Just for a change, rather than a technical article, I would like to tell you a story. To begin, imagine your website is a little country bar, now let's go back to when the internet began, and reciprocal linking was being done properly. Now just sit back and picture the following.....
There you are running your bar, it's a fairly busy little bar with plenty of regular customers. You also get other customers who come from all directions. Some make their way to your bar using all the little country back roads (from links on other websites), others come on the big highway (the Internet) from the big bars in the city (The Search Engines).
Your customers usually stay and have a beer or two (read a few pages of your site), then decide they'd like to try somewhere different. Because you realize your customers are bound to leave at some point anyway, you recommend the bar down the road, telling them it is a great bar too. You even show them a little leaflet you made (your link section), which gives them directions on how to find it.
The bar down the road also has his regulars, plus a few visitors from you, and a few from the bars in the city. He knows you send him customers, so when his customers have had a drink or two, and fancy going somewhere different, he returns the favor, recommends your bar and gives them directions how to get there.
In fact, there are 10 little bars in your area that are all doing this and the local back roads are alive with customers going from bar to bar (The World Wide Web). Occasionally, when someone comes from the big bars in the city (the Search Engines), you recommend the other local bars and all your friends benefit from that visitor too.
Then one day the big bar in the city sent all the local bars a letter saying: "We are a much bigger bar than you, we have thousands of customers, and they are all looking for nice little country bars like yours.
We would be glad to recommend your bar, however, we need to know that your bar is popular before we tell our customers. The busier your bar is, the more customers we will send you. We will of course be sending one of our employees to see just how busy your bar is (Search Engine link spiders).
Great you think, more new customers, more business, more profits. Oh no! Wait a minute! If you send your customers to the bar down the road, he would be busier than you, and get all the new customers from the city. Better stop sending them there. So you stop recommending his bar, and hide the little leaflets that gave directions. (You feature your link section only with a tiny little text link right at the bottom of the page.)
You can't get rid of your leaflets, or the other bar may take you off his leaflet, then when the employee from the city visits the other bar he will think you are not popular, because you are not listed. Maybe you could change the title of your leaflet, so it doesn't look like directions to other bars, that way your customers won't pick it up. (Call your links page "resources" or "partners").
Now, when your customer has had their first beer or two, you don't recommend your friend, and they don't find the leaflets, so they don't know there is a back road that leads to other bars. The result? They take the highway (the Internet) and go back to the big bar in the city where they came from (The Search Engine).
When they get to the big bar in the city, they don't stay there long, because they know the barman can recommend some other great country bars. Why does the barman do that? Because they are his busy friends, but he also recommends a few bars who pay him to give them a plug (Pay Per Click or advertising).
Meanwhile, the bar down the road has been thinking the same thing as you, he wants to be the busiest bar and get the extra customers from the city. He has hidden or renamed his leaflets, and stopped recommending you, like you stopped recommending him.
That road that used to carry customers between your two bars is now very quiet and no longer buzzing with customers driving up and down to the different bars. Eventually, it becomes unused, because the customers don't know it exists. (Hidden link sections). You never get customers from your friend, because they too go back to the city to ask the barman's advice. Your bar is much quieter without his referred customers, and his bar is much quieter without yours.
What can you do? Your bar is not as busy as it used to be, and you still want the customers from the city. Hey, that's it! Pay the barman to promote your bar (Pay-Per-Click or Advertising). Now what happens? The barman sends you a visitor and makes himself some money. When the visitor has had a few drinks at your bar he goes back to the barman in the city who recommends your friends bar down the road. Why? Because your friends bar was empty too, so he also paid the barman to send customers.
The WEB of back roads is closing down, and being replaced by a network of highways, all leading back to the barman who is making lots of money. Who is paying him that money? You, and your friend, who used to share those same customers for free. Meanwhile, the customers think the only way to find a good bar is to see the barman in the city. NOT TRUE IS IT? Both your bars are good, and before you had lots of people recommending you, not just the barman. If a child read that story they would probably say how silly it is. This is what linking JUST for rankings produces. The alternative?? Link for traffic first, link only with sites who understand their visitors are leaving at some point anyway, sites who are willing to send their leaving visitors to other sites not straight back to search engines all the time.
I am not search engine bashing here, they are excellent and useful resources. However, if webmasters are not careful and continue to hide their link sections, they will give the big search engines a monopoly on traffic. Try turning things around. Exchange only quality visible links that will bring you visitors. If the current method of "Guru" thinking is correct, this will automatically increase your popularity and search engine rankings at the same time, the difference being, you get visitors while your rankings improve, not WHEN they have improved.
Just because a major search engine does not consider a site important it does not mean that site doesn't have great content, it does not mean that site isn't busy, and it does not mean the site won't send you visitors. There are millions of great sites with no PR and millions of great sites who are not on the first page of search engine results. The only people who have the right to judge a sites importance, and indeed the only people who's opinion REALLY matters, are the users of your site.