Actually, I think the majority of modern webmasters are quite unlike the pioneers who had the original "mental model" of Google. A lot of current members have learnt the ropes through second hand resources, like WebmasterWorld. That is where the checklist approach came from- a communication or teaching technique that is easily understood.
The fact is, a lot of people are making money online without even the slightest clue about Information Architecture. Infinite URL space is a problem Google can deal with. Crawl budget, if even known about, is an unfair system that keeps the big boys on top.
Google has been automating taxonomy generation for a long time. Query terms are assigned taxonomies, websites are assigned taxonomies. When the statisticians play with their big data, I'm pretty sure that they look at statistical relevance with a given taxonomy - let's say within a market place. Clearly signals are used differently for a crafts website than for gambling, for example
That's got too many long words in it to be worth reading.
The checklist approach worked for a long time, because the hard-won intelligence behind the list was sound. Enough people were doing actual testing, with actual dummy domains* to produce actual guidelines. That, and the fact the checklist produced (and still produces) a Good Site.
The problem with the checklist approach is that anyone can follow it. And many millions have. Thousands of sites now meet the checklist requirements, so now Google is having to differentiate between many Good Sites.
Back when the checklist was still working, plenty of people were still trying new things. They were generally called black-hatters, or Grey at best. Many grey-hatters did really well in bursts, before being wiped out and starting again. No one much cared, because they didn't employ people. And in that time, a new Orthodoxy evolved.
Google had spent a lot of effort suppressing algo exploits. A new dogma emerged: "Stop Chasing the Algorithm". The checklist stopped being a battle-tested guideline for begginers. Instead it became the Commandments for success. And it worked, enough for True Believers to start basing business models on it.
But like the financial markets, people had begun to think of the models as reality. Following the checklist does NOT entitle you to rankings- it just stops you from avoiding the major pitfalls from the "coloured hat" era of SEO.
The problem is that we've left the "coloured hat" era, and entered the Age of Engagement. The checklist still works- but only if you understand WHY it worked in the first place. The checklist was all about the dogma of "Ignoring Google" to "Focus on Users" and deploying "Optimised Site Structure". The problem is that too many people are using the same recipe, with an off-the-shelf CMS. Making a "Good Site" is no longer sufficient- and post-MayDay, post-Caffeine, Google has been focussing on differentiation like never before.
In the past, there was an arms race of exploit-fix-exploit. Google's tools of choice were FUD and an assorted arsenal of penalties. These days, penalties are exceptionally rare (and are the risk of exciting ire, Panda is NOT a penalty, any more than having low PageRank is a penalty) and they haven't been spreading FUD for ages.
There is a new paradigm for ranking sites. And yes, its complicated, and yes, Tedster has unpicked some of those new factors. But to return to where I started, too few people are rigorously testing these factors.
Too few have truely unique sites, with unique techniques, unique development, unique footprints. As such, it's really very difficult to look around and see what works and what doesn't. There's too many counter examples available- an artefact of the covergent nature of many sites, combined with the complex multi-dimensional scoring criteria of the current algo.
Now the old recipe no longer works, I hope there is a new generation trying new things, free to experiment without the worries of maintaining a business. I'm not sure how they are going to test, or monetise, or rank. But I am sure that trying to create a new one-size-fits-all narrative of easy-access checklist SEO will not work.
As many have said before, I do not think Organic Search as the basis of a business model is dependable. In a more immediate sense than at any time in the past, it can all disappear, and it's unlikely that anyone will be able to give definite reasons why, or solutions to fix it. *Very hard to maintain worthwhile test domains these days, due to the exponential proliferation of sites. In fact, I doubt it's possible to launch from scratch a test bed that ranks well enough to produce useful results.