Spam has been a problem since the dawn of the Internet, and it keeps evolving into new forms as increasingly complex solutions arise to conquer it. While some old-school forms of spam have all but been eliminated, modern forms of spam, such as trackback spam, are still problematic for millions of Internet users. The popular blogging platform WordPress features trackbacks as an option, but for many users, the volume of spam associated with trackbacks is too high to warrant their presence.
There are many options available to deal with trackback spam in WordPress, including filtering options, but first, let’s take a high-level look at the root of the problem.
What Is a Trackback?
A trackback is a type of link posted on one blog, pointing to another, which allows the original article creator (and the focus of the link) to track who is linking to their content. It’s a type of communicative exchange that allows multiple bloggers to connect with each other, and when done correctly, it can be beneficial for both parties.
For example, if Blogger One posts an interesting article about kitchen knives and Blogger Two writes a blog about cooking with vegetables, Blogger Two might use a trackback to post a link back to Blogger One’s article. This way, Blogger Two can comment on Blogger One’s kitchen knife post while still allowing his own readers to see his commentary. Blogger One would also receive a notification of the trackback, and would have the option of displaying it as a comment on his own site. If the comment is accepted, it will include an excerpt of the new post and a link back to Blogger Two’s full post.
Pingbacks are a similar, but distinct entity in the world of WordPress, and it’s important to understand the difference. The biggest difference is that pingbacks are automatically sent, whereas trackbacks are specifically created. Let’s take the above example: in this scenario, Blogger One writes a post and Blogger Two simply mentions the article in a new post. Blogger One’s blogging platform (WordPress, in this case) receives a pingback, which can be reviewed and posted as a comment that simply links back to Blogger Two’s site.
Why Does It Matter?
Trackbacks may seem like a superfluous feature, but they can be helpful in community building between multiple blogs. Since bloggers have full control over which trackbacks and pingbacks appear as comments on their site, it’s fairly easy to moderate comments and only accept those that are mutually beneficial. For example, Blogger One may not wish to publish a trackback that harshly criticizes his/her original content.
The exchange of links is also beneficial. Backlinks are an important ranking signal in Google, so the more high quality backlinks you have pointing back to your site, the better. Do take this with a word of caution, however: Google has been known to penalize link exchangers (two parties who post backlinks to each other’s site in an effort to help both rise in rank). So if you engage in trackbacks yourself, make sure you engage with a wide circle of blogs with similar topics.
Trackback Abuse and Spam
Despite the potential benefits of trackbacks when used properly, unfortunately the vast majority of trackbacks on the web are spam. And spam is annoying for everybody.
In the older days of the Internet, comment spam was the most popular way to spam links on external blogs. Spammers would simply post blog comments containing a link pointing back to their site and reap the benefits of the increased traffic and higher page rank. However, modern spam filters and smarter blog structures have done a fantastic job of eliminating most comment spam (and penalizing the spammers behind them).
Trackback spam functions like comment spam in the sense that spammers can post links pointing back to their site on other blogs; however, trackbacks circumvent many of the safeguards intended to protect blogs from receiving comment spam. Some blogging platforms have eliminated trackbacks entirely because trackback spam has run rampant, but WordPress still supports trackbacks for users who wish to use them appropriately.
Trackback spam can be obvious or subtle, depending on the skill and intentions of the spammer. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to deal with this burden.
Solution One: Manually Deleting Trackbacks
If you notice that your blog is receiving an inordinate number of trackbacks, or if the trackbacks you receive seem irrelevant or questionable, you can go through and manually delete the offending trackbacks. All trackbacks appear under the “Comments” section of your WordPress site, where you will be able to review and moderate each individual instance. You can flag these instances as spam, delete them, or approve them if they appear to be natural or valuable to you.
Solution Two: Setting Up a Filtering System
If you receive trackback spam regularly, or if you simply don’t want to spend time deleting them manually, you can add a WordPress plugin that filters incoming trackbacks and automatically weeds out the bad seeds. A filter might not catch every single instance of trackback spam, so it’s possible you’ll still have to go in and manually delete some, but for the most part it is a great long-term solution.
The Simple Trackback Validation plugin is one of the best tools available. Whenever it receives a trackback, the plugin runs a quick check to compare the IP address of the sender with the IP address of the webserver in question. Since trackback spammers tend to rely on bots and third party entities, most IP mismatches are evidence of spam, and are thus thrown out. Next, the plugin tests the URL from the trackback to verify that it links to a real blog. If it does not, the trackback is automatically removed.
There are many filtering and setup options available, so you can customize the plugin to best suit your needs. There are also a wide variety of other plugins for catching trackback spam—this just happens to be one of the most efficient.
Solution Three: Remove All Trackbacks
If you don’t want to manually remove any trackbacks and you aren’t satisfied with setting up a trackback filter, you could also go the extreme route and simply block all trackbacks to your site. If you visit the Options > Discussion panel on the back end of your site, you’ll see an option for “Allow link notifications from other Weblogs (pingbacks and trackbacks),” which is currently checked. Uncheck that option and you will no longer receive any future trackbacks (though current trackbacks will remain until you delete them).
Disabling all future trackbacks isn’t the best option, however, since trackbacks can be a beneficial feature when used responsibly by other bloggers.
How you deal with trackbacks is entirely dependent on your personal preferences:
If your blog doesn’t receive much traffic or doesn’t receive many trackbacks, you might as well stick with manual moderation and deletion moving forward.
If you like the community-building potential of appropriately used trackbacks, it’s probably worth downloading and setting up a plugin that will automatically filter trackback spam.
If you don’t like the trackback feature at all and would prefer not to mess with a new plugin, simply disable all trackbacks and continue blogging.