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...or maybe there's so little content online for the terms where I find this method that, spam penalty or not, it's still among the few relevant results available and ends up ranking by default.
The page links to ITSELF 394 times
You mean the actual html says <a href = "http://www.example.com/the-page-you're-already-on.html">?
Panda is not seeing that at the moment.
note that on-page anchor text seems to be a strong relevance factor for the page where it appears, not just the target page. In fact, this factor sometimes ends up making the "wrong page" rank higher that the "right page" which is just one click away.