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I have quite a few clean sites affected already. In all cases the sites have been manually checked by Google's web quality team members (in either Mountain View or Dublin) or human reviewers before the drop. A page gets checked and a few days later it drops from page 1 to page 2 for a given keyword or phrase. Nothing you do will get you back to page 1. I've tried various things for several months like adding a new pages, links etc. Sometimes you can see your site back on page 1 but it's only a brief moment, a few hours max when G is switching filters on and off - usually during night time. I've seen my site get up to #4 only to drop back to #14 soon after. During Google Dance I can see another site "dance" between #3 and #13 - and end up #13.
Affected sites are clean even by Google's standards. If they were breaking guidelines then the manual check would have resulted in a much stricter 30/60/950 penalty. However, I'd still call this quite a severe penalty as dropping from page 1 to page 2 for certain keywords takes away most of the natural traffic.
Many webmasters think a one page drop is an algo update and they need more links or onsite SEO to get back. Well, after almost one year of sitting on page #2 for a non-competitive "keyword1+keyword2" I'm pretty sure it's a penalty. I'm stuck at #11 yet the same subpage ranks ok for "keyword2+keyword3". I tested doing a 301 to a new subpage and interestingly Google's human editors were there within days checking the new page through their "rating task" system.
Because it is likely a manual filter/penalty I need to send a reconsideration request to Google. I can only guess the reason for the penalty. Affiliate content or unnatural backlinks are my best guesses. Bottom line: it is a very frustrating penalty which I'm sure many webmasters have without them knowing about it. This penalty can be hard to spot because you can continue to rank high for your main keywords. As stated in the title, it is a keyword specific penalty.
I'd like to know if anyone here have seen something similar. What has happened to your rankings after being checked by human reviewers? Do you feel like you're stuck on page 2 and can't get to page 1, not even #10 where you have been before?
That earlier discussion missed the human review component that you mention seeing, however.
In the case of very competitive phrases, the editorial squad does evaluate the first page SERP - and if there's agreement across several independent evaluations that a given url is ranking unnaturally high, it can get demoted. The flat value of "minus 10" would be a new twist here, however.
The "unnatural backlinks" observation would line up with the earlier discussion, to a degree at least. I know of several sites that intentionally went after ranking on a competitive phrase and all of a sudden, they were stuck on page two when it seemed that, without human intervention at least, they "should be" on page two.
The only way to know if your 1-page drop falls into this category is to watch your server logs for Google IP addresses that aren't googlebot. If you're not watching your server logs and you are strugging with ranking problems, this might be a good step to add to your toolkit.
The page [vuw.ac.nz...] contains one independent observer's list of things that should matter when evaluating the "quality" of a website. I would specifically emphasize "Scope", since it is an often-overlooked but significant criterion in Google's list, and "Content", since that covers various issues which a computer can't possibly address -- but which human reviewers do. The computer doesn't know the difference between the American Cancer Society and the various boiler-room fraud fundraisers with names of the form adverb-diseaseName-collectiveNoun. The computer doesn't know the difference between Joe Blow (plagiarist extraordinaire and serial doorway-page spammer) and professor Joseph Blough (Nobel Prize winner and global philanthropist). But people know people who know people who DO know the difference. The computer can't spot the difference between Eliza'd plagiarized paragraphs and genuine coherent thought (well, some people can't either, but there's always a Verity Stob who can.) Well, these are the extreme cases: most of us fall between them, but when human reviewers get involved, we all are subject to those kinds of judgments.
Which are far more relevant than the results of any computer algorithm, no matter how complex.