Are Blog Trackbacks Conversations?

    August 29, 2005

Steve Rubel’s post in which he explains his reason for rejecting a trackback from Jeremy Pepper has produced a blizzard of comments-26, along with three trackbacks, at last count.

In case you missed it, here’s the story in a nutshell: Jeremy posted an item in March about PR’s role in customer service. Steve posted a related topic last week. Jeremy went back to his post and updated it with a trackback to Steve’s new post. Steve rejected the trackback, noting, “A trackback is a continuation of a dialogue, not a traffic-building gimmick” and “this tactic is bordering on trackback spam” and finally “This is about following blog etiquette.”

I’m not about to criticize either Steve or Jeremy. Micropersuasion is Steve’s blog and he can do with it as he pleases. But he raises two interesting issues that are worth a few sentences. First is the assertion that “a trackback is a continuation of a dialogue.” I know that dictionary and encyclopedia entries are of limited use in a discussion like this, but I checked out Wikipedia anyway and found no reference to dialogue. Wikipedia defines a trackback as “a mechanism used in a blog that shows a list of entries in other blogs that refer to a post on the first blog.” So the question becomes whether a trackback is, indeed, a continuation of a dialogue. My definitive answer: It depends.

Sure, it could be, if the blogger creating the trackback intended it that way. But I can’t uncover any requirement that it assume the characteristics of a conversation. As I see it, a post to a blog is dated, but it is also permanent (hence the notion of a permalink). Jeremy’s post may have appeared in March, but if I searched the right combination of terms, that five-month-old post could appear at the top of a Google query. In this sense, it’s not only a blog post, but an article that could be useful to somebody conducting research. As such, I find no breech of etiquette in an effort to keep the post current. Some argue that Jeremy should have added some text; Steve thinks he should have produced an entirely new post. These may have been good ideas, but on the other hand, the addition of the trackback is, as an integral part of the post itself, an update.

In any case, I don’t believe this use of trackback has anything to do with dialogue, nor does it need to.

I might question Jeremy’s motives if the trackback had no connection to the theme of Steve’s post, but in fact they were directly related. And while I don’t know it for a fact, I seriously doubt Jeremy would even consider using Micropersuasion to build traffic for his own blog. But that’s only because I know the guy. Ultimately, the issue comes down to currency. Is the revision of an old post with updated links a legitimate practice? I think it is, by virtue of the fact that the post will continue to stand on its own as a permalink.

The second issue that arises out of the debate is whether there is any defined blog etiquette at this point. While a Google+Search”>Google search reveals nearly 15,000 posts containing the term, a quick review of the top posts reveals most are bloggers offering up their own opinions. It’s not like email etiquette, where defined guidelines have emerged and can easily be found. Blog etiquette is still evolving, and while there are certainly egregious violations (e.g., stealing somebody’s feed and posting it as your own blog entry), something like Jeremy’s use of trackbacks remains in a fuzzy grey area.

As I say, I’m not criticizing Rubel, who (like all of us) can do what he thinks is right with his blog. As for me, I wouldn’t have given the trackback a second thought.

Reader Comments

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.