Robert Hahn

inspired by integration

I'm always interested in infrastructure that brings people together and facilitates communication. I'm currently exploring social software, markup & scripting languages, and abstract games.

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noted on Mon, 09 Feb 2004

Using Google to Create Comment Threads.

I’m really happy that Bob DuCharme wrote his article on creating backlinks, because I have been struggling to write an article using the same technique, but to achieve a different end. In his article, what Bob wanted to do was find a way to work around the web’s fundamental restriction on linking: that it be one way. What he proposed was an easy hack where if he writes an article, he could publish as part of the article a link to Google using his article as a search term. If someone else wanted to write an article that contributed to the discussion that he started, then they too could add the exact same Google link. Now, with both sites so connected, if a viewer were to visit one site, and saw the Google link to the other, they would hit the link, read the other article, hit that article’s Google link, and would then have a way to ‘go back’ to the first article — albeit in a two-step process.

I was surprised that Bob didn’t pick up on the other possibility inherent in this kind of linking. That is what I want to discuss here.

I would like to propose that if any collection of weblog posts related in content were to publish these kinds of Google links, then the search results begin to take on a new kind of significance. The results would illustrate a discussion thread. Let’s take an example, using Alice, Bob, and Carly.

Alice decides to write a post about a recipe, and publishes it to Alice understands the idea of using Google to store discussion threads, so she publishes a link to Google using as the search term.

Bob, also a culinary artist, saw Alice’s article, and clicks on the Google link. No surprise, the search results contain a link to Alice’s article. Bob then decides to write a followup, possibly to suggest an alternate method of preparation for Alice’s recipe. He links to Alice’s post, and he also creates his link to Google, using

Alice decides to check on her article on her web site, and clicks on that Google link she made. She’s delighted that there are now two results: one for her own site, and a new link to Bob’s. She visits Bob’s page, reads his article, and clicks on his Google link. Alas, the discussion seems to have ended there for the time being.

Carly, who’s a fan of anything Bob writes, then goes to Bob’s site and discovers the post talking about Alice’s new recipe. Carly spotted some technical errors in Bob’s post, and decides to write a post of her own suggesting corrections. She includes a link to Bob’s page, and may likewise add her own Google link.

If Alice were then to check on her Google thread link, nothing would change, but if she were to follow Bob’s Google link, she would discover that the conversation had in fact continued on.

This example illustrates several aspects of using Google to show how a discussion evolves.

The first aspect to note is that anyone using the links will not be able to get a bird’s eye view of the entire thread. This is only a real drawback if you’re trying to determine which post was the one that started it all. However, I think there’s a way to make this a bit easier. After checking on a set of Google search results, I was surprised to see that some of the search results had a date tucked in beside the page size. Curious to see how this was done, I view-sourced the link, and found out they were using a meta tag. This is what it looked like:

<meta name="Date" content="2004-01-15" />

My theory is that if web log software made a habit of a) making permalinks to pages with one article on them, and b) adding this date tag, then it would be very possible to trace a series of comments to the oldest one.

If you’re going to explore a conversational thread, then you must follow a page-to-Google-to-page-to-Google pattern of browsing. Not exactly an ideal situation from a usability perspective, but it may well be worth the tradeoff if you’re weighing this approach to creating discussion threads over allowing comments (and therefore comment spam)

There ends up being very little overhead. You don’t have to manage or maintain the thread — Google takes care of that for you. As long as people are creating their links to Google using their article URI as the search term, and also linking to the source article that they’re commenting on, then it’s possible to follow a thread to each and every article.

Things get even more interesting when you play around with some what-if scenarios. What if, for example, Bob not only created the Google link for his own URI, but also added another Google link containing Alice’s article URI? Now you’ve made it convenient for anyone visiting Bob’s page to see both comments to his page and comments to Alice’s page without directly going to Alice’s page first.

Another what-if: What if Alice and Bob were savvy web developers who got their Google API keys, and decided to create an application that displayed the search results of their URI? Now it’s possible to see on their own page the top 10 comments to their own article!

So: I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, and I’ve already adjusted my templates to include a Google Thread link at the top of every page. I’ve also written and deployed a Blosxom plug-in to add the <meta /> date tag for individual entries. In time, I’ll also write a new plug-in that will augment all links I’m citing with an extra link going to Google, so that you can see other posts talking about the article I’m commenting on. The trick, of course, is in the implementation, not the functionality.

Unfortunately, I’m not (yet?) on the who’s who list of online personalities to watch, so almost all my Google Threads will come up zilch, but I hope you’ll realize that it’s not a failure of the idea. If you want to see it in action, then please comment on something I wrote! :)

tall ship