According to Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow involved in Google's real-time search efforts, the way the company ranks Twitter updates in its search results is "definitely, definitely" more than a popularity contest. This quote came during an interview with MIT's Technology Review where Singhal stressed Google's focus on a Twitter user's overall reputation as a ranking measurement as opposed to simply tallying follower counts. That being said, it still sounds as if Google rewards Twitter's more popular users - that is, the heavily followed accounts on the service. Not only do these accounts have more value than many others, they have a lot of power, too. According to Singhal, when a popular user follows someone else, that other person's reputation increases as well.

Based on this news, it sounds like racking up follower counts may soon fade as a mechanism for ranking a Twitter user's popularity. That seems smart since so many followers these days are spammers, bots and other shady marketing types hoping for a return follow. Similar to how spammers send out thousands of emails hoping to get that small percentage of responses that makes their efforts worthwhile, Twitter spammers blindly following thousands, too, in order to increase their own follower numbers.

In addition, a select number of Twitter accounts have been rewarded with followers by way of Twitter's suggested user list. This list, presented at registration to the site's new users, offers suggestions of popular Twitter accounts to follow. This heavily debated feature remains controversial since it bestows a large number of followers on those fortunate enough to make the list. However, the list isn't based on any impartial algorithm but is editorially selected by Twitter company employees instead. (Disclosure: ReadWriteWeb's Twitter account is included on this list). Despite reports that many of these followers are of little value - they don't tend to engage and respond to tweets the way an organic follower would - it's still somewhat of a boasting point for some who use their follower count to prove their social worthiness and popularity.

Granted, Singhal doesn't come out and say how exactly Google's algorithm is rewarding these heavily followed users with better rankings in the new real-time search results, only that you earn reputation if "lots of people follow you." Those popular Twitter users can then help increase other users' reputation by following them. And even if that new user being followed doesn't have a high follower count of their own, their reputation increases through association.

We hope that looking at follower counts is only a part of Google's overall ranking mechanism. A company as savvy as it is has surely learned a thing or two about ranking algorithm. But as with their PageRank technology for ranking web pages, details on their Twitter ranking algorithm is probably not something it plans on revealing anytime soon.