I rocketed my forum community to the top of Google by generating backlinks. Some people consider it grunt labor, but I found it a lot of fun, especially if you get a program that keeps track of your rankings. It's addictive.
And this is forum software that is rife with duplicate content, has URLs like `/?forumdisplay=22952920&v=92348232`, and is so unSEO that a third party company started up to sell an expensive product that SEO's the softwre via plugin.
Guess what, despite all the little marginal tweaks and SEO obsessions I don't sweat over, Google miraculously figured stuff out. Backlinks are obvious and they work. It's the reason why you can overtake encumbent #1 rankings that have no backlink campaigns.
I get the point about duplicate content, that's something I had heard but not really delved into because, well, decent architecture usually means not having that sort of stuff around.
The more I hear SEO "experts" go on about things, the more I think it's a bit of a scam. Scam is probably the wrong word, as I'm sure many SEO people are well meaning, but the more I look the more it all seems like snake oil.
At one point I put together a pretty basic site with one backlink and barely any attention to content and accidentally ranked #1 in Australia for "make money". One particular page on that site is four paragraphs I threw together and it's made $24k in four years for no effort since. I've had a few other events along those lines too, mostly leveraging the past property I built up and using that as a backlink.
There are plenty of great search resources out there.
I would suggest to start at http://searchengineland.com to get a better sense of the landscape, especially everything Danny Sullivan writes
What you are saying is like saying architecture is just drawing diagrams or good journalism is just writing about stuff.
Like many industries, there's an art to SEO and plenty of nuances far beyond clean coding and user friendly design.
I think emphasizing statistics and analysis would make a bit better impression on some of us. It turns on a light that says "aha, there is something real there!".
it'd be nice if we could be completely transparent with analytics while iterating a search strategy for a large site, because the learning experience would be great whether you're a big-name, experienced SEO, looking to get further into SEO, or an anti-SEO hacker looking to just call us all out for being full of shit :) it'd be cool. too bad the economic reality of releasing complete analytics data to the entire internet makes this an impossible dream.
And by the way, there is one repeatable way to get high-ranked sites to link to you: produce quality content. So karma and SEO are not that far off.