This blog post was originally written by Carrie Royce.

At the end of last year, both Google and Bing confirmed suspicions that links shared through Facebook and Twitter have a direct impact on search engine rankings. What that means is, if two web pages with the same qualifications (code, meta tags, content, links, etc.) are stacked side-by-side, more weight is given to the one that’s been shared as a link around social media.

The bells went off among search experts – “Confirmed: Social impacts SEO!” – and the experiments began. A number of factors were assumed to add weight, including an account’s interactivity, relevance and influence. The exact mix was a mystery since Google and Bing rarely discuss SEO signals, but one thing was clear: links tweeted and retweeted by prominent people were being logged as backlinks.

Now it appears that social media’s influence on search is quickening. Last month, we saw the expansion of the Bing and Facebook hookup, with “likes” being fused into Bing’s search results. And this month, Google introduced the +1 toggle—its own version of a “like” button. The search giant let its Twitter data feed expire last week and revealed that a Google +1 click will carry more weight than a Twitter link. Bam!

Then there’s the brand-spanking-new Google+ social network. I won’t dig into that bottomless quarry here, because where would I stop. Suffice it to say that Google+ was a top trending topic across the web last week, beating the heck out of Casey Anthony’s trial and the Women’s World Cup among mainstream buzz. Naturally, SEO experts are speculating heavily about what Google+ means for social networking and organic optimization.

What does this mean for web marketing?

Regardless of who comes out ahead – Twitter, Facebook or Google+ – experts agree that search algorithms will continue to find ways to recognize and value the input of humans on search results. That means we marketers are going to have to stay on top of and understand the evolving impact of all three players.

It’s a tall order for the traditionalists among us who grew up on filtered messages and enveloped campaigns. There’s a profound learning curve from “Normal” to “Millennial” that can drive a woman to drink. As a conscientious Facebook objector, I’m an even tougher convert than most. But heading up the marketing team of a web marketing company, I really had no choice but to dabble in the dark arts of social media.

Early in 2010, I unwittingly became a tweeter, and thus began to seek out influencers from whom I could glean more wisdom on the rules of Twitter engagement. Consequently, my ears became fine-tuned to social SEO. Now it’s like the marketer’s version of a dog-whistle for me. What’s worse, my never-humble opinions have been piqued too. “Did someone utter the words ‘automated tweets’? That’s not true engagement; that will do squat for SEO. If I had any poo, I’d fling it now!”

In my search for social savoir faire I had the good fortune meeting an up-and-coming social influencer here in Kansas City, Mary Padilla. At some point during Mary’s IMSMKC July meetup presentation on Twitter best practices, she said something that made my ears ring: “Some companies are starting to give special perks and discounts to people with more social clout… I don’t know if it’s ‘fair,’ but it’s happening.”

My first reaction was similar to most others’ in the meetup group: Social media will become little more than a popularity contest, with people so eager to grow their numbers that quality engagement will take a dive. But then, upon another delicious sip of iced caffeine, it hit me: Engagement be damned, it’s brilliant foresight into SEO!

Klout.com – a site that scores social influence – is clout-couponing for profit. Its monetization model makes a direct connection between deals and high social clout: The more you sway others, the bigger your “perks.” According to the website, “Klout believes that influencers deserve to be treated special.” But what’s in it for the deal-providers (e.g. Starbucks, Cover Girl, Dove), I wonder, beyond an ad opportunity to Klout’s 150,000 monthly visitors?

And what about companies whose monetization models are more grounded in reality, like soft drinks and cars and little black dresses? What do they have to gain by drawing in social sovereigns with their own coupons and perks (outside of Klout.com)? I’ll tell you what: Google’s and Bing’s first search engine results, nine out of ten searcher clicks, many millions of dollars’ worth of organic exposure, brand prominence all across the web… Need I say more?

This is why I suspect SEO scheming. These astute companies are attempting to lure higher clout connections to beat the rush. Make no mistake: they will climb, and then they will hold on thanks to their first-mover advantage.

As Gru would say: “Light bulb!”

The future of social media and SEO

As social signals assume an ever-larger piece of the search algorithm pie, there’s no question that social will become a search spammers’ delight. Automated plus-ones, paid tweets and retweets, phony Google+ accounts (how many active Gmail accounts do you have open?)… That’s just my guess at the tip of the iceberg.

To keep search results clean, credible and relevant, Google and Bing will both continue to add complexity to their equations. That’s where meaningful engagement between human and business will become powerful.

The forward-thinking companies who are tapping social clout with coupons and deals already “get it.” They’ll draw influencers who have a genuine interest in their goods, ensuring that likes and tweets and +1s carry SEO weight.

Major sources for this story included SEOMoz, Search Engine Land, Klout, Mashable, Mary Padilla, IMSMKC