Alas, Poor Trackbacks, We Knew Ye Well

So, the latest issue of php|architect is out (Sept. 2005) and my article is in it. It was a last minute inclusion as a result of a conversation with Marco, but I think it turned out well. Unfortunately, I can’t reproduce the contents of the article here to share them with you all. The topic was trackbacks – what they are, why they are, who uses them, and are they really needed.

In the research that I did for the piece, I dove into the technology, halfway expecting to find some little hidden gem of a protocol that could really be used and extended in some fun ways. Unfortunately, all I found was a technology that seemed to be a “one hit wonder” in the blog world. For those that aren’t sure what I’m talking about when I say “trackbacks”, think of most of the blogs out there (like this one) that have those separate URLs for their trackbacks on their post. The key here is that distinct URL – with it, someone posting on their own blog that has to do with the info on the first blog can zip a little “hey, thanks for the information! I linked to you!” on the original blog. They can help for things like finding the original source of information, and are a handy, simple way to link between pages/blogs with similar information. That’s about where it ends, though. The protocol they use is really nothing more than a glorified HTTP call, and they can be submitted by anyone. There’s no built in security model, no filtering – not much of anything built into the spec. Several pieces of software (like WordPress) have taken steps to try to curb some of the issues with trackbacks, but, in the end, it’s almost not worth it.

Look at trackback spam, for example. In my research, I plugged the word “trackbacks” into google in an attempt to get any and every kind of information on the subject. What did I find? Mostly links to blog posts on various sites that talk about turning off trackbacks. As most people have found, a lot of times, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to leave them on. They usually occupy the same area that the comments for a post reside in, so they clutter things up immensely when someone abuses them. It’s the same kind of situation as comment spam, except a lot harder to catch.

So, if you asked my opinion on trackbacks and their future on the internet (and more specifically blogs), it wouldn’t be a positive one…that is, unless someone out there can give me a good, valid use for them…

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