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Today, however we have Google tools and a rep to ask for reinclusion (correct me if I'm wrong). It appears Google is more forthcoming with what it considers abuse. There appears to be much fewer webmasters frantically trying to figure out why his site disappeared from the SERPS. There seems to be much fewer big surprises when it comes to SERPS changes and changes to algos.
So, just how reliable do you consider top SE rankings these days? Assuming you keep pace with your competitors, would you count on your top rankings staying roughly where they are? For years to come? If you keep abreast of search engine developments and adjust for visible coming algo changes, could you count on your website rankings to be there for years, decades or a lifetime?
With those variables - and a few more besides - it would be an arrogant and foolhardy webmaster or SEO who could promise a few months, let alone years, decades and lifetimes ahead.
But I take your point; there is less mystery about SEO these days. Most of those who have kept abreast AND got penalties would be less surprised than the white-text-on-white-pages folk of 1999. These days, 'black hat' is a career choice, an accepted risk, an increasingly known risk - not a matter of luck, sneakiness and bad advice.
On the other hand, we now live in a time of constant change, in all areas of web site management - time will come when even the Google Bashers will look back on the 'Google Days' as a time of stability and openness.
And that uncertainty will probably get worse. No-one predicted the dominance of Google, let alone Adsense / Adwords. No one predicted the power of YouTube and its effects on everyone else - and no-one knows how it will be monetised. No-one predicted that 'web 2.0' (dread term) would come to mean yourface, spacebook or whatever superficial twaddle it is that dominates teenage thought ...
Bored enough yet? The future is a dangerous place. Don't go there!