"Help, our site was penalized by Google. We used to be ranked on page one but now we are on page 10 and it's killing us"....
I heard this same plea 20 times at the most recent Search Engine Strategies San Jose conference.
Some of you live in a state of constant fear that your site is just moments away from being banned or penalized by Google for some linking tactic you have done. Maybe you spammed a blog a few years ago, or submitted to an FFA page. Or foolishly hired a link building firm in a third world country. (See Are You A Link Whore?)
While it is certainly true that all major search engnes are on the look out for suspicious linking activity, it's also true that very few sites end up getting busted. A far more likey scenario is that the engines have simply stopped giving you credit for links that they used to give you credit for.
You haven't been singled out or penalized at all. When you ranked on page one it was due to a combination of factors, one of which was the type and quality of links pointing back to your site. If Google or any other engine decides that a particlur web page is not as trustworthy as they once thought, then if you had a link from that page the engine no longer gives as much weight to that link. Your rank drops as a natural result of the de-valueing of the links pointing to you.
This is a far different thing that an outright penalty. An outright penalty is when the engine decides your site has purposely set out to fool them, and they take action against you based on the severity of the infraction.
If you have never set out to fool the engines, then relax. Rankings shift all the time. You may simply need to aquire a few more high trust links to get right back where you were.
Today I rank number one at all three engines for the phrase Link Building Expert. Have a look. But tomorrow I might not. If that happens, it's not a penalty. It's just Google doing its thing.