Why Refback Still Matters

Yes, even in the age of the Modern Web™

Let’s say you have a blog and you just published an article. Ideally, that article will be shared on the web, linked from other people’s blog posts and mentioned in social media comments. These links that point back to your article are fittingly called LinkBacks.

Monitoring these linkbacks is important to website owners and bloggers. They allow you to follow the spread of your articles through the internet. The idea is; when someone on the internet links to your article, you get a linkback notification from them. Some bloggers choose to display those publicly (usually under the article), some of them only save them to their database while others just disable the functionality entirely. Regardless of your intent, you will eventually receive them. Handling them will prove useful to you.

Before I explain the possible use cases, let me give some background information on them. There are 4 main methods of monitoring Linkbacks. Refback, Trackback, Pingback and Webmention. They each have their own way of sending/receiving mentions of your website.

  • Refbacks use the standard Referer header
  • Trackbacks use an HTTP Post request
  • Pingbacks use an XMLRPC call
  • Webmentions also use an HTTP Post request

Now, let’s see how you might receive them. If someone using Wordpress puts the URL of your blog post in their blog post, WordPress will try to send you a Trackback. If you’re also using WordPress or another platform with Trackback support, you will be able to save them or display them.

Some websites support Trackbacks and Pingbacks while others use Refbacks. Webmentions are an entirely different story. Its usage is quite limited at this time, although its popularity is increasing with plugins for WordPress and hosted services like “Known” (a blogging platform with Webmention support) . The point I’m trying to get across is; every website supports a different set of Linkback methods. By picking a single one, you are greatly reducing the amount of information you can get.

Another really common case is, the website that is linking you doesn’t support any linkback methods. This is becoming more and more likely with the popularity of static blogs and centralized social networks. In these cases; your blog won’t be notified of any mentions.

Unless you have support for Refbacks. They have the advantage of not needing any support from the linking website. When one of their readers click your link and arrive at your website, their browser will tell you where they came from. A small drawback to this approach is, you won’t be notified of their link until someone clicks on it. This usually happens pretty quickly and when it does, it provides valuable data.

For example, the last few days I’ve been logging referrers and analyzing them with a small Go program. By doing this, I’ve been notified of

  • Reddit comments linking my articles
  • Tweets that link my articles
  • Gitter chat rooms where people mentioned a post
  • An Arch Wiki page with a link to one of my blog posts

As far as I know, none of these services would have sent me any Linkbacks from their part. Using refbacks allowed me to find outside discussions that are relevant to me. By analyzing their referrers further, one can find out which links bring more readers and how much of their readers come from social media or search engines. This is precisely what Google Analytics does, but doing it yourself can give you more flexibility.

If you’re concerned about refback spam, it’s important to remember that it happens with every Linkback method. Trackbacks and Webmentions on WordPress use Akismet to filter the bad actors out. Another common method is downloading the referring page and checking it to see if it really has a link to your page. I don’t publish Linkbacks on my website yet, so small measures are enough to keep all the spam out for me.

I am a big fan of Webmentions and I’ll probably write a script to receive them later. But their use is still very low; and even if it were as popular as Trackbacks and Pingbacks combined, it would still leave out most of the web. This is why even when I implement support for Webmentions, I will still pay close attention to Refbacks.


Thanks for reading my article. You can find related information on Wikipedia and on the IndieWeb wiki.



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