What exactly are trackbacks?

This week I spent about six hours manually cleaning up more than 57,000 spam trackback links on a website, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned to save you from a similar fate. Have you heard of trackbacks? They were supposed to be a Search Engine Optimizer’s dream come true, but they’ve morphed into a nightmare of spam.

What is a trackback?

If you are writing a blog, or using blog software to create your website (this means you, my WordPress, DNN, Drupal, Telligent and Moveable Type friends), there’s a built-in feature called trackbacks. This feature gives the site owner a heads-up when another site has linked to your site. Along with the notification, the actual link text used on the linking site shows up as a comment on your blog or page (if you have Trackbacks enabled).

When Trackbacks came on the scene, the SEO portion of my brain went crazy — I thought this would be the best thing on the Internet. Site owners would have a real record of who was linking to their site and the root text would be displayed also! (Root text is the set of words used in the link — the blue underlined stuff.)

If a website links to your site and puts important keywords in the root text, you get a big boost in the search engines for those keywords. With trackbacks, the site owner would be able to create a report to pinpoint the jump in rankings as they correspond with trackbacks. Conceptually, it’s a Web nerd dream.

The opposite is a nightmare

As with most things that are awesome on the Web, trackbacks fell prey to spammers. These nefarious souls figured out that they could put their keywords into the root text and create a backlink to their site as a trackback on your site. In that way, the site owner gets no benefit from trackbacks, but the spammers get credit in the engines for sending spam links to every legitimate site they can send their robots to.

That’s why most trackback links now look like this […buy Viagra and great cheap pens online now…] and you’ll see thousands of them show up on an unattended site. They’re deployed by spam robots and they spider the Internet adding these trackbacks to your images, page content and blog posts. How delightful.

Disable your trackbacks

It pains me to say this, but the real answer to trackbacks is to just turn them off. In order to really get rid of the robots, you should go so far as to delete the trackback module from your server and throw some loose sand over the place where the module used to be to throw the robots off the scent.

In some future spam-free utopia, I still think trackbacks would be useful, but until the Internet finds a way to halt these spammers, trackbacks will have to be on hold. Rats.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.