Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

trackback demystified

08.1.05 @ 06:57:26 pacific

(from Chapter 8, Packing Your Toolkit)

/feed/Tcap.gifTrackback is a little tricky to explain, but the feature is handy and worth taking a moment to understand. In a nutshell, a trackback link beneath a blog entry is similar to a permalink, but with a trick up its sleeve: It allows individuals to notify you and your readers that they’ve responded to your entry on their own blogs.

The main reason bloggers sometimes choose to respond on their own blogs rather than simply posting a comment beneath your entry is that they want their own blog visitors to read what they’ve written and perhaps contribute to the conversation. Also, bloggers have more control over the text on their own sites and can correct typos or otherwise edit content after posting.

In theory, the ability to carry on a conversation across blogs is compelling. In practice, trackback can be a bit daunting. It’s likely that the mechanisms will soon be transparent, but for now, stepping through a manual trackback scenario is probably the best way to illustrate how trackback works.

Aunt Magda Masters Trackback
Let’s say your Aunt Magda really likes your latest blog entry about frog butter and would like to share it with her own readers. On her blog, she starts a new entry, telling her friends why she thinks they’ll like what you posted, along with a short excerpt from your blog. Because she’d like her readers to be able to click a link in the body of her entry to go to your blog and read your full text, she clicks the permalink beneath your entry. A window opens with a web address that remains unique to your original frog butter entry, even after it’s archived. Martha copies the permalink address and pastes it into the anchor tag for the link in her own entry. So far, so good. Her readers can now happily read her commentary and the short excerpt from your site, and then, if they like, click the link to read the full text on your blog.

But you and your readers still don’t know that Aunt Magda started a side conversation about frog butter on her blog, so she next clicks the trackback link under the entry on your blog. A window opens displaying a brand new Web address, the unique trackback address for the entry. Magda pastes this trackback address into a special trackback field in her own blog. The field may be called something cryptic like “Trackback an URL” (in WordPress) or “URLs to Ping” (in Movable Type). In addition to pasting the unique trackback address, Magda probably also types in a headline, copies an excerpt from the new entry on her own blog, adds the permalink for her entry, and finally clicks to post.

Now everyone refreshes their browsers, and on your blog, you see that in the parentheses after the trackback link for your frog butter entry, the zero has updated to the number one. If you click on the trackback link, the window that opens now includes her headline and excerpt, along with a live link to her blog. (On some blogs, trackback content appears automatically with any comments on the entry’s permalink page.) Subsequent trackback links by other bloggers who comment remotely will update the trackback number on your blog and so you always know how many other sites are discussing a specific entry on their blogs.

More Trackback Goodness (and Badness)
A conversation is now taking place across blogs thanks to trackback. Not only that, your search ranking has been enhanced since Magda’s blog software probably pinged the major search and aggregation sites and their ranking algorithms will reward you for Magda’s trackback link.

What’s the bad news? What else? Spam. Like battling the spam that plagues email itself, it is a constant game of whack-a-mole. There are anti-spam plugins for all the major blog applications, but it is likely that you will sometimes have to go in and manually remove spam links when particularly virulent specimens make it past your safeguards.

OK, there’s one more bad thing. Because only the blognoscenti understand trackback, not that many people use it yet. But as automation and standard practices improve, this ability to converse across blogs promises to be among the most powerful features in blogging.


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