Some time ago, WordPress implemented a feature designed to make it easier for blogs to talk to each other. This feature, known as trackbacks, was an interesting concept with a flawed execution. The system has gone through several changes to reach what it is today, and many SEO professionals claim it can be a powerful tool for increasing pagerank. Unfortunately, when used improperly, trackbacks can do far more harm than good. What are trackbacks, how do they work and how can you use them effectively?
What are Trackbacks and how do They Work?
Originally, trackbacks were designed by the creators of the MovableType blog platform. They were quickly implemented as an automatic feature in WordPress. A trackback is essentially an automatic ping from one blog to another. How does it work?
• The first blog publishes a piece of quality content
• The second blog decides to comment on the post from the first blog, but does not want to use that blog’s comment section. Instead, the second blog posts their own post, referencing the post from the first blog. They can then use WordPress to send a trackback to the first blog
• The first blog finds the trackback displayed as a comment on their post. It shows the originating post on the second blog
The idea is that the audience of the second blog is directed to the first blog to participate in the conversation. Unfortunately, this method is obscure and not very secure, which led to a widespread abuse of the system. Black hat SEO bloggers could very easily generate fake trackbacks, which simulated legitimate links from high PR sites.
What Happened to Trackbacks?
With an easily abused system, WordPress needed to change something. The result is known as pingbacks, though many people today use the trackbacks name for the new process as well. Trackbacks and pingbacks serve the same purpose; to connect to blogs for a conversation. Pingbacks, however, are much more secure. It’s difficult for a black hat blogger to fake a pingback. The pingback process is a little simpler and a little more streamlined.
• The first blog posts a quality piece of content
• The second blog posts their own piece of content, linking to the post on the first blog, adding to the discussion
• The first blog automatically receives a pingback, which includes a link to the originating site. The owner of the first blog can easily check the originating site to make sure the post is legitimate
The automated nature of the pingback system requires that the admin of the first blog approve the pingback before it is displayed on their blog. If they do approve it, it displays as a comment and links back to the second blog, creating mutual links. If they do not, it simply sits on the second blog as an incoming link.
The Dangers of Uncontrolled Trackbacks
Consider the examples of trackbacks above. When the first blog and the second blog are legitimate, a deep and fruitful conversation can occur. The audiences of both blogs can get involved in the discussions and the traffic benefits everyone involved. What happens if, on the other hand, the second blog was a content scraper?
The first blog posts a piece of content. The second blog scrapes that content and posts it on its own. The content links back to the post on the first blog, automatically sending a trackback. Now, if the first blog automatically publishes trackbacks, two things have happened. First, the first blog has an incoming link from a spam blog. Second, the first blog now has an outgoing link to a spam blog. Even though the entire system was automated, it makes no difference to Google. As far as the search engine is concerned, the first blog is now in league with spammers.
Under no circumstances should your blog have the autopublish option enabled for pingbacks or trackbacks. All it does is enable spammers while filling your own blog with spam comments.
Trackbacks for Detecting Content Theft
You should not disable trackbacks entirely, for one simple reason. In the above example, when a content scraper steals your content with a link to your own blog in it, their publication of that content sends you a trackback. You can check your trackbacks and find these links, waiting for your approval. Obviously, you won’t approve them. What you will do, however, is investigate the domain.
Any time you receive a trackback, your first move should be to visit the site and see what sort of content it posts. Is it relevant to your niche? Is it a spam blog looking to steal your traffic? Is it a legitimate, high pagerank site participating in your conversation? These situations require different responses.
When a legitimate site links to your content with a trackback, it’s your own judgment call whether you want to accept and link back to their site.
• If you do link back, you are establishing a reciprocal link. To Google, these links might appear to be link swaps, which do nothing for your SEO. If the originating site has a higher PR than yours, linking back to them will do comparatively little. If your PR is higher than theirs, the incoming link will help you to a minor degree, but your PR power will help them more
• If you do not link back, you have a one-way incoming link. Incoming links from legitimate sites are powerful tools in SEO. If the originating site has a high PR, you’re going to receive quite a bit of benefit from the link. If they have lower PR, you still receive some benefit
In the end, with a legitimate site, it depends on whether you value the incoming link over the good will of reciprocal links.
The entire equation changes for a content scraper. Obviously, you do not want to accept linking back to a spam page, especially one stealing your content. What you want to do instead is to report the site to Google as a scraper page.
The Threat of Negative SEO
One persistent paranoid rumor floating around the world of SEO is that of negative SEO. The idea that a botnet of thousands of scraper blogs suddenly target your blog, creating a massive influx of pingbacks and backlinks, all of which come from known spam sites and all of which harm your pagerank.
Negative SEO attacks like this do exist, but they are extremely rare. Even when they do occur, the targets tend to be very high profile sites. The average blog will never see a large-scale negative SEO attack. However, you can still protect yourself from the potential of an attack. First, make sure your trackbacks are set to manual approval. Second, add known spam domains to your spam filters. Third, if you do find large numbers of bad incoming links, make use of the Google Disavow Links tool. The search engine implemented this tool specifically to help sites recover from past black hat link building techniques. It works the same way to recover from a negative SEO attack.
The moral of the story is to be careful with trackbacks. It’s possible to use them effectively — in fact, they can be powerful tools — but the potential for misuse is high. When in doubt, don’t approve your trackbacks.