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"That's exactly the sort of sites I'm referring to"
Unfortunately some comments about this issue apparently can't be bothered to actually, horrors, look at the serps. Authority has a specific meaning with Google, and its plain that authority sites are what are commonly, mistakenly hit by this penalty. I don't think this is a good summary of the effect, but one simplistic way to look at would be to say authority sites with volume of quality in-links are being confused with spam sites with a volume of rotten quality in-links, sometimes.
One of the most interesting phenomenons is how an authority site can be #1 for red topic, blue topic, green topic and purple topic, but be 950 for orange topic, even though the linking, page structure and keyword usage is basically the same for all of them. Clearly a a ranking mistake is being made (either the 950 result, or all those #1's).
[edited by: tedster at 9:17 pm (utc) on Feb. 27, 2008]
I am at a complete loss.
Or did you mean sites by the same person on the same server but covering different subjects? Now that would be quite sinister. Big Google is watching us!
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[edited by: tedster at 8:27 am (utc) on Mar. 13, 2007]