Google creates a PR problem for itself
In the eyes of many SEO industry observers, the start of 2012 has not been great from a PR point of view for Google.
SEO practitioners (particularly in competitive niches) are well used to seeing the use of underhand tactics in order to gain an edge in the Google serps - however, it comes as a bit of a shock when we see the use of similar practices from Google themselves.
Firstly, Google was embroiled in a rather messy episode regarding a campaign to promote its Chrome browser, where the line as to what constitutes a 'paid' link was blurred by a media campaign that appeared to contradict its own rules. After an investigation, a surprised (they thought they were buying advertisements) Google took the action to demote the Chrome webpage and lower the PageRank of the site for at least 60 days.
Then, just over a week later, another story emerged that didn't paint Google in the best light. Google was caught 'scraping' Mocality (a Kenyan business directory) in order to sell its own services to Kenyan businesses. The story takes a few rather unpleasant turns, and, after an investigation (there's a pattern emerging here) Google was forced to admit that there had been wrongdoing from its end, releasing a statement that it was 'mortified' to learn that this was happening in its name.
Whilst it is disappointing to see Google using these tactics, there are wider implications of this behaviour to be considered. Many webmasters are (rightly) pointing out that if they were caught in a similar position, their websites would be banned from Google, possibly losing their businesses and livelihoods in the process. Also, the fact that Google has been caught contravening its own guidelines essentially gives licence to unscrupulous SEOs that it is ok to utilise these manipulative tactics 'because Google did it and got away with it'.
If these tactics reach as far as Kenya (via India), then is it not possible that there are other cases where Google has behaved 'inappropriately' and pushed the envelope of what it considers to be acceptable? What's certain is that many in the search industry will be watching any Google campaigns very closely in the coming months.