There is a rising tide of advice lately extolling the virtues of creating a valuable site focused on the user and that the rest ... will simply come.
If you build it they will come
If you think this happens online (or anywhere outside of the movies), you'll be waiting a long time for Ray Liotta to saunter out of that digital cornfield. And you won't have traffic beating a path to your door like the closing shot of Field of Dreams.
The story sounds great, doesn't it? Write scintillating content and you'll get search traffic. Build a useful, interesting site and the Google gods will smile upon you. Maybe this is how it works in some magical Utopian world where it rains marshmallows.
Field of Dreams
It would be great if the sites that were most useful were always ranked appropriately. But spend any time doing SEO (the kind where you're in the trenches) and you know this is patently not true, nor (sadly) does it seem to be getting much better.
That's not to say that you shouldn't build a great site focused on users that delivers tremendous value. That just isn't enough. You still need SEO to ensure the great site you've built gets in front of the right people.
Trash and Treasure
Here's the hard truth, you may not be appealing to as many people as you think. Your definition of value might not be the definition others use, particularly not the definition Google uses. This is why I find the pollyanna around Field of Dreams SEO to be so dangerous. Because there is a nugget of truth to the notion.
Writing great content and building a valuable site is a critical part of SEO. But this means different things to different people. Put another way, one person's trash is another person's treasure and vice versa. As an example, I may find William Faulkner unreadable, but others may adore his novels.
SEO winds up being director, editor and agent - helping to shape your content and site so it is appealing to the major studios. Sure, maybe you can go the 'Indie' route, bucking the establishment and releasing it in small art house movie theaters. But how many times does that really work?
Ignore SEO and you'll wind up with Waterworld instead of Field of Dreams.