Pingbacks are a technology from 2000′ era of blogging boom. Their role is to let publishers know when someone has linked to their articles from some other part of the web.
The idea is pretty simple – let’s have a protocol that allows content management systems to ping each other when published articles contain references to them. Then referenced systems can take that information and show it inside the article. Usually by displaying them as “look how popular my post is – here are the people who think it is cool!”.
Because it means publishing links to other people, authors are expected to manually approve those links. As you could imagine this quickly overwhelms a novice blogger. And it is unmanageable for more popular one. Especially since pingbacks are very popular SEO tactics to build links.
Big blogging platforms have many problems with pingbacks – not only is abuse by spammers confusing regular bloggers, quite some resources have to go in sending and receiving those pings. I was not surprised to read in January that Typepad is killing the pingback functionality. And I won’t be very surprised if WordPress and Blogger would follow suit.
So, another perfectly good idea is dying because of abuse, lack of innovation and primarily lack of interest. It seems that no one really has vested interest in fixing this technology. Naturally Facebook and Twitter have never really used pingbacks either. The players are more interested in building walled gardens where the information can be more easily controlled and aggregated, on top of that they can then provide better user experience and capture revenue. Along with RSS and Google Reader, pingbacks are another 2000′ era technology that is dying.
What is curious is that RSS and pingbacks were invented to federate the publishing – to enable lots of small, independently run publishing sites. Is there something inherent in federated publishing technologies that makes them unsustainable? Similarly federated authentication and identification haven’t seen much of uptake.
The internet was built on federated, distributed services – web and e-mail being the most prominent ones. But taking a deeper look today we can see that behind the scenes de-federation is happening. Web serving is increasingly becoming the domain of the big guys – Google, Amazon, Facebook and you can add Heroku and some other big hosts. At the same time handling e-mail has become so complicated and costly that it’s not really a federated service any more. Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo mail are dominating the space and cloud is eating even into the enterprise Exchange installations.
Demise of RSS and pingbacks should therefore make us question what is the future of the web we want!
[Technically there are three different technologies - refback, pingback and trackback that serve the same function. For the purpose of this article I called them all pingbacks.]