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At this point, everyone understands that Google will penalize sites that are using spammy techniques. If you're buying links, creating strange and unnatural link profiles, or gaming the system in other ways, you'll get the mighty Google hammer brought down upon you. In most of these cases, it's possible to reverse the damage. With a lot of hard work and even more patience, you can get a penalty lifted and carry on your business as a rehabilitated one-time offender in the SEO world.
If the dark side calls to you again though, you may not be so lucky.
In one of the most recent Webmaster Help videos, Matt Cutts mentions that not only do different infractions carry different penalties, repeat offenders will be hit harder than first-timers, regardless of the specific infraction. Here is the example he gives:
"Google tends to look at buying and selling links that pass PageRank as a violation of our guidelines and if we see that happening multiple times, repeated times, then the actions that we take get more and more severe," Cutts said. "So we're more willing to take stronger action whenever we see repeated violations."
So, if you've ever been hit with a penalty, it's not a good idea to perform SEO techniques that are even in the gray area, never mind straight black hat. It may be tempting, but when you start to get away with the little things, you'll likely start to take chances with bigger and bigger infractions until one day—BAM! You're hit with another penalty, this time one you can't recover from. Next thing you know you're running an empty coffee mug back and forth along the bars of your digital cell, wondering where exactly your life went wrong.
Of course, much like real life criminals, the call of the dark side may be too strong for some to resist. Just remember you have to be strong or suffer the consequences.