Strength of competition is where the difference lies.
If your site is not in too hotly contested an arena then it is more than possible to rank well without doing any conscious SEO. Build your site well and add good content, then so long as a certain number of people know about you they will link to your great content. Other people will find you through those links and then some of them will link to your great content. After a while you have enough links for Google to consider you worth ranking.
That is the "ideal" way to get a well-ranked site. It's the very essence of how G's PageRank idea works.
When one operates in a very competitive vertical or niche, then all bets are off as far as doing things the "right" way is concerned. Many of the old "black hat" techniques no longer work. Reciprocal link exchanges were all the rage a few years back due to a famous study called "Linking Matters". That soon got nuked, and reciprocal swaps no longer work as they used to. A lot of other stuff has also fallen by the wayside.
These days it is both simpler and harder (?!) to rank well!
As for Google patents, I have copies of a whole heap of them. They cover everything from the original PageRank algo to methods of scoring online documents according to their history and the history of their link profile...
Google is a clever company with search, its core product. Basically it honestly does just try to return the best possible results for the user. IMHO, it is still a far better engine than Yahoo, Bing, Ask or any of the others.
It's not great for paranoiacs though. I use Google as my homepage and for my email. Unless I take the occasional precaution, Google would soon have enough profile data on me to write my biography...