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Trackbacks – Are They Dying?

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Steve Rubel at MicroPersuasion thinks trackbacks are dying. He cites tests of news trackback features at CNET and Yahoo that didn’t last as indicators that enthusiasm about trackback is waning.

Rubel may be right, unfortunately. If so, that’s too bad – the concept of the Web becoming even more dynamic and conversational is appealing, and the fact that some major news sites tried to extend the trackback concept beyond the blogosphere was encouraging to Web 2.0 enthusiasts. Unfortunately, there are some significant issues with the the current state of trackback technology. Perhaps the biggest is trackback spam – bloggers report that the majority of trackbacks they receive aren’t legitimate.

The other is the somewhat balky nature of the technology itself. While some trackback automation exists, often a blogger must hunt down an obscure link in the story or blog post that he’s commenting on, figure out if the trackback link shown is the actual link or opens a popup with the real link, copy the link, return to his own software, and paste the link in a trackback box. I’ve found that the explaining trackbacks to new bloggers isn’t easy, and the process proves to be confusing. Even experienced bloggers may avoid the whole hunt-copy-paste process because it’s time consuming.

That’s particularly true if they are posting from something other than a laptop or desktop, i.e., a PDA, phone, etc. A less critical, but still annoying, issue is that the nature of trackback posting sometimes results in snippet gibberish or an oddly titled comment on the target site. This is far from insumountable, but the nature of a trackback usually means that it’s much less meaningful than a hand-written comment.

I think the only thing that can save trackbacks is far better automation and improved security/spam prevention. The automation piece is doable – it already operates nicely within specific platforms like WordPress. Stopping spam is a more difficult issue, but some type of third-party authentication process could take most of the burden off site owners to approve each new commenter.

Despite the stalling of trackbacks, big news sites still want to keep a conversation going. Just about all have comment features now, and USAToday’s recent redesign was all about turning the site into a news community. With or without trackbacks, Web 2.0 is still very much in vogue.

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