Search engine optimization isn't always about getting better listings in search engines. More frequently, SEO is quietly rescuing second-rate websites. Most websites are second-rate. They are built by second-rate coders who are either lazy, barely competent, stupidly arrogant, or a combination of all three. Many web designers fall into this category. Their sites often look great while being almost incomprehensible to search engines. These sites have been coded without any regard for best practice in HTML coding and without any recognition that every website has two audiences -- humans and search engines. It's possible to build a site that works properly, looks great to humans, but that a search engine can barely process. Most sites are like that.
Search engine optimization is only about outranking your competitors when some of your competitor websites have decent coding. Since the quality of coding on most websites is truly awful, your site can usually outrank the competition merely by being coded properly. Link building, developing authoritative status, and all the other talked-about SEO techniques are usually only required if your site has quality competition. Most of the time, all that is required to stand out from the ocean of second-rate coding that surrounds us is that your site be coded with some care and attention by people who know how to code properly.