Problem with Trackbacks

Recently, I got a trackback from a blog that seemed to have very little in common with my blog or the specific post I had. Upon further review, I found that the blog belonged to purveyors of a nasty little program, called DigBack. This is how they pitch the idea:

So your a blogger, and you want to get more people reading your blog posts. DigBack is the tool that will help you. When you make a blog post, that’s it, your post is published for someone to read if they happen to come visit your blog. So how do you get traffic immediately to your latest posts? Easy, with DigBack. DigBack will find and locate blog posts from other bloggers, and notify those blog posts that you have a blog post with similar content. This is all done through the trackback system. Say you write a blog post titled “Donald Rumsfeld Resigns”. DigBack will find posts from other blogs that have written something about Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, and ping their blog post using the trackback protocol. Now there is a link on that other person’s post linking back to your article. People that visit that person’s article, can click the link to see what you have to say about Donal Rumsfeld. DigBack will continually look for similar posts all around the Internet on a continual basis.

Despite the spelling mistakes, it sounds promising…I looked further to find out how they establish whether two blogs are similar…Here is the relevant section from the FAQs:

How relevant are the blog posts DigBack finds?
Currently all posts found are based on the unique keywords you use in your post titles. The new version of DigBack expected to be released soon uses artificial intelligence to determine if found blog posts are similar to blog posts you write, making the system even more accurate.

No wonder, I got trackbacks that did not make any sense…Now my intention in discussing DigBack is not to encourage its use but rather discuss the limitations and potential abuses of the underlying Trackback system. Trackbacks were originally conceived and developed by Six Apart. The idea behind it was to enable distributed discussions that can be carried out on multiple blogs, with trackback providing the mechanism to cross-reference these different threads. For those of you who want to know more about trackbacks, Douglas Karr and Wikipedia have excellent descriptions:

The Trackback mechanism used to be a great way to carry out distributed conversations, but as the size of blogosphere has increased, this mechanism has come in for a lot of abuse from a number of bad agents. Some of these abuses have been:

  1. Spam Trackback: The goal of Trackback spam is to insert an outgoing link on a blog to divert traffic to a totally unrelated URL for various financial gains. Typically, sites generating spam trackbacks don’t have a related post, or content related to the target blog.
  2. Referral spam: The spammer links to the target blog from their site, and then pings target blog through their link, thus creating a reference and link to their site on the statistics referral log of the target blog. Now many people list “referrals” on their site publicly, so by spamming referral logs, not only does the spammer get a link on referral log (which is picked up by Google) but may even get a link on the main page of the target blog.
  3. Robo Trackbacks: These are programs like DigBack, that are slightly more sophisticated than trackback spam in the sense they send out more targeted pings to a small set of blogs based on a computed criterion. This computed criterion can range from simple keyword matching, tag matching to more sophisticated natural language analysis based matching of blog content.
  4. Random Trackbacks: At times, in order to attract attention of a fellow blogger, bloggers send trackbacks. Such trackbacks can become a nuisance if the bloggers don’t take the time to read and identify a specific related post based on which to connect with the target blogger.

The underlying weakness of the trackback system is that it treats all blogs the same despite their community behavior. So there is no quick way to a blogger receiving a trackback to quickly judge the quality of an incoming trackback. Also, if a blogger spams another blog, there are no penalties for such actions. What is needed is a better carrot and stick system such that it provides appropriate incentives to all bloggers to maintain the correct linking behavior. Some blog rating services like Authorati, the good blogs might help a little bit here but they need to provide better integration with the trackback system…Anybody up for developing such a system?


4 thoughts on “Problem with Trackbacks

  1. This is unfortunate – trackbacks were great for carrying on conversations between blogs that referred to each other. If the spammers take over, it will cease to be useful.

    I think a rating/authority system for blogs or authors (or both) would be great – it would be especially useful if the software for blogging platforms could programmatically access this system to automatically filter incoming comments and trackbacks. This would enable blog authors to set an “authority-level” filter, rather than having to turn off comments or trackbacks altogether.

  2. I agree, there needs to be a solution developed. It seems to me that this would not be too difficult (in theory). One other option is to install an advanced trackback moderator on your site. WordPress has a few, I’m sure there are others. Adding rules or a bayesian filter would increase their usefulness.

  3. DigBack was not developed to be used as a spam tool. I do agree, the version you test did come up with a lot of junk posts that weren’t relevant to what you might be writing about. Please give then version a try and let me know what you think. 95% of all the junk posts have been dropped with the title and body text classification. Not to shabby.

    I’ll email you a link to the new version.

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