Hot on the heels of Penguin 2.1 is the every frequent question from webmasters who have lost their rankings - "Has Google Penalised me?". Almost always the answer is no, there is no penalty.
I say almost - because if you have received a message in Google Webmaster Tools about unnatural links then it's too late, you have been up to things which Google really doesn't like and the wrist slapping has been done.
More often than not though, webmasters find they have received no message, just a loss of traffic and that has lead them to check their rankings which turn out to be the issue.
Removing unjust rewards
This is probably the most common situation:
- Sites A, B and C link to your website (D).
- Sites A, B and C used to be considered "good" sites by Google and so their juice kept your rankings high.
- Google realised Sites A, B and C were very dodgy and gave them a slap.
- They lost their juice and their links to you became worthless.
- You lost your rankings.
It's also very important to understand that Google has not penalised you. It just said "you were getting kudos because of those links but you're not going to get it any more."
I often explain it as "you were being rewarded for something you should not have been, those unjust rewards have now been removed".
Have your rankings actually decreased?
The following is a little circular but it's a clearer way to understand the logic that has gone into your drop in the rankings.
Having removed the unjust rewards Google now looks at all the websites battling for Keyword X and reorders the rankings accordingly. This means it increases the rankings of the other websites that have a better back link profile, rather than actively decreasing yours.
In other words Google does not say, "You had bad links, your going down." It says, "they've got better links, they're going up."
You can argue that it's all the same thing because ultimately your ranking for Keyword X was lost but understanding the way it was lost means you can also better understand the way to recover.