Six Apart News & Events

It's all about Context

Andrew Orlowski writes about TrackBack as the catastrophe that is ruining Google searches and cites the "empty" TrackBack listing pages that are returned as evidence. I place the word empty in quotes since these pages do actually contain content (albeit sparse content) -- a TrackBack URL to ping, any TrackBacks that were sent and a link to the original weblog post that is, in fact, a post about the topic that is searched.

Now, I could echo what others have said and say that it is not the job of the Web to conform to Google’s search algorithms and mention that the same exact search that Orlowski did in Google brings TrackBack-listing free results in other search engines but I think that Orlowski unintentionally brings up an entirely different point that is in fact valid.

The reason why these "empty" pages are occurring is not because of some intrinsic flaw in TrackBack, the protocol or the concept, but in the way it's deployed by default with pop-up windows that remove context from the TrackBacks and comments. In the default Movable Type templates, comments and TrackBacks are placed in pop-up windows. While we do provide a link back to the original entry which does give some context, there is probably probably not enough context for someone who is unfamiliar with the weblog format or with TrackBacks.

The use of pop-up windows as a method of TrackBack display came about because pop-ups were a standard method of commenting at the time and we wanted to be consistent with prior interaction models.

However, when it came time to develop TypePad, we intentionally changed the method of comment and TrackBack integration. In TypePad, by default, all comments and TrackBack pings are embedded within the individual entry page for a weblog post. We did this to guarantee that context would always be provided when finding a comment or a TrackBack ping via any search or a linked comment.

We learned that commenting methods evolve and there is in fact a better way to handle the display of weblog post related content. We made a conscious decision to break from common practice for comments (pop-ups) and require the use of individual archives if comments or TrackBacks are enabled. Protocols, applications and companies evolve, and we hope we never claim that anything we do can't be improved.

As we work on Movable Type, we want to integrate what we've learned during the past year of TypePad development. We believe that for comments and TrackBacks to be most efficient, they should be embedded within the page that contains the original weblog post. We practice this on our own weblogs, including this one, so when you do a search (even a Google search) for a term that contains the word "discussion" (and that's really the keyword that is causing all of this), you'll always get the content-rich entry that contains a weblog post, comments and TrackBacks.

This evolution of weblog pages isn't designed to conform to any one search engine or to appease any one journalist, but in order to make sure that each page is as relevant as possible to the topic being discussed. It's exactly this sort of simple, iterative evolution that lightweight publishing tools were designed to enable.