The politics of online commenting can be a big concern for web managers. If you don’t have any or many comments on your website, chances are you want more and are looking for new ways to encourage your visitors to weigh in. If you have them, you may be in the enviable position of trying to work out a strategy to manage them while still staying sane. Maybe you don’t allow commenting on your website, but you are re-examining whether this practice is working for you.
Particularly where blogs are concerned, people tend to feel passionately about the importance of conversation as enabled by on-site public commenting. Even corporate websites are increasingly including blog content and are beginning to dip their toes into the tepid waters of unmitigated reader feedback. Others are steadfast in their assertion of their right to keep their website noise free and disallow commenting altogether. The recent blog-off between techno bloggers John Gruber and Joe Wilcox is a good example of the strong feelings on both sides of this debate.
As a web manager, you need to decide whether you will allow commenting on your website and if you do, what method you will use to protect your pages from spam, personal attacks and even potential lawsuits. That’s right, lawsuits. Recently labourhome.org was successfully sued for libel in the UK after a user posted a comment that linked another individual to a German terrorist group. According to Zeta.net, although the site owner “did not write the comment or make it live, the fact that he actively moderated other areas of the website by exercising some editorial control on parts of the website and in particular on the homepage held him liable.”
The most important step when choosing how to moderate web comments is to make a decision rather than carry on in a reactive way until something nasty happens. To help with this process, we’ve created a roundup of strategies for managing web comments and have outlined the implications of each. As you read over each of these methods, ask yourself what your priorities are for your website and how you are going to balance your concern with user engagement and the reality of unwanted noise on your site with the resources you have on hand to manage your chosen strategy. At the bottom of this post, we put a link to a PDF that outlines these strategies in brief, cheat-sheet format.
Pre-Publish Comment Moderation Strategies
This set of strategies is for someone who wants more control; instead of checking comments once they’ve already appeared on your website, you would rather sign off on them pre-publication. If you find you are anxious about the kinds of comments you are receiving or you don’t have the time to properly moderate them in a timely manner, you may want to at least consider the extreme path of just disallowing comments on your website altogether.
That’s right, even with a blog, you have the right to decide that you do not want to allow commenting. As with all of these strategies, there are pros and cons. On the positive side, the unwanted noise on your website will be nil and you can spend the time you were previously devoting to comment moderation on creating new and better content. On the negative side, your readers may not be as engaged in your content and you are potentially shutting the door to new insights and ideas that could add value to your site. You will also undoubtedly get some flack from people who believe very strongly that blogs are about having a conversation and unmitigated comments enable it to happen. In an article called Website Marketing Turnoffs, web guru Guy Kawasaki wrote,
Moderated comments is an oxymoron. If your company is trying to be a hip, myth-busting, hypocrisy-outing joint, it should let anyone comment. Also, many times I’ve started to leave a comment on a blog but stopped when I realized I’d have to register.
Kawasaki is not alone and, especially if you run a popular website, you should expect a fairly strong negative reaction to heavily moderating or disallowing comments.
If you are committed to enabling commenting on your website but want more control, there are a number of other tactics to consider:
- Moderate all comments and publish selectively based on quality or relevance: This is a difficult option and one that can create a number of problems. First of all, it is potentially time consuming to not only moderate but to also consider each comment based on merit, a measurement that should also be made transparent to your readership. Though it may result in less unwanted noise and more productive discussions, there is the potential for backlash as people may perceive that you are trying to censor or re-contextualize comments as a PR strategy.
- Moderate all comments and publish everything that doesn’t contravene your Commenting Policy (i.e. spam, personal attacks, obscenity etc.): This is a fairly obvious option and it’s the one most frequently employed by web managers who are trying to limit the noise on their site. It attempts to balance the elimination of unwanted noise with a desire for unfettered discussion and an engaged community of readers. The problem with this strategy is that it can be time consuming and moderation needs to happen quickly so that comments don’t become stale while sitting in the queue. I’ve worked with a number of clients who use this strategy but don’t actually have the time to adequately manage the task.
- Moderate all comments and post everything (except for spam) but do something to embarrass or undermine hateful commentors: Boing Boing occasionally uses the practice of ‘disemvowelling’ particularly vitriolic comments. According to Boing Boing founder Cory Doctorow, this method helps to “let the rest of the community know what kind of sentiment is not socially acceptable.” Although it’s an interesting idea, it still potentially allows for a lot of noise on your website – particularly if the focus of the discussion shifts from the topic of your content to the ‘funny’ way you’ve handled the inappropriate behavior. It’s also potentially a time consuming option unless you have someone who can create some code to help you automate the process.
Post-Publish Comment Moderation Strategies
As Kawasaki’s quote demonstrates, many people believe the web is a community and that a key role for any web manager is to find ways to enable and encourage conversations. If you want to have a blog, you should play by the blog rules and allow people to speak their mind – even if it means your site becomes a cesspool of spam links and flamers.
Sarcasm aside, there are some good arguments for allowing people to immediately publish comments to your website without moderation:
- It encourages a real-time debate/discussion and can result in greater engagement with your content.
- It can result in more comments, although quantity and quality are not always the same thing.
- It allows you to manage comments when you have time to make it a priority as opposed to dropping what you are doing whenever a new comment comes into the moderation queue.
If your website has an active community, you may want to include your readers in the process of moderating inappropriate or spam comments. Many websites have features that allow their readers to flag or report noisy comments, which can make your life a little bit easier; other, more sophisticated systems are used by websites like Hacker News and Slashdot, where readers use a voting system to filter out unproductive comments. Although this won’t get rid of spam and trolls entirely, it will discourage bad behavior as useless comments become less likely to be seen.
There are a number of post-publish comment moderation methods to consider, ranging from a completely free and open commenting system to others that put methods in place to weed out the noise. Note that all of the following methods require some post-publish moderation to delete spam and inappropriate content:
- Allow people to post anonymous comments directly to your website: This practice is becoming less and less common and websites that employ this tactic quite often become overcome with spam. A comment section littered with spam can be just as stifling to real, value-added would-be commentators as a website that doesn’t allow commenting at all. It’s like having a messy garden overrun with weeds and rubbish – it gives the appearance that you don’t really care about your house. Having a site overrun with spam comments can also impact your SEO; even if the spam comments don’t include links, if Google finds a lot of content that smells dirty, it can affect you in the long run. If you are going to go this route, be prepared for a very noisy website unless you plan to spend a great deal of time cleaning up after the fact. On the other hand, it is the most basic way to encourage unfettered reader feedback and participation.
- Allow people to post comments directly to your website, but force them to link their identity to what they say: There are a number of different ways to do this. Some websites only require that people leave a valid email address with their comment (that is only accessible to the web admin) and as long as the format is correct, the comment is posted. Other websites take it a step further and force you to verify your email address before you are able to post a comment. Although this method is unlikely to deter serious spammers or flamers, finding ways to make people own what they say on the web is one way to try to avoid the anonymous ranting that can sometimes occur online. As Facebook, Google, Twitter and Disqus continue to create systems that allow users to link their profile to third party sites, we will undoubtedly see more websites requiring commentators to link to a valid online social identity.
- Create an online community around your website and force people to register and verify their identity before being allowed to publish comments: This method seems to work for high traffic websites with a dedicated audience such as The Guardian and Dooce. Technically, it can be more challenging to set up, but once in place it provides a good platform with which to moderate comments and also stay connected to regular readers. The downside is that it might discourage casual commentators who find the process too time consuming and who don’t feel a close enough affinity with your site to bother setting up an account. The Guardian has an extensive community policy and based on the information they provide, it sounds like they have an entire team of people who moderate and check comments – this kind of resource is likely not in place for a smaller web team. According to their FAQ, if someone persistently or willfully posts inappropriate comments on The Guardian website, their posting privileges will be revoked. Both sites also occasionally create posts where comments are not allowed, particularly around overly personal (in Dooce’s case) or politically divisive (The Guardian) topics. Additionally, Guardian readers are encouraged to flag comments that are inappropriate.
As an add-on tactic, some websites, including The Guardian, also close commenting on articles after a certain amount of time has passed. This allows moderators to focus on the newest content rather than on policing every page on the site forever. The downside of this is that it can make the content appear dated, truncate conversations and doesn’t consider that new developments and innovations may be introduced long after something is initially posted.
Once you’ve selected a strategy (or combination of strategies) that work for your organization, the next step is transparency – letting your readers know what your comment moderation policy is. In a follow up blog post, we’ll cover some of the key points you should include in your Website Comments Policy.
To make your life a little easier, you can download the Strategies for Website Comment Moderation cheat sheet (PDF).
Have we missed anything here? Please let us know in the comments so we can update our list. But please note, we moderate all comments. : )