I am working with a local business to improve the sites organic search rank.
There were some problems with title and meta tags,etc. but that didn't make as much difference over a week that I thought it might.

I looked at what other similar local type companies had that were comming up on a national basis, even though they were local. Surprisingly, some of the sites were quite poorly done, yet they had enough rank to make the first page of search in Google!

There seemed to be two driving factors to this phenomenon:
1) the front page was chock full of text containing pertinent keywords for the industry.
2) The URL had a keyword in it.

Is this a valid observation, or might there be other factors? This SEO stuff is like voodoo to me.

There are more factor that influence Google rankings. The number of inbound links is very important. The more quality inbound links a website has, the more important it is seen by Google.