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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
- 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.
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 possible—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.
- Stop Comment Spam
- Pioneer Web
- Separating Trackbacks and Pingbacks in WordPress 1.5
- Kitten’s Spaminator
- Brian’s Threaded Comments