Is W3C Replicating the WordPress Pingback System?

JamesRichmanProfileThis post was contributed by guest author James Richman. James writes about marketing, digital design, entrepreneurship, and technology. He has gained most of his experience from running a variety of his own businesses for more than a decade.

On January 12, 2016, the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) released its first public working draft of Webmentions, but the announcement didn’t feel new. In fact, Webmentions have been around since IndieWebCamp created them in 2013, and top WordPress developers are already using a Webmentions plugin to utilize the tool.

Yet, for those who use WordPress, Webmentions seemed like a retread of WordPress’ Pingback system from the early 2000s, which featured a similar concept.

The Pingback system was invented in 2002 by Stuart Langridge, and in essence, it allowed pieces that were published on different WordPress sites to talk to each other. This is perhaps best explained by walking through an example scenario:

  1. Website A posts a new entry on its blog.
  2. Website B responds to that blog post with its own post and links to the post on Website A.
  3. The Pingback system then notifies Website A that Website B wrote about and linked to its blog post.
  4. Website A then verifies the content and link on Website B. If it is not spam, Website A will post a comment on the original blog post linking to Website B’s post.

It’s important to note a few things about the Pingback system. First, it is exclusively for WordPress sites, and both sites have to enable Pingback for it to work. Second, the whole Pingback system is automated, streamlining the process of trackbacks, which is the manual equivalent of the automated Pingback.

Yet despite its perks, Pingback system usage declined after the automatic system was taken advantage of by spammers.

The issue of spamming and abuse of such a communication channel has long been the problem with this type of communication channel. Prior to Pingbacks, WordPress used a Trackback system that provided the same type of communication.

The only difference between the Trackback system and Pingbacks is that Trackbacks had to be inputted manually. Spamming problems were just as prevalent with trackbacks. In fact the WPTavern site shut down in 2010 because of trackback spam.

So what makes Webmentions different than the Pingbacks and Trackbacks that came before? Well, not all that much. Turns out, Webmentions do the exact same thing as the Pingback system; they just do it better.

The biggest difference between the two is the code they’re composed of. Pingback uses XMLRPC, an outdated approach that encodes data with XML and then transports that data with HTTP. The Pingback system is bulky and slow. Webmentions, on the other hand, uses HTTP and x-www-form-urlencoded content, a much more widely accepted format in today’s world. The result is that Webmentions is much faster and much easier to integrate.

As Pingback’s creator Langridge points out on his blog, “XMLRPC is considerably less popular than it was, and is really heavyweight for this sort of thing. We’ve learned since then that HTTP can actually do all this stuff for us way more simply.” If you haven’t guessed, the Pingback founder has converted to Webmentions too.

Webmention’s growing popularity is due to the tool’s ease of use and the fact that it blocks spam effectively with the Vouch protocol. But Webmentions also look better aesthetically in the comments section. Pingback comments look robotic and aren’t exactly readable; a Pingback comment contains the title of the post that sent the Pingback and an ellipsed summary that doesn’t make much sense.

Webmentions look and feel like human comments with the help of the Semantic Linkbacks plugin. This plugin parses the Webmention linkback and translates it into a full sentence (e.g. ‘Sarah mentioned this post in her article x on site y’) and can even include the author’s profile picture.

Webmentions are quickly replacing the Pingback system because of the tool’s convenience and better implementation to reach a similar goal, and this has been happening prior to W3C’s public endorsement. So what does W3C’s support of IndieWebCamp’s creation mean?

Ultimately, W3C’s announcement will likely help cement Webmention’s place on the internet. And so W3C’s recent push can be and should be considered as an effort to standardize the wild web.

The internet was created to communicate and share information, yet individual pieces of content are unable to communicate with each other as easily as users can. The Pingback system was a worthy, but flawed, attempt to change that, and now Pingback’s legacy survives through the broader support and growing distribution of Webmention’s network. If Webmentions become more popular, maybe one day in the future, they will connect the strands of the web together, so that the web will have earned its namesake in truth.

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