jsherloc - 7:55 am on Jan 6, 2012 (gmt 0)
IMO smaller sites like these (with EXCELLENT CONTENT all around)are too small/tightly focused and pass right under whatever the filter/threshold it is that triggers a red flag related to some type of "content-farm/low quality/this site is stretching itself way too thin and trying to grow much too fast for it being only a year old" type Panda deal we have going currently. Again, this is just my opinion.
So, no matter the quality and authority signals you are giving off (assuming you are operating a smaller medium sized operation and your marketing resources/social signals/page metrics/user metrics/link graphs/ are reflecting that to Google etc), if you are running larger sized sites you become a running target as you add more content and other things that would indicate ADVANCED/INCREASED growth to the algo (based on whatever they believe to be "natural" growth now I guess?). Doesn't even seem to matter AT ALL how great the content is in many cases...not just quality text, I'm talking full blown custom optimized media, etc.
So, there seems to be a "sweet spot" in the algo these days for smaller sites that are actually quality, but sites that DO NOT try to grow out of whatever classification Google deems them to be worthy of. And this classification, once it happens, it seems like no matter what you do you just cannot get out of it.
So, I am suggesting that these smaller sites are grabbing up all of the longtail traffic that Google will throw them, as they are fitting in where Panda is currently "demoting" the inner pages of older authority websites that Google has deemed to be growing too fast or that Google believes is trying to rank for search phrases above a certain search volume threshold and doesn't deserve to have that "intention".
It would not surprise me if in 6 months to a year all of these smaller tighter focused sites started getting hit by a newer version of Panda for "over-optimization" as the standard of "over optimization" is clearly changing rapidly and IMO things become quite blurry when you judge webmaster's intent once or twice with bot and human visits, and then cast long term classifications.
So building lots of smaller sites you are bound to "get in where you fit in", often quickly...lots of authority websites' inner pages are no longer ranking anywhere meaningful for lots of niches. You don't WANT these smaller sites to be legitimate brands or act like legitimate businesses really, because then they become a a target for Panda with all of those "legitimate" signals. Which is depressing as a webmaster IMO and it is the overall theme of what the OP is suggesting I believe.
So You can't be a "big guy". I can take that, that's fine I get it.
But now you can't SAFELY be a small or medium sized guy that WANTS to grow bigger. How big do you "intend" to grow? What are you intentions and do they align with our data of other websites that are in your niche classification? Where do we go from here? Yeesh
Branding is important IMO, but traffic of course comes first. When G is classifying the type of traffic your site will receive for an extended and usually LONG period of time based on unknowns though...well you go where the traffic is as quickly as possible. Which works out well for G because most folks will give up on organic search quickly and get their wallet out for AdWords at this point after losing an authority site. And IMO, right now the traffic many people lost with various Panda iterations is right there in broader longtails EMDs etc. So the folks that are brave are doing what the OP is witnessing. I don't think it is necessarily "risky" per se as many smaller sites I am seeing are quality all around...but it just really muddies the waters for the future of internet marketing...as if they weren't sludgy enough.