Trying to respond in order of your statements. Reminder: my responses are from the perspective of an affiliate marketer. Context is critical when discussing SEO.
Yeah definitely. I'm just tired of targeting lower volume keywords. I've done it every way imaginable. I can never personally get the content to go viral where the "quality" might matter enough where I actually do earn tons of links. If I target higher competition keywords it might work, but if I don't have enough links to get the content to page 1, it's a broken loop, it just doesn't work. If you're flying solo or it's a small shop with a handful of employees/freelancers, trying to beat out the competition with better quality content doesn't really work. The strategy that works for the "small guys" is usually to farm easy keywords with "decent content" that's informative and helps people. It doesn't need to be mind blowing and if this is done right, since you get traffic and it's helpful, your site will earn links slowly over time. The alternative is grey hat and if done right, does work. The skyscraper technique where you spend 100 hours creating a piece of content and then spend hundreds more marketing it to bloggers can work, I've just had it fail one too many times. I gave up on infographics as well. It's a lot of time invested and the "zero results" outcome just started happening too frequently for me. The only ways to do it and "guarantee results" are to scale it into oblivion or bribe people. I know I'm jaded from some bad outreach campaigns but considering the number of times people have suggested to me that they're willing to link if I pay, I would suggest that is the correct way to go.
As far as the gurus, the more time I spend in this space, the more I bump into somebody from an agency that built links for X Y Z guru. I recommend that you completely ignore gurus like Neil Patel and Brain Dean. At least Nathan Gotch is honest and tells people that he buys links. They're not going to run a test like that because then it makes them look foolish and I'm sure they know that with their absurd backlink profiles, they can pick easy keywords and rank gibberish.
If the keyword is easy enough you can rank junk content. This isn't very scale-able as panda will hit you eventually. It's looking for a combination of low quality score (ratio of branded searches to unbranded, note: this doesn't matter for low volume sites) and there's likely some kind of objective analysis, things like spelling errors or percentage of content that is unique. If the links are super sketchy as well then it's easier to get penalized.
I've never done that exact test but my bet is that it's going to come down to links and whatever click data Google analyzes. Google has no way to evaluate "quality" as it's subjective. I assure you that Google's analysis is "objective."
I've done the opposite test plenty of times where I put up an extremely good piece of content on a competitive keyword and since I don't have enough links, I don't rank at all... It's much easier to test that conversely.
I enjoy whenever the topic of Moz comes up on /r/seo. Everyone bashes them and they have one lone employee on there that attempts to defend it. He usually gets called out for his lies. I think one time I remember Tim from Ahrefs even jumped in to call him out on his BS.
But here's the thing with that. When the competition is really low, it doesn't even have to be all that decent of a piece of content to rank.
Here's what I have never seen any of the "content is king" gurus do. Run a test like this.
Find relatively easy to rank keywords. Put up a piece of content that is just okay and rank it.
Then a few weeks later do the same thing but write a piece of content that is much higher quality and see if that piece of content outranks the first one. Do this 25-30 times to eliminate some of the variables.
Why has nobody done this yet to try to prove that Google really is a good judge of the quality of the content? Or maybe some people have and didn't get the results they were looking for.
If you target keywords that are easy enough with a decent piece of content, if the rest of the competition for that topic is terrible, once Google gets some decent click data, your content will rank higher and higher over time. Links are not required.
I can prove this; I was doing a case study on ranking with out links and it got screwed up because the site got links (the most jacked up problem I've ever had...)
Suggesting that it's one thing or another is a "guru tactic."
Pick topics that don't have too much competition, create a piece of content that fulfills the searcher's intent, and put the content on a site that has links. This all works together, it doesn't really work any other way.
At this very moment in time I'm working exclusively with paid traffic. I temporarily gave up on SEO around November for the most part. I do affiliate marketing so I have the mobility to market whatever I want. Lately the plan has been, find an affiliate who's spending a ton of money on PPC, pay somebody to create a similar landing page (modifying stuff I already have), set the campaign up, if it looks decent, start split testing, if it's horrible, trash can the campaign. If I want 100k clicks today, it wouldn't be financially wise, but I can press a button and get it. I'm really sick of waiting 2-6+ months to see if something works. Over time I'm moving more and more away from SEO. A few years ago my attitude was "well if the traffic is cheap enough, I'll take it." I tried explaining this on reddit and I ended up leaving all the marketing/seo subreddits I subscribe to. To be fair, that's always what has worked in that space, but people always seem to think that things should work a certain way, and from experience, things work any way they work. It does feel like regression though, this is what I was doing back in the Google Adwords heyday when most of the affiliates got slapped.
So yeah there's your "SEO guru story." I quit SEO and I'm making more money and honestly I'm having more fun too. Way less time analyzing data in tools, I can get results in 24 hours, no mining 1,000s of emails and begging for links. I haven't needed to do this, but if I screw up bad, I could always build a bunch comment/quora links into a landing page to make back any lost ad spend on a failed campaign.
Also, since Google ads merged Double click, Google Ads is also a DSP, so there's ~10 billion impressions a day available through Google Ads between the two networks. So between ads in Google searches, youtube ads, gmail ads, GDN, and DSP, one could probably buy half a billion clicks a day.
When at the end of the day, all that matters is a number, just remember that nobody is arguing about what works in r/ppc.