Since the dawn of publishing time, readers have been responding to the content they consume. Long before the internet, people were writing letters and mailing them to their local newspapers. Once publishers started putting their content online in the late 1990s/early 2000s, a new space opened up for readers who want to give their two cents.
There was a time when the comment section was central to a site’s product. Comments were examined, readers debated, and the “comments per article” number was considered a valuable KPI (Key Performance Indicator). But then things started going awry.
The Decline of the Comments Section
Over the last decade, the comments section has gotten a bad rap. Negativity has spread like wildfire, and it has become a place for spam and internet trolls to run free and spew hate on other readers, the authors and the publishers. In 2016, NPR decided to close its comments section completely.
Other large publishers started following suit, including The Verge, Reuters, USA Today, Vice, and Recode. Measures have been put in place, such as comment moderators and technology to remove remarks that are objectively inappropriate. But it’s proven to be a futile effort. Moreover, removing comments decreases trust in the news organization, at least according to a 2019 Center for Media Engagement study.
The Upside of Comments Sections
The fact that there’s even a debate means there are both positive and negative aspects of the comments section. A lot can be gained by allowing a place for readers to engage with your content. Here are some of the pros:
Drive retention up: When users engage in quality conversations, they end up spending more time on your website. It’s been reported that active readers – those who read and comment on articles – view 8.7x more pages per session than non-active users.
Connect with readers: Interacting with your site’s users is a worthwhile way to build trust, credibility, and even generate new ideas for content.
Receive constructive criticism: Letting readers respond to your content can be a learning opportunity. There’s always room for improvement, and readers can leave tips for improvements, give feedback, highlight errors, and more.
Create loyalty and community: Allowing comments breeds a sense of loyalty among your readers, especially if authors respond. A direct connection is likely to bring people back to your site, and if they see that others are doing the same, a community is established and appreciated.
The Downside of Comments Sections
People in the publishing industry have noted that the online trolling problem is exaggerated. Nadav Shoval, OpenWeb’s cofounder and CEO, for one, says the number of genuine trolls has been greatly exaggerated. While the trolls have indeed taken a toll, there are other reasons to avoid (or disable) your comments section. Here are some cons:
It’s time consuming: With comments comes work, be it responding to them or moderating them. Reading and responding to questions take time as does examining and deciding whether or not to delete them. And if you’re hiring people to do this part, it’s costly, too.
The moderation effort: If you want to keep your site in high regard, then moderating comments is a must and that requires a lot of decisions. Do you want to let anyone comment? Will they need to fill out a CAPTCHA? Are they going to need to sign up first? There are repercussions to each decision, like deterring people from commenting in the first place. On the other hand, you don’t want anyone to write anything they want. And even with a spam control system in place, spam always seeps through.
It tends to become negative: There are both gated and non-gated comments. Anonymity online has a tendency to breed negativity and downright hateful speech. Anyone who has ever read the comments on YouTube or any political website knows just how mean users can be when their identity is hidden.
Doing It Right
Here’s the thing, though: not all comments sections are bad, hence the whole debate over whether or not to add (or keep) your website’s comments section. When done right, comments can increase reader loyalty and engagement, and even increase subscriptions. So, what does “done right” really mean? Well, for one, it means managing the unmanageable, whether it’s a barrage of nasty comments or spam.
Artificial intelligence: The best way to do that is to implement artificial intelligence. The New York Times, for instance, actually expanded its comments section in 2017 by using a machine learning technology called Moderator (based on a scoring system). But that’s the New York Times. Most websites don’t have such resources and funding…
Spam control: Most bloggers and smaller publishers implement a spam control system. WordPress, for example, offers ways to avoid spam and negative comments, which involves simple tweaks and settings options that will block or hide comments before your readers see them. These tweaks include limiting links in posts, blacklisting certain words, restricting comments to subscribed users, adding an anti-spam plug-in, and so forth.
Interacting with readers:
The Center for Media Engagement performed a study that found that when journalists answer readers’ questions and participate in online discussions, the comments are more constructive. Even if journalists or authors of the articles pop in occasionally, it still has a positive effect, creating engagement.
All in all, while the comments section can easily get out of control, there are steps that can be taken to make it manageable and thus worthwhile. Once the comments become controllable, they can actually be quite useful for your site, your brand, and your ultimate success.