I always thought that backlinks were voting mechanisms that gave credit or "link juice" to your site. The more links you got from authority sites, the better your site's credibility.
When described as a pathway, it gives the impression that you're digging a trench from your site to another, and their traffic is supposed to automatically spill onto your site. Not so. But some blogs are describing it that way.
A website is kind of like a working actor. If you're straight out of drama school trying to get some exposure, you hook up with someone who has clout, like a producer or Steven Spielberg. These would be your backlinks. Because you are associated with these high-profile folks, you're exposed to their level of publicity and opportunities.
So search engine-wise backlinks give your site more credibility and push you up the ranks, like a top of the charts music billboard. Now that you're in the top 10, you're definitely going to be noticed more and have more people buying from you. That's how I see backlinks.
Unless I'm wrong?