"All weblogs have their useful side
it's the men who write the weblog software I can't abide." - Bertolt Brecht [*]
The humble weblog has finally achieved dominance over Google, the world's most-used search engine. Originally intended as a tool that allowed people to publish their personal diaries, weblog software has swiftly evolved, accreting several "innovations" that have had catastrophic consequences for Google. If you've never heard of the "Trackback", or ever wanted to know, then we have bad news: you're about to become acquainted, whether you like it or not, dear Google user.
A "Trackback" is an auto-citation feature that allows solitary webloggers to feel as if they are part of a community. It's a cunning trick that allows the reader to indicate that they've read a weblog entry, or as the official description from MovableType has it: "Using TrackBack, the other weblogger can automatically send a ping to your weblog, indicating that he has written an entry referencing your original post."
The original blog then sprouts a list of "trackback" entries from other webloggers who have read, and linked to the original article. Kinda neat, huh? Except for one unforeseen technical consequence: the Trackback generates an empty page, and Google - being too dumb to tell an empty page from the context that surrounds it - gives it a very high value when it calculates its search results. So Google's search results are littered with empty pages.
Try this for size: it's a Google query for OS X Panther discussion. In what must be a record, Google is - at time of writing - returning empty Trackback pages as No.1, No.2, No.3 and No.4 positions. No.5 gets you to a real web page - an Apple Insider bulletin board. Then it's back to empty Trackback pages for results No.6, No.7 and No.10. In short, Google returns blog-infested blanks for seven of the top entries.
So who's to blame?
Well, let's assume that Google in good faith simply wants to give us good search results. Not because it's more good, or any less corrupt than any other secretive California corporation, but because it knows that useless searches - as the one we have just described - will repel users. As one reader pointed out: blog noise means life or death for Google.
So suspicions fall on the weblog tools vendors, who have unleashed such a potent toxin that it renders the world's leading search engine a dud. Who are they, exactly?
One reader uncharitably points to a class of 'wiki-wankers' - a term possibly too rude by far for us - meaning the now-unemployed generation of dotcom-era HTML coders who have undoubted skill at producing whizzy, haiku-length hacks, but who can't see the ecological consequences of their own actions. We're pretty sure that "Fill Google with empty pages" wasn't on the Trott's to-do list.
But off they went, and here we are.
When the old longhair database people, now barely remembered, went off and designed information systems, they thought of values such as data integrity and resilience. This created a rigorous and unforgiving peer-review culture, but the values survived. Lacking such peer review, today's wiki-fiddlers can create such catastrophes as Trackbacks with apparent impunity.
In fact publisher Tim O'Reilly cited the Trackback as the greatest innovation of the "Emerging Technology" conference of 2002, before going on to advocate the use of Cascading Style Sheets as a transmission protocol in the aftermath of this year's conference. In such circumstances, you have to conclude that no-one is minding the wiki-fiddlers' playpen.
In the face of concerted attacks to undermine its integrity from link farms and webloggers Google has taken drastic remedial action: abandoning PageRank™ and instating some brutal emergency filters. Time will tell if it can succeed. ®
[*] Very nearly: "All vices have their useful side - it's the men who practice them I can't abide" - Baal