Design like art is subjective. But it's safe to say that there are some golden rules you should always strive to follow. Keep it clean, simple and elegant.
Your visitors should not have to think about what your website is about, or worse, how to use it. They should intuitively grasp your message (strong and clear call to actions), as well as be able to navigate (clear menu architecture) within seconds upon landing on your web page. Study and internalize websites that are commonly held in high regard. Reflect on how and why they “work” and develop your designs and creative eye based on that. Always design appropriately to fit your target audience and industry.
Meta Tags, Keywords, On-site SEO
Research your industry, competitors and tools thoroughly to compile a list of keywords for your website pages. I find Google's Adwords Tool to be very useful in determining keyword traffic, competitiveness and relevancy. Be realistic about the keywords you want to target. It's fine to try to go for top rankings in “real estate”, but unless you have a huge budget, you'd be in for a frustrating experience. Try to go for the low hanging fruit (e.g. “City+Real Estate”) initially, and then expand from there when you have a steady income stream from your site.
Once you have compile your target keywords, be sure to follow these basic on-site SEO rules.
• Unique title and description meta tags for each page.
• Spread your keywords in the title, description and H1 tags, but don't over do it.
• ALWAYS ensure the keywords you choose are relevant to the content on that specific page.
Quality content is key for a successful website. Content that is topical, compelling and well composed will always acquire links naturally over time. Research is vital for creating quality content. You don't need to have insider information or doctorate's degree in your field. The information is out there, you just need to be smart about how to piece it together. For example, you can compile information that has not been presented before. (Comparison of green widgets through a 10 year cycle).
Quality always trumps quantity. It is better to have 10 solid articles, than 100 mediocre ones.
Always try to get a dedicated IP for your domain. And ALWAYS use a host company that is reputable (doesn't host sites from undesirable industries) and has a solid up-time.
If you can afford it, submit your site to Yahoo Directory and Business.com. Dmoz is also a highly recommended directory, however, getting listed in one of the main categories is next to impossible these days. Try to drill down to a smaller or localized category for a better chance of inclusion.
Nearly all keyword sector has an authority web hub or directory. Take the time to review their guidelines and submit your site.
As mentioned above, solid content will get you very far in terms of attracting free links. You can also develop a widget to share (e.g. Weather.com's free weather widget tool) that contains a link back to your website.
Reciprocal or link exchanges, do not work as well as it once did. But that doesn't mean you should totally avoid doing this. Research and contact sites that are “authoritative” or ranking well in your desired keywords, and ask for a link exchange. Your success rate will be low unfortunately, so I leave it up to you to decide the time vs reward ratio.