If you want to rank well on search engines without fussing with SEO, then pretend it's 1995 and there are no search engines that will list you, because you can't afford the high fees for inclusion.
Now, how are you going to, in an ethical way, make people want to visit your site, stay awhile and explore, come back often, and share what they find with others?
Your site should work well and not be broken.
- Make sure all links to pages on and off your site actually lead to where you want them to.
- Make sure you don't have broken images.
- Make sure the content loads correctly in all the major browsers.
- Make sure your pages adhere to W3C standards and they validate.
Your site should be designed for people.
- Make sure your template is pleasing to the eye and not painful to look at.
- Make sure it has good navigation and is easy to discover and find the content your site has to offer. Good use of sidebar links to important stuff. Links to similar content pages on your site.
- Make everything within 2-3 clicks of the main page.
- Break up huge amounts of text with related images to help the eyes stay focused where they should be,
- Your site should load fast. Use real thumbnails for your images and not just merely resizing with HTML.
- Don't overwhelm people with ads.
- Remove spam promptly.
Your site should invite people back.
- Give your visitors multiple ways to be notified and access new content (RSS feeds, email subscription, follow on Twitter, a Facebook fan page.) Make sure new content reaches them wherever it's convenient to them.
Your site should encourage sharing.
- Make sure you don't use frames. Every page should have its own unique URL that shows in the address bar.
- Use Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, Google Reader/Buzz buttons.
Your content should be unique and of high quality.
- Don't copy other people's stuff, write your own.
- Check your spelling and grammar.
- Put thought into what you write.
- If you post YouTube videos, add some unique commentary that doesn't exist anywhere else on the web.
- For every sentence you quote from another source, write 3-5 of your own. So if you quote 3 sentences, you will have to write 9-15 to balance it. Don't quote in every article. Don't quote any more than what is necessary, less is much better than more.
- If you are supplying information, make sure it is complete, accurate, and up to date.
- Write about stuff people will care about enough to want read it. Don't write about what you had for lunch unless your a restaurant critic.
- If your site is a blog, link out in every article to quality related content. Linking out to pages on other good blogs has the bonus in that it may earn you a trackback link on that page, or at the very least attract the eyes of the author of that blog who will stop by and check out who is linking to him.
Interact with your visitors and make them feel important.
- Allow commenting and respond to comments as soon as humanly possible.
- Give your visitors a means of contacting you privately, either by supplying an email address or a contact form.
Spread the word.
- Become a highly respected member of a large community with similar content.. Put your link in your profile and signature. If people respect you, they will click the links.
- Reach out to blogs by reading and participating in discussions. Never leave a "nice post" comment. Put some thought & work into your responses. You want to catch the attention of other readers and the bloggers themselves, and make them ask "Wow! Who is this guy?" so they will click your name and visit the site it links to. Always make your comments increase the value of that bloggers page.
- Participate on social media sites and interact with people in a positive way. Get conversations going. Again, you want to make people ask "Who is that guy?" which will lead to them checking out who you are (your profile) and where you came from (your site).
- Find an ad network that gives away free advertising. (I happen to really like Project Wonderful, personally)
If you do all of the above, quality inbound links will happen on their own and between the fact that others think high enough about you and your site to write about it and link to it, combined with having a great site, structurally, that makes it easy for spiders to find your content, you will get the ranking in the search engines that you deserve.
Above all, be patient, work hard, and don't engage in any "evil tricks". Good ranking does not happen overnight.