Google has been getting some bad press lately surrounding their penalty notices. Their notices are notoriously vague, and this has come to the surface of the topic after the BBC received an “unnatural link” warning last month due to links pointing to a single page on the site, and Mozilla was notified of a “manual” penalty this week because Google identified a single page of spam on their site.

In both of those cases, the penalties were only applied on the individual pages in question, but that information wasn’t included in the notices, which makes for obvious concern. These cases also pinpoint one of the biggest issues with issuing notices without specifically identifying to problem for the site owners. With millions of pages of content, trying to identify the problem pages would be a needle-in-the-haystack situation.

Many have been concerned about the ambiguous notices, and Google has said they will work to improve their transparency, but what do you do if you get a notice that says you have been penalized but doesn’t tell you exactly where the problem is? Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, says you should start at Google’s webmaster help forum.

If help can’t be found in the webmaster help forums, Cutts says filing a reconsideration request could result in being given more information and possibly advice, though he concedes  “we don’t have the resources to have a one-on-one conversation with every single webmaster.”

This is notable, because many believed in the past that filing a reconsideration request after a penalty was a one-time attempt to restore your site’s name. Many speculated that Google would not be keen to reviewing repeated requests and to only file for reconsideration once the site master is sure they have solved the issues. According to Cutts, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Telling site owners to turn to a forum or file requests where they might be given extra information doesn’t seem like very consistent advice for trying to overcome a penalty. Luckily, there are some other solutions for investigating what part of your site is causing all the problems. Danny Sullivan works through some other ways you can try to diagnose your site at Search Engine Land.

Here’s a theoretical scenario: You’ve been hit with a manual penalty from Google. You take all the time and effort it takes to complete a link audit and remove all the bad links you’ve accumulated, and made sure your link profile doesn’t look questionable to Google’s eyes. You resubmit, but even after weeks your website is still flat-lining. What the heck?

As it turns out, that link audit and resubmission process was only half the battle. Google does use over 200 different signals to determine ranking, but links are still the heavyweights in the arena. Now think back to all those unnatural links you just removed. Often, those “bad” links were some of the most powerful in your profile, and you don’t have anything healthy replacing them.

I have some bad news. If you got hit with a manual penalty, you most likely used questionable or downright spammy methods to climb the rankings before, and that doesn’t cut it anymore. There is a way to recover, but it takes basically restarting your SEO process to get your site back in the rankings, and this time you can’t take short cuts.

Search Engine Watch suggests a four step process to getting your sites ranking again, but if you loved the spammy old ways of the web, these steps may seem counter-intuitive or just boring and difficult. Unfortunately for you if you feel that way, there aren’t many other options, and there will be less the more refined Google gets. Chuck Price put it best when he said, “adhering to the webmaster guidelines is no longer a “suggested” course of action, it is required.”

The four-step process will help you clean house on all the remnants of less savory SEO methods, and make your site look as clean and reputable as it should. Don’t try to toe the line again or take advantage of any loophole you find. You only really get one chance to come back after a manual penalty. If you get hurt again, it will be nearly impossible to fix everything.