The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

September 01, 2004

What are Trackbacks?

I wanted to write something completely different today (and also something completely new), but a comment from Ralf about his dissatisfaction with Trackbacks reminded me that I promised to write an article explaining the mechanics of Trackbacks already a long time ago, so I guess this is as good a time as any to write it.

You may have seen the word "TrackBack (0)" at the end of every posting on this weblog (well, sometimes it says "TrackBack (1)" too) and may have wondered just what exactly this means. If you're interested in the explanation, read on, if not, well, don't.

What is a Trackback, technically?

A Trackback is basically a link to somebody else's weblog. The interesting thing is that if there's a Trackback link on my weblog, it wasn't me who put the link there. Instead the other person sent a signal (a so-called "ping") to my server, and with this ping inserted the link to his page on my weblog. In other words, Trackbacks give you the power to insert a link to your own weblog on somebody else's weblog.

How do you send that "ping"?

First, you need weblog software that supports sending pings. Movable Type was the first software to support it, but by now many other products, including WordPress or Radio Userland, can send pings.

Second, you need the address to send the ping to. If you click on "Trackback" on any of my entries, you'll see the message "Use the following URL to send a TrackBack ping for this entry" and an URL below it. You need to copy (not click!) that URL, and when you write your weblog entry, paste it into your weblog software where it says "URLs to ping". As soon as you save your weblog entry, my site is pinged, and the link to your entry appears on my site.

Now the most important question: why and when do you send Trackback pings?

Let me start with something that should be obvious: you do not send a Trackback ping if the article that you are writing has nothing whatsoever to do with what I wrote in the article that you are pinging.

You should see Trackbacks as a form of remote comment; this is why Trackbacks and comments appear next to each other on my weblog, and why WordPress for example even lists them together. By "remote comment" I mean that you read my article and want to respond to it; but you don't want to respond by merely posting a short comment on my site, instead you want to respond through a longer article of your own on your own weblog.

Trackbacks allow you to do just that: you write your own article in response to my article, and you don't have to post a comment on my site saying "Hey, I wrote a response, click on this link to read it" — you simply send a Trackback ping, and something like this line is automatically inserted for you on my site. Nifty, isn't it?

So when do you send a Trackback ping?

Well, ideally whenever you feel that what you write in your article is a direct response to, or a continuation of, or an explicitation of my article.

Many people send pings if they merely link to an article. While this is not considered bad behaviour, it is not really the idea behind Trackbacks. Why would you insert a link to your blog in my blog if all you do on your blog is simply link to my blog? This is illogical.

The logical reason to insert a link to you on my weblog is to tell my readers, "come to me, I have more to say on that topic / I have a different point of view / I have related thoughts". Simple rule of thumb: if you feel that's what you want to tell my readers, then you send the ping. If it's nothing like what you wanted to say, perhaps you should reconsider whether a Trackback ping is the right thing or not.

Anything else to keep in mind?

Write excerpts. If your weblog software allows you to write excerpts of your article, write an excerpt if you send a Trackback ping. If you don't write an excerpt, simply the first 80 characters or so will be sent, and often these 80 characters may not make a lot of sense, so writing a good excerpt is your chance to convince my readers that it's a good idea to follow the link and continue reading on your weblog.

Avoid nonstandard character content. Make sure that the text of your excerpt does not contain any non-SGML characters and that it is stripped of HTML markup. These may be sent to the pinged site and may cause problems. Particularly German umlauts, typographic quotation marks, em dashes and the like may not be displayed as intended.

Be aware of timeout trouble. If the weblog you are pinging is on a slow server, you may receive a timeout error saying that your ping could not be sent. In that case, check the pinged weblog to see if your Trackback ping has arrived or not. In most cases, it will be there, and sending it again is not necessary. This seems to happen a lot with TypePad-hosted weblogs, by the way.

Ping sensibly. Do send pings — by turning thematic links between weblogs into visible and clickable URLs they are a valuable tool for building networks and enhancing cross-weblog communication. And of course they attract readers from other weblogs to your own weblog. But do send pings sensibly: bear in mind that by creating cross-links you want to create knowledge, not link noise.

Update: In a funny case of synchronicity, Martin Röll also writes about Trackbacks today, but he seems to be more interested in Trackbacks as reference information, which seems to be a rather author-centred approach to me.

Update: A German translation of this articleby Majo is available at IT&W.

Posted by Horst on September 1, 2004 11:18 PM to metablogging | Tell-a-friend
Tabor said on September 2, 2004 02:31 PM:

I am a newbie to this blogging thing and appreciated your explanation of Trackbacking. Theoretically trackbacks could create a schizophrenic conversation or reflect a multiple-personality disorder of the website owner(s) and the outside readers would never know...

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