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Is extensive SEO worth it?

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Personally, I never really saw the value in search-engine-friendly URLs, beyond being more pleasant for the eye. I have heard that they aren't even that effective because the URL is longer, and that can hurt SEO as well, but I'm not an expert in the field and wouldn't really know.

Of course I know that backlinks can significantly improve SEO. I do try to make use of signature links and post links to my website at as many places as possible, although it takes quite a lot of time to build a good list of backlinks. I also don't want to spam, and that means that I will end up writing high-quality content at many places to promote my website.

In addition, I don't really want to risk breaking any of the terms of use for Google and get my websites blacklisted. I prefer just to design my websites for the users, and let google take care of the rest.

So, for those who know more about SEO, is there an ethical method (i.e. not blackhat) that does not break any of Google's terms of use and is effective?
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