austtr - 3:22 am on Mar 25, 2011 (gmt 0)
but the final ranking scores go well beyond
That's a given.... we know the algos factor in a whole bunch of different criteria but without a critical mass of decent links, a site is never going to be get the opportunity to perform in a competitive search area.
I like the analogy of links being like votes. If you vote for yourself (directory submissions, guest books, forums, articles, blogs, link farms etc etc) you are supposedly wasting your time. It's only when you can get votes from sites that have some level of authority that a site is allowed off the leash.
Comments about "links given freely" still persist as a rationale for assessing site worth. A savvy webmaster links out to authority sites because its in their best interest to do so. They don't/can't link out to start-up sites because they don't know they exist. Catch 22 that reinforces the points in the OP.