Designing Comments for Weblogs

I never really meant to start a weblog, it just happened. Having had a weblog for a while now, however, I can easily say it’s the community aspect that keeps it interesting. With that said, most weblogs have rather un-interesting and limited discussion capabilities.

In this article, I’ll go over a few of the problems with weblog comments and offer advice as to how this can be improved.

The Trouble with Comments

Seen from a distance, the problems with comments can be summed up quite simply:

  • Comment spam
    Unsolicited advertisements undermine good discussions.
  • Following comments
    Interesting discussions can easily be forgotten without good means to subscribe to them.
  • Scalability
    Even the best of discussions can water out when there are 200 comments.

Some of these issues can be fixed. Some of them can be helped along the way.

The following tips are not necessarily specific to one blog system, but are rather general guidelines as to how weblog commenting in general can be improved. Some CMS‘es already provide some of these solutions, other solutions have yet to be developed.

Preventing Comment Spam

Comment Spam is a label used to describe weblog comments made in bulk by robots. These robots search out weblogs and post hyperlinks to various product websites in order to boost Google PageRank, which is system Google has developed for ranking the quality of hyperlinks. The more websites that link to a specific website, the higher that website is ranked.

Comment Spam has exploded these last few years. If your weblog is not protected, chances are that you have already encountered it. In any case, there’s little that ruins a discussion more than random spam messages.

In the war against comment spam there are do’s and don’ts.

The Do’s

  • Invisible comment validation
    Checking the comment validity while it is being posted is a good idea, as long as it is invisible to the end-user.
  • Clear and informative error messages
    If the comment has been classified as spam, the end-user should be informed of this in a clear and concise manner.
  • Offer chance of redemption
    If a message has been wrongfully classified as being spam, offer the end-user a way to correct this. A possible solution could be to allow the user to revise his/her message, in which case incriminating words or links should be highlighted to show the user what to “fix”. Even better would be to allow the user a choice between retracting the comment, editing the comment or submitting it for human moderation.
  • End user moderation

Your readers are intelligent. Use this. Allow them to vote for each comment. A score -5: “definitely spam” will immediately put the comment in the moderation queue, while a score -1: “off-topic” might just be a visual representation for the moderator/admin.

The Don’ts

  • Visible comment validation
    It’s already a stretch to ask the end user for his/her email. Asking them to prove that they’re not robots is simply bad karma. Avoid using “Captcha’s” (text input boxes that ask the user to input garbled letters and numbers) and the likes.
  • Too effective spam stoppers

It is better to let a little spam to seap through the seams, than to wrongfully classify false positives.

The key is: power to the end user.

Providing Means to Follow a Discussion

Your weblog is not the center of the universe. Serving up several means to follow a discussion on your weblog is not only polite, but it is quite necessary in order to have interesting discussions.

  • Subscribe to comments via email
    Allow the end user to subscribe to replies by email. If you can, allow the end user to subscribe to replies without having to leave a comment.
  • RSS

Provide RSS feeds for comments to a thread. If you can, use the built-in Firefox “Live Bookmark” feature by defining the comment feed in your document header. If possible, generate an excerpt of the comment to use as RSS subject.

Improving Scalability

Very few discussions can survive 200+ replies. This is not only a weblog problem, but a problem with forums as well.

  • Paginate comments
    For many comments, add pagination so there are only, say 25 comments per page.
  • Design each comment with space and room
    Use spacy lineheights. Allow the text to scale. Add relaxed and roomy margins. Clearly distinguish between each comment, either by adding lots of space, or by other means of visual separation.
  • Separate comments and trackbacks / pingbacks
    Some weblogs allow trackbacks and pingbacks. On these systems, trackbacks and pingbacks should be presented separately since they are different things. Comments are directly related to the article in question, while track- or pingbacks are off-site notifications.
  • Keep it simple
    Don’t add too much clutter. Visually distinguish between what’s important and what’s less important. Commenter’s name and comment, for instance, is important. Timestamp and permalinks are less important.
  • Know your audience
    Design your comments to match the expectations of your audience. Some weblog discussions are better off bare-bones, while others can benefit from avatars, smileys and other less important stuff.
  • Allow your users to edit or delete their comments
    Once again, the key is to give power to the end user. Avoid unnecessary clutter by relying on the intelligence of your users. They might retract a comment, or want to edit it for various errors.
  • Collapse unimportant comments on high-traffic blogs
    For weblogs that get huge amounts of comments, it might be worthwhile to consider a comment karma system, that allows your end-users to rate comments. High rated comments will be expanded, while low rated comments will be collapsed. Keep the rating system simple: 1 means insightful, 0 is default, -1 is unimportant. JavaScript could be used to expand/collapse comments instantly.
  • Comments should thread to some degree

Visually, it is easier to distinguish the individual relationship of comments if they thread or nest properly. If designed right, a good threading system can make a huge difference.

Conclusion

Do not underestimate the intelligence of your visitors. I have learned from discussions here on this weblog, that the real value lies not in what I write, but what they write. Providing stable, secure, simple and respectful means to keep a discussion going is the least I can do to repay my readers for their time.

Consider that a first-time commenter has to overcome a number of blocks before leaving a comment. On most weblogs today, the end user is unable to retract or even edit a comment once it’s been left. It’ll stay there, possibly for eternity. If the commenter decides to comment despite this mental barrier, minimize the difficulties and don’t let spam filters, HTML validators or other things stand in their way.

If you’re a CMS developer or weblog designer, keep this in mind. Grant as much power to your users as possibleβ€”abuse is a rarity, and when it happens it is easy to adjust for it. Developers, consider using this end-user intelligence that is at your disposal: allow them to moderate for you. Let them vote spam out or acknowledge insightful replies. It’ll save you time, and it’ll serve the discussion. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice some of your power, it might just make the difference.

In the next few days, I plan to try out some of my own pieces of advice on this weblog. Stay tuned for revamps and new features.

More Resources

15 thoughts on “Designing Comments for Weblogs”

  1. brian says:

    You are exactly right on this. Comments have been something I?ve been pondering a lot lately and you just covered them all, accept one I believe.

    User unfamiliarity. Of course younger people are more apt to be comfortable to just leave comments but when dealing with people (read: older people) who are less web savvy it can take some real wrangling to get them to warm up to the idea of leaving feedback and participating in a discussion. Whereas they are used to another form of control over things that they read: boycott. If they don?t like it, they stop reading and don?t come back effectively vetoing the writers thoughts. Or if they do have something to say they assume nobody else is interested and don?t bother because they have never participated and don?t know how powerful the internet can be as a place of archived conversations that are usable for future readers.

    All of your suggestions greatly improve the accessibility and thus the probability that a non-web-savvy (older) user would be more likely to participate in leaving comments however do you have any ideas or suggestions on other ways that you could entice people into leaving comments that have heretofore never done so? Or am I the only person who has ever had to deal with older people “just not getting it” when it comes to comments and feedback. (Or the internet in general?)

    Also I think you could also add a point under ‘scalability’ called drifting, where users can become preoccupied with something completely off topic and kill the discussion. However this is just an issue of reader maturity and etiquette rather than something the writer can control.

  2. Turnip says:

    Wow… fantastic post. I’m going to rethink this when I get time to redesign my site.

  3. Tristan says:

    Excellent ideas. I do hope the WordPress developers are listening for the next release. Also taking a look at some of the large-scale comment blogs (Slashdot), which have already implemented many of the features you’ve talked about (like moderation by users and weeding out the spam).

    A good example of the fact that users are intelligent and actually do not abuse power they’re given is the Wiki. Anyone can edit, and by the same token, anyone can delete all the content if they want. But no one does! User editing works, and it makes the commenting experience more fun and interactive for users.

    Can’t wait to see what changes you make based on these.

  4. Rob Mientjes says:

    You already seem busy to make your own system work πŸ™‚ Nice.

    Power to the end-user: how long before people go bad?

  5. Joen says:

    brian,

    I know exactly what you mean. Designing for people that are new to the internet is no easy task. The best advice I can give is to make it look as welcoming as possible.

    do you have any ideas or suggestions on other ways that you could entice people into leaving comments that have heretofore never done so?

    Well, I have some theories. Basically, it’s a question of “staying power” and “probable response”.

    By staying power, I mean that if your weblog has been around for a while, users are more likely to leave a comment. It’s like putting money in your bank — would you deposit money in a brand-new bank right away? Probably not. You’d wait and see.

    By probable response, I mean the probability that the author, or someone else, will respond to your comment, and if you left a question, answer it. My advice would be to simply reply to your comments.

    Turnip,

    Thanks.

    Tristan,

    Thanks. I would love to see some of these features worked in to the core of WordPress, specifically the “edit comment” functionality. Some of the others could make up very good plugins. I’m trying a threaded comments plugin now, for instance.

    User editing works, and it makes the commenting experience more fun and interactive for users.

    I agree completely. I figure there are more good people than there are bad people.

    Rob,

    You already seem busy to make your own system work πŸ™‚ Nice.

    Yep, I accidentally uploaded early.

    Power to the end-user: how long before people go bad?

    As Tristan says, that surprisingly doesn’t happen. Give power to ONE person, and he/she might abuse it. Give power to everyone, and they’ll even eachother out.

  6. brian says:

    I personally think one of the most powerful features for getting users to leave comments is the live comment preview you have on here. Its got to be one of the best plugins for WordPress. Its probably the reason I first left a comment here.

    So how do banks that are just getting off the ground attract and keep users coming back? O wait, nevermind I just answered my own question, content. Im sure there is more tricks…

    BTW, Im redesigning for the May 1st reboot and I plan on utilizing some of the comment functionality from this site and binary bonsai, probably 2 of the biggest influences Ive had from blogging. I say Thanks to both of you. πŸ™‚

  7. Fascinating Joen. I really enjoyed this article.

    I’ve tried to make my own comments handler as user-friendly as possible, but there is always more work to be done.

    I’d love to see more comment systems using a threaded display but, aside from the extra complexity of adding threading, actually displaying threaded discussions in a meaningful way is an exercise in frustration – both for the developer and the user. I have yet to see threading handled anywhere in a way that makes complete sense while still offering a high level of usability.

    I love the idea of adding a rating system to comments. This, combined with a design that highlights highly rated posts, can be extremely useful to the visitor and goes a long way towards reducing the “noise” in a thread.

    I look forward to seeing the results of your experiments here.

  8. Joen says:

    brian,

    So how do banks that are just getting off the ground attract and keep users coming back? O wait, nevermind I just answered my own question, content. Im sure there is more tricks…

    • Stick around for a while
    • Post regular, preferrably interesting updates
    • Reply to your comments
    • Read the above advice πŸ™‚

    By the way, the Live Preview used here is not a WP plugin, but it could easily be made in to one. It is free to use so knock yourself out πŸ™‚

    Jonathan,

    Thanks a lot. Glad you liked it!

    I?ve tried to make my own comments handler as user-friendly as possible, but there is always more work to be done.

    It’s always impressed me that you wrote the whole darned package yourself. It works great. Of course some things could be better, but that applies to all of us.

    I have yet to see threading handled anywhere in a way that makes complete sense while still offering a high level of usability.

    Exactly. It’s very tricky to work with. I’m currently trying to work with Brian’s Threaded Comments (a WP plugin), to see what I can make of it. It works, but I need to make some adjustments to keep it simple. Basically, I think the key is to a) remove cruft and keep it simple, and b) visually design it in such a way that anyone can quickly see comment relationships. It’s a headache, but I’m going to try and make it work. You’ll see the results right here, hopefully sooner rather than later.

  9. brian says:

    Mark Jaquith has a new version of Subscribe to comments via email plugin coming out soon. Good timing for this article. It looks really nice. I cant wait.

    Oops, sorry I left that other comment on the wrong article, you can delete it.

  10. Chris says:

    Apologies for being late to the party on this one, my SimCity addiction reared up.

    Firstly, I’m getting that comment preview you’ve been using implemented soon as I can tear myself away from my Simians.

    Definetly, the points you’ve made are excellent. I know my comments system is rather lackluster at the moment. Focused too much on the look and not enough on the mechanics of the site.

    Yet another noscope.com article to bookmark.

  11. Joen says:

    Apologies for being late to the party on this one, my SimCity addiction reared up.

    Which version? The last one I liked was Sim City 2000.

    Firstly, I?m getting that comment preview you?ve been using implemented soon as I can tear myself away from my Simians.

    You do have a comment preview, don’t you? The only difference with this one is that it shows textile code… such as bold and italic.

    By the way, I’m still working on fixing Brian’s Threaded Comments to work for Noscope. It was more work than I had anticipated.

  12. Chris says:

    Which version? The last one I liked was Sim City 2000.

    Sim City 4.

    You do have a comment preview, don?t you?

    Yeah, but the one I have doesn’t show exactly as the final render.

  13. Joen says:

    Sim City 4.

    Ugh, if I remember correctly, that version uses Comic Sans. Anyway, I never liked it much. Too much micro management.

    Yeah, but the one I have doesn’t show exactly as the final render.

    Well, that’s more of a design issue than it is a JS / tech issue. I’ll see if I can turn it in to a plugin at one point, provided the makers give their permission.

  14. Levi says:

    As always you’ve really outdone yourself. These tips are fantastic and incredibly important.

    The one that really interests me is: “Allow your users to edit or delete their comments”. Now that’s a good idea.

    I’ll be making some changes to my blog very soon!

  15. Joen says:

    Thanks Levi, I appreciate that.

    As for that edit feature, it’s also my biggest wish. I’ll outline it further in a future article.

Comments are closed.