I think the main difference between before and today, is that before most people was having a website to be able to say it has a website, without rally exploting it. It would have it on business card and ads. It would be more informative to already targeted customers.
Today, more and more people are trying to attract new customers with their website, using it as a real marketing tool and not just an accessory.
To do that SEO is necessary or your website will have no chance at all in being seen, completely lost in the ocean of websites.
The internet is growing rapidly, there are more and more websites out there, so the competition for traffic is increasing. If you don't use SEO techniques, then your website will probably fade away in to insignificance as far as the search engines are concerned and you will get no traffic. Today it is very imporant that SEO techniques are used to drive traffic to your site, especally if you generate revenue from your site either through advertising or selling products.
There are many things you can do to improve your search engine ranking, a quick look round this forum will get you started.
What is the point if you have website but noone knows it is exist right? SEO is the method that will make your site to be easier to be found in search engine. compare that if you didnt do SEO your site is in no.12312 page of google. surely noone will find a link your site. But with SEO it can help your rank to be higher and that's mean more traffic.