How do SEO folks do what they do?

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http://www.linuxquestions.org – I always have a queasy feeling about placing websites at the top of the search engine listings, because if they're ALL trying to be at the top - well, that can't happen - so, I was just wondering if anybody here knew what SEO folks DO? I've been told it's very mathematical - do they really do some work, or just sit around posting links to their websites on various forums and whatever...? (HowTos)