Creating Compelling Content

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We’re lucky at the University of Notre Dame. We know most of our intended audience will eventually come to our sites. We have a captive audience of Irish fans, students, faculty, Notre Dame alum wannabes, and peer institutions.

And then again, we’re not so lucky. We don’t always have professional writers to craft our web pages. We often are called upon to write our text ourselves.

And we aren’t always great, even good writers.

So how do we create web pages that contain decent content?

First, I believe we have to ask ourselves, “what is good content?” For a higher ed site such as ours, the answer will differ from that for a retail site. However, a few things are constant, no matter what kind of site we’re crafting.

Here’s a checklist you can use to see if your site meets this guideline and other good practices.


Ask Yourself Suggestions
Is your content unique? There are thousands of higher ed websites. Does your site provide information that can’t be found elsewhere (even on other Notre Dame sites)? If not unique, is there a valid reason for including it on this site?
Is your content useful? Think of the goals of your site and of your visitors. Does the content help fulfill those goals?
Is your content easy to understand? Remember that you have all kinds of visitors to your site: high school students and their parents, non-English speakers, faculty, and just plain curious folks. Write so that just about anyone can understand what you’re saying.
Are your links valid? Linking to other sites is a good idea; however, those sites could change without you noticing it. Set up a regular schedule to check your site’s links. Here’s an easy-to-use web service for link checking.
Do your graphics or photos that help visitors understand your content? While photos are nice to have on websites, make sure that they actually add value to the page. Make sure they relate to the content and help the visitor relate to or understand the content.
Did you limit your ideas to one per paragraph? Several short paragraphs can get the point across to your visitors better than can one long paragraph. If the points are short enough, consider making them into a bulleted list (easily scannable).
Did you put your important content first?  Visitors will typically read only the first one or two words of each paragraph when scanning the page. Be sure to put the most important points first so that your visitors won’t miss them.
Is your content up-to-date? Old information is useless to your visitor and destroys the credibility you’ve worked so hard to establish.
Do you have an FAQ section? Frequently asked questions can be very helpful. However, make sure that these are truly FAQs and not simply information you haven’t taken the time to organize.A good example of an FAQ section that is based on feedback from callers is the one on the Notre Dame Human Resources Department’s site. This FAQ section is built on questions asked of the department’s help desk and is regularly updated as the questions change with the time of year.
Have you turned long paragraphs into bullet lists when possible? Bulleted lists can help break up the page for easier scanning. This will help visitors find information they might have otherwise overlooked.
Do your headings help your visitors find things on your page? For more information on using headings to organize (and even write) your content, check out “Five Things You Should Know about Headings.”
Is your text left-aligned? Although the default is left-aligned text, sometimes we insert images so that the text wraps on the right of the image. While this can seem, perhaps, a little less boring than right-aligned images, images to the right help visitors quickly scan and read your page without having to refocus and readjust to the varying margins of text to the right of images.


Playing “Where’s Waldo?” with Your Links is Not a Good Idea

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Our designers and developers do incredible work on our websites. They make them lovely to look at and delightful to use, so why don’t our clients like links that are blue? (Sorry, it’s Monday morning as I write this, and I couldn’t resist trying to tie in a rhyming cliché.)

But it’s true. Our sites are beautiful, and some clients insist that links be hidden in the text without any color or underlining that would identify them as links. They feel that the look of the page is diminished by the change in text style.

When my children were small, the Where’s Waldo? books were popular. They loved to try to find Waldo among all the colors and shapes on the pages. But visitors to your website are most likely not looking for Waldo; they’re looking for specific information. So why do we make them search for links in the name of aesthetics?

Which is more important? Looks or findability?

We in Marketing Communications (fka AgencyND) know in our guts that it’s wrong to hide links, but what do others say about it? To find out, I did a little research. And the experts (Nielsen, et al.) say

If you actually want people to click on your links, then you have to make it obvious that they can and should be clicked.

Baymard Institute, Formatting Links for Usability

We know that visitors to websites don’t read the entire page on first site; they scan the page, looking for information of interest.  We encourage lots of headers and bulleted lists in order to make the page easier to scan. Why wouldn’t we point out relevant information that is linked to by making it stand out?

What do the experts say about link formatting?

Experts don’t always agree on how to make the links stand out.

  • Some say the links must be blue, with different shadings indicating status (unclicked, clicked, active).
  • Others say color doesn’t matter at all—that underlining is the way to indicate links.
  • Some say that either way is okay, as long as the method of showing links is consistent within the site.
  • Still others call for a standard among all websites for usability purposes:

Users get confused if link colors are [non-standard]. Result: Users waste their time figuring out where to click, while spending less time reading and interacting with the sites. Even worse: Users may give up finding they content they are looking for.

Bohmann, Against Non-Standard Link Colors

Thus, the research and general opinion of usability experts seem to recommend we:

  • Underscore all links, no matter the color of the text.

…Only 27% of the sites [100 top American eRetail sites] still use the ‘standard’ blue color for unvisited links….We can therefore conclude that blue/purpose ‘standard’ no longer exists…the main way of characterizing a link is not by using a particular color, but by underlining the text itself.

Carton, Should hypertext links be blue and purple?

  • Make links easy to spot and distinguish as links.

Text link wording should also be emphasized to make it easy to read. Formatting can be used to make links bold or underlined and stand out more so they are not hard to find, allowing visitors to easily find web page links. Good wording and formatting of navigation links give websites better usability.

Factors Affecting Website Usabilty

  • Indicate status of links (unvisited vs. visited vs. active) by saturation of color in order to help visitors keep from clicking repeatedly links they’ve already visited.

…Knowing which pages they’ve already visited frees users from unintentionally revisiting the same pages over and over again….When visited links don’t change color, users exhibit more navigational disorientation in usability testing and unintentionally revisit the same pages repeatedly.

Nielsen (

Changing the color of visited links has been part of Web browsing since … 1993, so it’s completely standard; almost all users understand it….Further, empirical observations from user testing have identified several severe usability problems on sites that violate this convention.

Nielsen (

  • Blue is (probably) the best color to use for links.

Since the inception of the Internet, the color of the hyperlink had been blue. Because of this, Internet users had been “trained” to think all blue colored words on a webpage as hyperlinks. Because of this, the blue-colored hyperlink has a higher probability of being clicked than other hyperlinks of other color.

The Best Color of Hyperlink

In other words, make it easy for visitors to quickly scan the page and locate links in which they have an interest and be able to tell which links they visited already so they don’t go in circles. As anyone who has taken training from me will know, one important key to a successful website is

Keep your visitors happy!

So how do you keep your visitors happy with regards to links? Share your ideas and results!


I say “probably” because you can find experts who say that red is clicked on more often than blue. There may be some accessibility issues associated with red, though, especially if the link is indicated by color only and not underlined. (But that gets back to the mantra of “never depend on color alone” for the Web since many users have difficulty distinguishing certain colors.)

Top Considerations for Choosing URLS

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Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame
Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame

Boy, we’re lucky to be at Notre Dame!

No, seriously. Besides the fact that we work at a premier university, if we’re wanting to make sure our websites have a fighting chance in the bit world of the Internet, just having the “” brand adds to the value of any Web address we can think of for our various departments and programs.

But that aside, how do we pick out the best URLs for our new sites?

Well, the answer I give today is different from what others would have said two, five, or 10 years ago, and will be different from what I might say in another year or two. Search engines are adapting to the “new world” of SEO and how Webbies try to get their sites noticed, and the rules will change as the Web evolves.

But right now, here is what the experts are saying we should consider when picking a URL:

  • Keep it short. Longer is more SEO friendly and more descriptive, but harder to type without errors and harder to remember. Also, current (2008) research[1] showed that long URLs tend to be ignored, with users clicking on shorter URLs more than twice as often.
  • Keep it simple. Easy to remember is a key.
  • Make it descriptive. If the URL doesn’t describe or somehow obviously relate to your site, chances are that your users will not remember it very long. (Will users remember that ace stands for Alliance for Catholic Education?  Or tas stands for Teachers as Scholars? Maybe so. Know your audience and how they think.)
  • Make it memorable. It’s easier to remember impact than Economic Impact Report (
  • Make it easy to spell (versus easy to misspell). Otherwise, reserve likely misspellings of the URL for redirects. (When deciding on a URL for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, we “argued” about whether users would misread or misspell the one chosen: Two d’s or one?
  • Make sure it’s not ambiguous. (Gee, do I spell out department-of-french? Or was it dept-of-french? Or was it just French?)
  • Make sure there are no “words within words.” Beware of accidentally running together words that could be taken apart in different combinations—For instance, Peterson’s Experts would not want to use
  • Use keywords when possible. Would your users be looking for you under department or French?
  • If you must use hyphens or underscores, which some argue helps search engines find the keywords easier, use hyphens. Although underscores are gaining in acceptance, hyphens still rule. Better yet, though, would be to leave out the hyphens since users tend to forget them and thus make errors when trying to type in your URL.
  • Use lowercase. For most of us, the use of capital letters in URLs will not make much different; most servers these days use Microsoft operating systems that don’t care whether you use upper- or lower-case lettering. Also, search bots “learn” to tell the difference and route traffic to the site in spite of any capitalization issues. However, some experts feel that with the growth of open source software, the problems with different cases will increase. Thus, at Notre Dame, we avoid the case issues by defaulting (through Conductor) to all lower-cased urls, including subpage names.
  • Make sure it’s not spammy. If you think your URL might be considered spammy, check it out at before requesting it.

Consider the following URLs in use by Notre Dame. A lot of thought and discussion went into choosing these URLs, and the final choice was often a compromise. Choosing the correct URLS is not always as easy as one would think.

What would you have chosen as a URL, based solely on the criteria above?


Current URL
Alternative SEO-Friendly URL
(much longer)
Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics
Alliance for Catholic Education
Department of Applied and   Computational Mathematics and Statistics
Applied Investment Management
Notre Dame Magazine
Robinson Center
Strategic Research Investment

What’s your least favorite URL? Most memorable? Have you experienced choosing the wrong one? If so, how did you work around that? Let us know!

[1] 2008 MarketingSherpa eyetracking heatmaps show short URLs are clicked 2.5x more often than long URLS (

A Search Box by Any Other Name …

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Web Search Box ExamplesI recently studied a number of blogs and sites talking about placement and design of search boxes and buttons. While there is very little data on why decisions were good or bad, there are plenty of opinions as to what makes a good button/box and placement good or bad.

Search Box Location

The one point all the authors agreed on was that the search function should be at the top middle or right of the page and easily distinguished from other items on the page. (You will note that Harvard failed in this in that it includes search as part of a menu line. If you click on “search,” you are directed to another search page.)

Wikipedia moved its search box from the left sidebar to the top right corner based on common user expectations (most search boxes are in the top right corner), research about the search box size and how that would affect the Wikipedia layout, and actual Wikipedia research lab results.

Reasons cited for having the search box in the top-right corner include:

  • Expectations of users
  • Better use of site real estate
  • Immediate access to the browser scrollbar
  • Easier to maintain fixed standard width from page to page

Icon vs. Words in Search Boxes

While no one gave any reason why the magnifying glass icon should not be used, of the 11 major sites I checked, only four used it, and three used it in conjunction with the word “search.” Bing was the sole site that used only the input box and icon, with no accompanying text.

Only one site (NPR) used the word “go,” and again, that was in conjunction with the word “search.”

One site (AltaVista) used the word “find” instead of “search.”

Two sites (Boston Univ. and Wikipedia) used language within the input box, with Boston clarifying that the search included by the Web and directory.

Wikipedia’s technical blog still retains the “search” and “go” language; however, in the English version of Wikipedia, the search box contains the word “search” and the magnifying glass icon. For them, the “go” function was meant to find articles with the same title as entered in the search term. On my quick review of these sites, however, that wasn’t always the case;’s “go” function gave me the same results as the “search” function.

Search Box Width

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen recommends 27 characters as the ideal width. He indicated that his tests showed this width would accommodate 90 percent of queries. If the box is shorter, only part of the query would be visible, making editing and review difficult for the user.

Experian Hitwise published a breakdown by percentage of clicks in early September that shows that search queries are getting longer. What effect Google Instant will have on that is up in the air, but it would behoove us to watch for trends and, as a safety measure, make sure our search boxes are wide enough for those longer queries.

Experian Hitwise charge showing searches consisting of 5 to 8+ keywords have increased 10% year-over-year for the 4 weeks ending 9/5/2010.
Experian Hitwise charge showing searches consisting of 5 to 8+ keywords have increased 10% year-over-year for the 4 weeks ending 9/5/2010.

Based on this survey and your own experiences, what are your thoughts? Is there anything that says one way is right or wrong?

If anyone has tested theories on placement, size, and language/icons, let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime, I’m charged with figuring out a way to test these for AgencyND.

Content, Context, and Beethoven

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I preach content made for the audience: context is vital. It bears repeating.

The Beloit College Mindset List came out this week. Typically, this just makes me feel old. But then, I felt old when I was 18 and mentioned Albert Schweitzer in a college speech class and was told that I should have explained who he was because not everyone knew had heard of him (and that was MANY years ago; I can’t imagine trying that today!).

With this year’s report, however, it’s different. Today, I feel a call to action. I need to use this mindset as a reminder to our Web clients (and me) that not everyone knows that Nirvana was a band; that Beethoven wasn’t always a dog; and that children used to never even consider divorcing their parents! Today, students (according to the poll) don’t even know how to write in cursive (it’s an optional subject in school these days).

In other words, it’s a different world out there. Messages and calls to action that might work for my generation probably won’t do a thing for the college crowd. To make a reference to Black Monday in a financial sense won’t bring our students’ minds to Wall Street (well, except for a few finance majors), but instead, to the punk rock band.

We speak in the same language in different tongues.

The lesson I need to drive home (in my own mind as well as those of our clients) is that we need to ALWAYS keep in mind the experiences and knowledge of our readers–in other words, the CONTEXT in which the CONTENT will be read.

From Zero to Blogging in Five Easy Steps

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Blogging is the only addiction that won’t make you fat, drunk or stoned. But it might make you so hungry for instant gratification that your books get shorter.

—Erica Jong, novelist, HuffPost blogger

Introduction (skip this if you want)

What is a blog?

The truncated version of Web log, the term blog refers to any website with frequently updated information ranging from personal opinions to business or academic topics. Blogs often read more like journals than academic papers and are typically less formal, shorter, and more for conversation than in-depth treatment of a subject. Blogs often contain links to other websites covering the same or similar subjects; they usually focus on a narrow subject, but there is no reason to be limited provided the author has new information to share on a wider range of subjects.

Blogs typically contain

  • A main content area
  • A listing of articles with most recent on top (often categorized)
  • An archive of older articles
  • A comment section for readers (moderated or not, depending on your preference)
  • Links to related sites
  • Feeds (RSS, etc.)
  • Pingbacks(1) or trackbacks(2)– inform others whenever you cite their article—maintain online conversations

What’s in it for me?

A blog can be a wonderful method for faculty to

  • Communicate, collaborate, and network with peers
  • Be recognized as a thought leader (increase your reputation)
  • Educate others (and focus your thoughts as you reflect for your regular updates)
  • Publish immediately (no need to wait for your website to be updated or your webmaster to post your thoughts)
  • Have an excuse to read others’ works in order to gather information for your posts
  • Propose questions or theories for discussion and comment by others
  • Relate to your students, who are often asked to blog for their courses

Why will you blog? As shown above, there are a number of reasons for blogging, none of which is better or worse than the others. But the key here is to know why you are blogging so that you can set your goals and plan for the future of your blog.

What topic(s) will you cover? Regular topics will help you establish your voice and your credibility, but keep in mind that regular posting will be what keeps your readers coming back. Make sure your topic is not too narrow for your blog. Determining whether you will have a set topic for each blog for the coming year/semester may be helpful for some; for others, spontaneity is key to their blog’s freshness as they like to respond to current events or thoughts. Know what works best for you and plan around that.

  • What makes you a good choice for blogging about this topic (or set of topics)? Are you the “go-to” expert? Are you just building your reputation and hope to offer some fresh insights? Are you willing to share some of your personality with your readers? Successful bloggers tend to develop their own voice as they grow with their blog, so don’t worry if you’re not yet recognized as being an expert. Offering fresh insights will help your readers grow and challenge the status quo.
  • How often will you post? Posting daily or even weekly is not a requirement. However, not posting for a few months after you began posting weekly will signal your readers that you’ve either run out of material or you’ve quit your day job and given up the blog. While quitting your blog will not end up on your permanent record (according to The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, it’s estimated that less than 7 percent of blogs have been updated in the past 90 days, readers will turn off their subscription if you leave them hanging for too long!

Where do I start?

1.     Plan

First, why do you want a blog? Do you want to communicate with others about your work/life/hobbies? Or are you joining the blogging community because your boss says you have to.

If you’re in the first category, great! You’ll have a real reason to want to blog. If you’re in the latter, well, it’ll be harder at first. But go at it with the attitude of sharing your knowledge while learning from your commenters, and you might just find you’ll enjoy it. Either way, you’ll need to plan ahead.

  • What platform will you use? (Note: If you are a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, you can use WordPress at
  • How many blogs a week/month/year do you want to produce? Having a schedule in your calendar is a great way to “remember” to blog.
  • What’s your topic? Do you need to research it? If so, plan time for research.
  • Are there other blogs similar to yours? Can you find a niche that fits you?

2.    Commit

Review your schedule. Review your plan. Are you sure you can commit to this? Dropping off the Internet into oblivion will definitely not help you in the long run. Make sure you can commit to a fairly regular schedule of blogging before starting.

OK, I’m ready to commit. What’s next?

3.    Set up your blog

  • Once your blog has been approved,  it’s a matter of choosing a theme, widgets, and plugins, and writing your first blog! (Okay, it’s not something you can do between appointments, but the Resources page can help a lot.)

4.    Write your first article

Good for you! You’ve planned, committed to blogging, set up your blog, and . . . now’s when the fun begins—your first blog. (Some may tell you this will be your easiest blog to write. They may be right. However, you can also think of it as setting the stage for further great blogs, some of which will be hard to pull from your thoughts and others that will flow by themselves. This is the foundation for your journey. So, how do you start?

Your first blog sets the stage for you. In it, you will most likely want to:

  • Introduce yourself. Who are you? What drives you to do what you do? Are there others who share in your work/your dreams/your goals? This is where you can create a sense of trust in your readers and make them want to come back to read your writings.
  • Tell your readers why you are blogging. Or, from your readers’ point of view—why should they read your blog? What do you plan to share with them that’s different from everyone else or that has a special spin on it that only you can provide? 
  • Let your readers know you value their feedback. Yes, it can be risky allowing comments, but one very strong aspect of blogging is the ability it gives you and your readers to interact.
  • Keep it simple. Not all your readers will have a Ph.D. or know your jargon. Try to keep the language clear and simple when possible. You’ll develop a larger readership and educate those readers with differing backgrounds.
  • Be original.
  • Ask a question. By asking a rhetorical question, you cause your readers to engage with you—to think. This can lead to a commitment on their part to come back to find out what else you are thinking and how they can challenge themselves by reading your blog.
  • Share a (short) story. Establish the main point by telling a story or quoting someone in order to get the attention of your readers. Stories often help by helping your readers create visions in their minds of the point you’re making—and pictures, even mental ones, make for longer-term memories of what is read.
  • Give your readers something to do. Ask for comments. Challenge them to come up with a different (better?) idea. Simply putting words out there for people to consume isn’t enough. You want to create a community of interaction, thought sharing, education, or action. And blogging is a wonderful way to do it.
  • Close by returning. A good way to close your blog is to return to the point you were making or the statement or question you set forth in your first paragraph. Let the readers know you’re finished for now.

Now What?

Congratulations! Your first blog has been posted! You may even have two or three more ideas stashed away for future blogs. But now what? You know finals are coming up and you’ve got a heavy load what with grade reporting, exam prep, etc., and you’ve got that conference in Stockholm the week after next. How are you going to keep those blogs coming?

Now that you have your first blog under your belt, take time to tentatively plan out the next one. In fact, if you’re feeling the urge to write more, you can store those future blogs away for those days when the well of creativity runs dry or the deluge of academic pressures inundate you.

Here are some ideas on how to get the juices flowing in preparation of those busy days ahead:

  • Schedule half an hour (okay, 15 minutes if that’s all you really have) two or three days from now. Go ahead. Put it on your calendar and reserve that time for blogging. In fact, you may want to put that as a repeating appointment to meet with your inner thoughts and express them on paper.
  • Write down a list of titles or topics. This list, whether you follow it or not, will give you a starting point for those days when you can’t think of a thing to blog.
  • Write down bullet points for those topics that are of interest to you. If bullet points don’t work for you, make an outline or a thought cloud for organizing your points.
  • If typing isn’t your thing, try speech recognition software or dictate your blog.
  • If you have photos you think would help express your points, gather them in a special blog folder on your computer or server so you’ll have them handy for your late-night inspirations.
  • Consider video as a form of blogging!

Keep on Keepin’ on

It’s true. No one will read you at first, let alone comment. So don’t let that get you down. And don’t quit!

Eventually, by using best practices with keywords and links, you’ll get a reader or two. And if they like what they read, they’ll tell their readers, who will tell others. And soon, you’ll be read by and educating more people than you’d have ever thought would be interested in your line of work. It takes time; and it takes commitment.

Keeping it Real

Take It Easy on Your Readers

No, we’re not suggesting you avoid controversial or hard-to-grasp topics. Indeed, that would be exactly what would help readers realize you know your topic and invite interaction. We’re talking readability here. Just like on regular websites, readers tend to scan to see if what they want is on your page.

  • Make your text scannable. Short paragraphs. Bullet points. Headings.
  • Check your spelling. Especially as a faculty member.
  • Read your post aloud. Does your post read smoothly? Does it make sense? Can it be improved by deleting or adding text? Would it read more easily if it were broken up into smaller sections?
  • If you are aware of other sites with similar content, or are referring to another site, include the hyperlink for that site. That author will appreciate your courtesy, and your link will add authority to your statements.
  • If using terms that might not be familiar to a layperson, link to a definition of the term.
  • If you have a large number of hyperlinks within your blog, you might consider listing all the hyperlinks at the bottom of your blog so as to not interrupt your readers’ concentration when reading the text.

Link to Other Sites

While you don’t want to look like a link farm (which is what this post might look like to some), if your content naturally lends itself to links to other blogs or websites, don’t be afraid to use them. This will help your interaction with others and provide good information for your readers.

Use Appropriate Keywords

These are words that Google and other search engines use for identifying content. By using words that relate to your topic and by defining acronyms, you’ll help your search engine ratings and help others find your blog. In the same way, make sure your blog titles draw in readers. By asking a question or posing an answer (“10 Ways to Avoid Burnout in Teaching Physics,” “What Makes a Architectural Model Effective?”), you can attract readers and help your search engine findability.

Identify Your Posts with Good Tags

When you post your blog, you’ll be asked to provide tags to help the search engines find your post. It’s suggested you use any and all that relate to the post, but no more than 10 per post. To develop your tags, try to think of your readers looking for your post. What would they use as search terms?

Interact with Readers

Invite comments and, when people comment on your site, be sure to respond to them, at least the first time they comment. By doing so, you’re building relationships with your readers, thus encouraging loyalty and continuing the conversation.

Consider having your photo on your site. By letting the world identify you, you are inviting trust and a relationship that will be key to readers returning to your site.

Give Them Something New

Give added value to your readers that they can’t find anywhere else. Do you have a colleague who is worth interviewing?

Leave Out These Things

  • Anything animated
  • Music
  • Misspelled words and grammatical errors
  • Old content, especially from other sites. If you have nothing original to say, link back to the source.

Other Resources

Why Blog:

Blog Planning:

First Blogs:

Best practices:


The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, by the editors of the Huffington Post

(1) Pingbacks are a form of remote commenting. You post something on your blog; the next person links to your post; you get a pingback that sends you to that person’s blog so you can verify the pingback..

(2) Trackbacks are similar to pingbacks. You post something on your blog; the next person comments on it in her blog and sends a trackback to you. Your blog then displays the trackback as a comment to your blog, with a link to the second person’s blog. Trackbacks aren’t verifiable (can be faked) but your readers can see some of what the second person has to say before clicking over to that person’s blog. The preference of pingbacks vs. trackbacks is personal and arguable.