On or Off? How to Make Comments Work for You

I was prompted to think about the costs and value of comments after reading a post about the latest changes made to Gawker’s comment management system in which Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, laments the poor state of comments sections. Engagement is difficult to get and even more difficult to keep. Whether you get no comments at all or too many, they are always an issue online.

When and How to Invest in Comments

Comments have their place when your blog is about making sense of the world around you — for yourself and your audience. They are for you if you use it to

  • learn and teach
  • gather insights
  • and spot opportunities.

This spirit of quest can encourage great comments and launch deep conversations. If you are willing to participate in comment threads, they offer tremendous help. In “Yes, blog comments are still worth the effort”, Mathew Ingram cites Fred Wilson’s blog A VC as an example of rich comments. Wilson, a well-known venture capitalist and blogger, is ever-present in his comments and nurtures his community because their exchanges are valuable to him.

He shared the main factors behind his blogging success. On the subject of engagement, he wrote:

5) Engage everywhere. That means on Hacker News, other blog communities/comments, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. This takes a lot of time. Too much time. But I get so much value back from doing it that I make the time.

If you’re not in tech, maybe Hacker News is not for you. Anyway, you get the idea. To get more comments, it is very important that you

  • leave comments on the blogs of people you respect. They or their audience may take an interest in your point of view
  • tweet people asking them for their perspective on issues of interest to both of you
  • advertise your post in relevant places.

For more, you can turn to Marcus Sheridan who lists many tips on engagement in comments with illustrations and examples.

Comment Management Tools

Whether you’re a multi-million-dollar publisher, a small business owner or an individual blogger, it’s necessary to filter out spam and moderate to have a healthy comments section. Fortunately, semi-automated solutions are widely available. Akismet, Mollom and Defensio, for example, offer to stop automated comment spam for you. All three have free plans. Akismet is active on WordPress.com blogs by default.

If you have your own WordPress install, you can activate Akismet easily. All you need is to open an account: you will receive a string of characters called an API key that you’ll then enter in the administration area of your WordPress installation.

You can also use services such as Facebook, Google+, Disqus or IntenseDebate which offer to host your comments on their servers for free. Such solutions may seem simpler and less prone to spamming attacks, but they have hidden costs. Comments may load slowly or temporarily go missing if the service goes down. Search engines may not take the comments’ content into consideration, which might impact your SEO.

Moreover, you run the risk of losing your comments if the service shuts down or you change your commenting system. Disqus and IntenseDebate let you export comments if you leave. However, few blogging platforms or commenting systems let you import comments back in seamlessly.

As you can see, solutions exist to make comments work but choosing the right one is a challenge. Whichever you choose, they always demand an investment of time and attention, and sometimes significant amounts of money.

Last year, comments on The Huffington Post crossed the symbolic 100 million line.  According to Arianna Huffington in this Mashable interview, their success comes from a commitment to

  • moderating comments using humans and software
  • personalizing the display by ranking comments from your Facebook or Twitter contacts higher
  • and recognizing good commenters with badges and privileges.

This commitment is real and costly. Their 30 moderators and a robot called Julia cost them a large sum. Lots of dedication and significant investments are necessary to make comments work well.

Another Option: No Comments

When you post reviews or opinions and have no plans to take the feedback into serious consideration, you don’t need comments. When you lack resources or an interest in moderating and participating in your comments section, you might be better off without them.

Solo entrepreneurs and small businesses have limited resources to allocate and that’s OK. You don’t have to accept comments. You can encourage engagement by other means.

If you turn off comments, be sure to write a post explaining your decision. People might accuse you of not being humble enough to accept criticism and dissent. State clearly that you’ll continue to listen to your community. Encourage them to tweet to you, send you e-mails, etc.

Blogging with comments turned off is a sensitive issue and a matter of much debate. Matt Gemmell links to many articles about this question and offers his own take (via Build and Analyze).

There are no absolute reasons for or against comments. It depends on the purpose of both your blog and its comments section. Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish with your site and whether comments help or hinder your ability to reach your goals.

There are bad reasons for having comments turned on. They are often used to inflate the number of page views on ad-driven sites. When you submit a comment, you have to re-read it and then submit it. That’s two more page views. And when people read comments, they are often displayed on several pages, which adds even more page views. You don’t have to emulate this behaviour because page views aren’t the most important metric any more.

In the End, it is Your Decision

You should have a clear idea about what your site is supposed to accomplish; you should think about your comments section with the same care for purpose. Then you can decide whether to have one or not, and how much you are willing to invest in it. Don’t hesitate to think aloud in the comments.

I wrote “On or Off? How to Make Comments Work for You” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 16, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.





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