Trackbacks are Useless
A short time ago I had a brief discussion in the comments of this post about trackbacks at Reader Appreciation Project, about the usefulness of trackbacks. My main contention was that most trackbacks relate poorly to the author’s opinion and so were usually not very useful.
My understanding of trackbacks has moved on a lot since then. I spent a good few hours yesterday trying to put into practice what I thought would be a beneficial concept only to find that my knowledge of trackbacks was limited, at best.
One of the things I didn’t understand was the difference between a trackback and a pingback. I thought they were just terms for the same thing. I was wrong. For those who already know this you might want to skip ahead a few paragraphs.
When WordPress sends a trackback (by being explicitly told to by the author) it sends the target blog the url of the post, an excerpt of the post, the post title, and the blog name.
The receiving blog then processes this for security, limits the length of the except and adds it as a comment, albeit one marked as a trackback.
There are some flaws in this approach, the key one being that there is no verification that the post on the site sending the content actually even exists, and even then the content could be pretty much anything. You can moderate them, but you shouldn’t have to.
Pingbacks are really trackbacks version 2. When WordPress sends a pingback it only sends the url being linked to, and the url being linked from.
Once the pingback is received, the receiving blog connects to the url being linked from, finds the url being linked to within the post content and then uses that as the context and grabs 100 characters or so from either side of that point.
This is the content displayed in the comments of the blog.
Resolving the problems
As you can see these are two very different things. They both aim to create a connection between the posts but neither help to add to the conversation very much.
My idea was to make pingbacks a little more useful by amending the text served to the blog when it came back to get the content. I figured that while I was adding to the conversation by writing a post I really wanted a brief summary of my point to appear on the target post so it could play a useful part in the conversation.
Now, you might have figured out by now that all my hard work is fairly pointless. What I was really searching for was a way to add to the conversation on the target blog while pointing participants back to my own site for a more thorough consideration of my points.
Most people would call this a ‘comment’.
So this is the conclusion I have come to. The idea of automating these links is fine in principle, but really not necessary.
If I am writing a, “hey look at this”, post then why does anyone already at that post need to know? They don’t.
If I am writing a, “dude, you’re wrong”, post then I really want to summarise my position, to allow others to carry on discussing it. I can do that in a comment.
What else is there?
So what now?
I only really have one idea for the future. There is something that I think can bring improvements to the linked together of posts.
If I write a post in direct response to someone else’s then I would like to be able to create a short summary in their comments and specify that my comments have been expanded on in a longer article. I would also provide the URL. More than that though, I would like people who comment on that summary on the original post to have the option to include their comment on my blog, and people who comment on the post on my blog to have the option to include it on the target blog.
This would create a much better connection between the posts, and more importantly, the conversations.