Im all for whitehat SEO...However...and this is what I'm curious about...I think totally neglecting how the algorithm works and "just creating the best content", imho, is pretty naive. The reason:
As long as there is only a slight margin of error in the search engine's algorithm (there certainly is, and probably will be for some time to come)...and if the search engine has hundreds or thousands of pages it considers displaying on page 1...then neglecting the algorithm completely ("I dont do SEO I just try to create the best content!") can make all the difference between ranking on page 1 for many search queries, and ranking on page 2.
And page 1 gets an abnormally high percentage of the clicks/traffic..in comparison to page 2 (let alone page 3 and beyond).
My point is: because of the extreme difference in click-throughs between "page 1" and "not page 1", only creating great content and completely neglecting the way the algorithm works would often mean losing out on a lot of traffic (even if one has the very best content).
Am I right about this? Has anyone ever taken a website that received a good amount of traffic, but had absolutely no SEO done to it...and then did SEO for it, and ended up turning lots of "not on page 1"-rankings into "page 1"-rankings?
I'm not sure I understand your example, since if a site already had received a "good amount of traffic," I'd presume there were lots of page 1 rankings already. And I'm afraid I don't actually track rankings except on a few pages; I track traffic and earnings.
But to answer what I think is the underlying question, my experience as a content producer and as a user has led me to these conclusions:
1) Good content will not get ranked well (i.e., receive any steady amount of search engine traffic) without any SEO.
2) Good content with a very small amount of basic on-page SEO on an established website might rank well (or might flop).
3) Good content with a healthy amount of SEO has the potential for serious longevity once it gets going.
4) Good content already ranking well and periodically modified to remain useful (if not 100% evergreen) and to keep SEO up-to-date has the best longevity.
5) Useless content that's well-optimized has relatively short longevity.
6) Useless content that's badly optimized doesn't perform at all.
Oh, and I've had pieces of content that didn't perform at all, and then changed something SEO-wise, and then they started getting regular traffic.
"I'm not sure I understand your example, since if a site already had received a good amount of traffic I'd presume there were lots of page 1 rankings already."
Yes, but probably also lots of not page 1 rankings.
Actually, I had an acquaintance in mind when I typed that. He has a high-traffic sites, but says he doesn't do any SEO....but I just neglected that he has done link building (not great stuff, but enough) and then attracted links through his content which enough people liked to spread/link to.
However, other than links and writing a decent title element...he basically ignores the algorithm/SEO completely.
I wont really be able to check his analytics (dont know him that well)...but that had me wondering....sites like that, even if they have the best content for certain topics (no idea if he has)...might have lots of non-page-1 rankings where they could be on page 1 easily, based on their content....but miss out on those.
One consideration is that traffic to trophy keyword phrases have been declining for years across a range of niches. It's possible (though not inevitable) that tightening up the meaning of the page for one phrase could lower the total amount of traffic because the meaning of the page becomes narrower.
I just typed an utterly long reply and realized i might have completely missed your point - im pretty sure i did, so didnt want to force you to wade through all of that!
I think you could increase the importance of your website's pages by doing some SEO, without doing any on-page SEO or chaging anything about the relevance/amount of keywords you try to rank for.