Backlinks are one of the most important search engine ranking factors (if not the most important ranking factor), so it's no surprise that there's a thriving market for paid links. Google's stance on them couldn't be any clearer: they're bad. If you get caught buying or selling them, the Google Gods can come down pretty hard.
Of course, the threat of a Google smackdown isn't enough to eliminate paid links. If you do a little research, you'll see that they're everywhere. And for good reason: some sites with top SERPs for very lucrative keywords are clearly using them. If you don't get caught, they work incredibly well. So long as that's the case, for many the potential rewards will always exceed the potential risk.
Now that many are assuming what happens on Twitter will eventually find its way into the SERPs, expect the paid tweet to become the new paid link. Services like Sponsored Tweets and Ad.ly are the Twitter equivalent of link brokers. And plenty of money is being paid in an almost indiscriminant fashion for tweets from popular Twitterers.
The question is what Google and Bing will do about this if they let Twitter data influence their SERPs. If Twitter's most 'authoritative' users are accepting thousands of dollars from advertisers for a single tweet, Google and Bing have a real problem. Not only will they need to filter out all of the spam that fills the Twitter noise, they'll need to filter out all of the spam contained within Twitter's signal -- tweets from Twitter's popular users.
Popular Twitter users are already boasting about their five figure a month paydays from paid tweets. Should Google and Bing smack them down as they might sites selling paid links? Should they also smack down the sites of the tweet buyers?
Tough call. If Google and Bing take the same approach with paid tweets that they say they take with paid links, they'll obviously have to ignore some of Twitter's most popular users, who (in theory) are offering up some of the most valuable tweets. But if they don't and focus on simply trying to identify paid tweets and passively filtering them out without penalty, they'll have set a double standard for Twitter versus the web. That will only encourage more 'bad behavior' on Twitter. After all, if paid tweets aren't subject to penalty, the laziest of greyhat and blackhat SEOs will likely turn to Twitter as a risk-free paid link extravaganza. And the Twitterati will have every reason to indulge them.
From this perspective, one has to think that Twitter really is laughing all the way to the bank after selling Google and Bing its firehose. Instead of trying to do real-time search on its own, Twitter has managed to find buyers will to pay big bucks for its data. Now those buyers have to figure out what to do with it. Addressing paid tweets will be just one of many significant challenges. And a very big one at that.
Photo credit: quaziefoto via Flickr.