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Trackback & Trackback Spam

Trackback spam is a relatively new form of spam being used by those nefarious individuals who refuse to work honestly for a living, seeking instead to prey upon others. These individuals are the offal of society, intent upon their own betterment to the detriment of the rest of us. They are the con men, the crooks, the cheaters. They are rampant on the Internet and, due to the anonymity the Internet provides, are proliferating at an alarming rate.

What Is Trackback?

Trackback is a method by which a web author can request notification when someone links to one of their documents (Wikipedia definition). The intent of a trackback link is to identify another resource whose subject matter is related or similar to the document with which the trackback link is associated. Trackback is used extensively by bloggers as a means by which like content within different weblogs can be linked.

Is Trackback Important?

I think isolationism, in a reply made on 27 October 2006 to a post on Digg, put it best:

“The thing that interests me about trackbacks is that they draw on the primary point of HTML: hyperlinking terms to relevant documents. Unlike a simple comment, a hyperlink allows you to follow a link to an entirely different blog that may also be of interest to you, since it has posted about something you have already decided was interesting enough to read (if you’re looking at the comments and trackbacks).”

The very fact that search engines and blog aggregators such as Technorati follow and index trackback links makes them relevant. This works both to a blogger’s advantage and disadvantage. It appears at first glance as though a post with a lot of trackback links should be more important because it is popular. However, if trackback links are spam links (referencing unrelated content), search engines may downgrade a post or even an entire blog.

What Is Trackback Spam?

Trackback spam is generated by unscrupulous web denizens, often through use of automated processes, to indiscriminately prompt any and every blog they can find to generate a trackback link to a website, blog, forum, bulletin board or the like containing UNRELATED CONTENT. Since both visitors and search engines follow trackback links, this can make it appear (erroneously) as though the blogs to which the trackback links are added either relate to the content or, worse yet, endorse it. Since a trackback link to a blog post is initiated from an outside source and is not subject to approval by the webmaster or blogger, it does not in any way represent an endorsement of or relationship with that outside source.

Controlling or Eliminating Trackback Spam

You can eliminate trackback spam by turning off the trackback functionality in your blog. If you do not have control over the internals of your blog, or if you do not know how to turn off trackback, this becomes problematic. Furthermore, by turning off trackback, you are removing an important blogging function; this may ultimately reduce your blog’s importance to visitors, search engines and other legitimate bloggers.

Short of total elimination, there is only so much control a blogger or webmaster can exercise over trackback links added to his or her blog or website. Unlike comments, which can be moderated, trackback links are pretty much out of a blogger’s immediate control. You will most likely have to periodically scan your entire blog checking your trackbacks for spam links. Some blogging software will only permit you to delete one trackback link at a time. Since spammers’ automated software can spew dozens or hundreds of links into a blog in the blink of an eye, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a great deal of your precious time can be wasted removing spam trackback links. In the case of large blogs, this activity may become prohibitive.

A better method for controlling trackback spam links is to perform IP banning. This can be done at a variety of levels. Once you have identified a spam URL in a trackback link, perform an IP Whois to determine the IP address or IP address range of the perpetrator. Keep in mind that many spammers work through a large ISP (Internet Service Provider), so be careful not to ban the IP address range of the entire ISP, or of a proxy server, or you stand to lose many legitimate visitors and damage your reputation in the process.

Is IP Banning Useful?

IP banning can be useful in controlling trackback spam and other forms of website incursions, but its usefulness is limited and it may be difficult or time-consuming to implement. IP banning has limited usefulness because many spammers routinely switch IP addresses frequently or use rotating IP addresses and because your hosting service may resist or ignore requests to ban IP addresses, especially if you make such requests frequently or request a ban on a large IP address block. As I mentioned previously, IP banning can be undertaken at a variety of levels. These levels include law enforcement, ISP, hosting service, account and application level.

Your chances of getting an IP address banned at the law enforcement level are, shall we say, slim to none. Unless an Internet operator is perpetrating fraud involving identity theft, overt invasion of computer resources (cracking) at the corporate level, or theft of financial resources, you might as well not waste your time.

IP banning at the ISP level is typically frustrating and can involve risk. While some ISPs actively attempt to discourage spamming, this usually involves only email spam using fairly unsophisticated techniques. In some cases, spamming and other forms of website incursion are instigated by organized crime syndicates. It is not uncommon to find ISPs in league with or set up by crime syndicates for the express purpose of committing fraud and deception. Therefore, do not waste your time or expose your personal information by attempting to complain about spamming practices to an ISP outside of your home country, especially those outside of the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Australia.

IP banning at the web host level tends to be somewhat more effective than at the two levels previously mentioned. Your success here depends in part upon how much your hosting service desires to keep you, their paying customer, happy. When making a request to your hosting service to ban an IP address or IP address block, use common sense with regard to what you request and provide as much proof as possible relating to any improper access to support your contention that a ban is necessary. A good web hosting service, when receiving a valid request to ban an IP address, may do so not just for your account but across all accounts they service.

If you use FTP to upload files, have your account hosted on an Apache server, have a working knowledge of the .htaccess file structure, and if your hosting service permits you to upload your own .htaccess file, you may be able perform IP blocking yourself at the account level. Be extremely careful if choosing this option; formats for proper utilization of the .htaccess file can be difficult to master. If you set up a rule incorrectly, you may do more harm than good (possibly without realizing your error). A single typo can render your website totally inoperative. (Yep, I’ve done this a couple of times, and can tell you that finding the error can be a real bear.)

Finally, you may be able to perform IP banning at the application level. Your blogging software may have the ability to ban IP addresses. If so, it is relatively easy to type in the offending addresses, although you may have to enter these individually rather than as a range. In addition to being able to ban IP addresses within my blog, I have written software to ban both individual IP addresses and IP address ranges within the content management system (CMS) I have designed to maintain the Ten Spider Enterprises website. If you use a CMS with this capability, application-based IP banning may be relatively easy to accomplish.

Of the five levels of IP banning I have described, only the latter three are truly effective. It is important to note that an IP address banned by your hosting service never reaches your account (domain); likewise, an IP address blocked by .htaccess does not reach your applications (blog, web page requests, etc.). However, an IP address blocked by a single application, such as your blog, can still reach other non-embedded applications, such as your web pages, if these are on the same domain.

Trackback can be an extremely useful tool for the blogger and should be utilized when available. However, in today’s age of internet tricksters and scam artists, trackback spam is a real threat that must be countered with due diligence and aggressive website security strategies.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 23 March 2007.

Follow links to the right to learn more about trackback, trackback spam, ip banning and ip blocking. At the left margin, Related Links address topics of interest pertaining to business and ecommerce. View the Internet Business & eCommerce SiteMap for a complete list of internet business, web business, website promotion and ecommerce topics.

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