Search Engine Optimization is a lot like the Gold Rush of 1848. Those willing to take on the risk and expense early on found enough gold to finance larger mining operations and were the big winners, while latecomers oftentimes were left behind.
When gold was discovered in California, prospects could easily recover it from the river beds, sifting through the gravel with rudimentary equipment.
As word of the discovery spread worldwide, thousands of Forty-Niners made the expensive and long trek to California. Within just a few years, simple techniques, like panning, had recovered the most easily found gold, and much more time-consuming and expensive efforts were needed to unearth additional gold.
As in the beginning days of the Gold Rush, those who were early comers to Search Engine Optimization have been reaping the rewards for some time. They benefited from a much simpler process of optimization, and several years later are still probably performing fairly well.
But for those just joining the party, SEO has become more complicated, largely because of the large number of "prospectors" seeking similar site positioning. The search engines have made it more difficult for sites to earn a prized first-page position, requiring significantly more effort and skill.
How difficult it is depends entirely on where you decide to prospect. If, like the old Forty-Niners, you head right where everyone else is prospecting by picking the most competitive keywords, you'll face significant competition against early starters. To earn your position for these types of terms, you'll need significant effort and investment to catch up. Niche terms will be easier to target and probably require a less costly, standard SEO program.
The one big difference between SEO and the Gold Rush is that the folks who failed to find gold or who never made the journey still were able to earn livelihoods as farmers, tradesmen or shopkeepers. But the Internet has completely changed the way companies market themselves, and those who ignore SEO do so at their own peril.