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What I find is that the more I read WebmasterWorld the more paranoid I get that I'm whitehat. I know that everything I do is whitehat, but I always have to second guess everything. With all these threads popping up like "was i banned?" "How do I get my site re-included", "I think I got the 950 penalty", "I don't get it, i wasn't doing anything wrong, why am i not in the SERPs anymore!"
I guess it makes me realize that even though this is "cyberspace", we're still mortal.
I guess it's a good thing though... it keeps me on my toes, and makes sure I have a quality site.
Just be whitehat, forget the chatter and the backgound noise. If you happen to be one of the very few unfortunate ones who is penalised without a valid reason then that's life. You will gain more by ignoring the threat of penalties than you will gain by joining the dance to avoid it.
Have fun, forget the paranoia.
Shall we have all hats that are black move to the back of the bus too?
Can we have a discussion about this without hat colors?
Penalty discussions usually contain a variety of issues. In most instances, the word penalty may not apply. There are so many external factors that can affects one's presence online. And then you have your own on-site factors. If the site is dynamic, watch out. One wrong move in the dynamics and you'll do yourself in, I see it happen all the time! And it is usually a slow process. Crawler technology has improved. Do you have everything in order?
Pageone definitely has a good point, I can't count how many times a lack or loss of rankings were the direct result of on page factors. Simple things like on site navigation, or 40 pages built dynamically that all have the exact same info but a different URL.
While my sites were doig well I hated reading posts about penalties and I was most scared of -30, -950 .. I never read those treads. Guess what? I recently got caught up in -30 and I wish I should hve read those threads earlier!
We see this at PubCon during site clinic sessions - some with Matt Cutts on the panel. People present their site as "totally white hat" and so on, but just the smallest amount of digging turns up a network of redirects, participation in link farms, hidden text, and even worse. Or possibly a site that is just plain lousy for the visitor and Google would have every reason not to send traffic there, if they got a look at it from a human user's point of view.
So don't get freaked out by every tale of woe that you read. Sometimes the site owner is not aware of something an employee or contractor did. Sometimes they think they did such a good job at hiding some trick or other that "Google couldn't possibly have caught that one."
And yes, sometimes there is collateral damage or data trouble at Google - but not nearly as often as forum reading might make you think.