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July 20, 2017

Blog Commenting: Building a Community

Group of sheep in a field with "Hi" speech bubbles and text: A Community of Comments

We’ve all seen blogs with different styles of comments left by visitors. Some blogs are infested with spam comments. Some are vibrant communities. And some are happy with any comment.

I know of some authors who have turned off comments entirely because they don’t want the pressure of replying or the risk of their blog looking “empty” if no one comments. But I also know the first place I felt part of the writing community was in the comment section of an editor’s blog.

In other words, every blog is unique. Every blog’s community of visitors—and their tendency to leave comments or their style of comments—is unique as well.

Here, I’ve been blessed with a great community of blog readers who often leave comments. Until recently, I’d made a habit of replying to every comment in thanks for my readers, and that encouraged people to leave comments and check back later for my reply, often creating a conversation.

But with all my health issues lately, even though I continued reading every comment, replying to comments has become difficult. Without a “guaranteed” reply from me, fewer people left comments, and almost no one kept up the habit of checking back. So even when I did reply, no one was there to continue the conversation.

Even though other (often bigger) issues also affected the number of comments—for example, I can’t think of anyone who’s not “crazy-busy”—I watched my comment section slowly die. I wanted to investigate my options for a comment system that wouldn’t make things worse and might even help.

My Long Struggle to Find a Good Comment System

I’d been unhappy with the standard WordPress programming for the comment section I was using here for a long time. Years of unhappiness, in fact.

I wrote a post four years ago about what I wanted in a comment system, such as allowing my readers to subscribe to comments and edit their own. I bemoaned the fact that what I wanted didn’t exist. (At least, not in a way I could implement.)

This past weekend, I finally completed a long-overdue rebuild of my site. (If you missed my last post, welcome to my new digs! *waves* Take a look around and enjoy!) As part of building everything again from the ground up, I renewed my search for what options now existed for comment systems.

Lo and behold, I found one! Woo hoo! Let me count the ways I’m so happy to have a new comment system. *smile*

What Features Encourage Visitors to Comment?

As a recap of the post from years ago, we can’t expect readers to leave comments unless they’ll benefit in some way. While different incentives might work with different readerships, let’s review the most common ones I pointed out before:

  • People Want Ease of Use

Many comment systems (like Disqus) require readers to log in. That means commenters have to create an account to leave their comment, and only the most dedicated will do so.

  • People Want Others to Notice Their Comments

Some comment systems don’t automatically pull commenters’ avatars (like from Gravatar). Avatars help others recognize our comments, and our picture helps build our brand.

  • People Want Readers to Be Able to Find Them Elsewhere

Some comment systems, like Blogger and Disqus, link our name on a comment not to our website, but to our profile on that system. If someone wants to learn more about us, they can’t just click our name to check out our homepage.

  • People Want Backlinks to Their Websites

Some commenting systems allow readers to “log in” through their Twitter or Facebook account, which increases ease of use, but gives potential traffic to the other site and not to the reader’s homepage.

  • People Want to Comment from Their Mobile Devices

Some commenting systems work well in a mobile format and some don’t.

  • Visually Impaired Readers Want to Read the Comments Too

Visually impaired visitors use screen readers, and complicated programming code for comments can confuse screen readers.

  • Everyone Wants to Avoid Spam

WordPress blogs come with Akismet, which is awesome at weeding out spam comments. Some blogs (like many Blogger/Blogspot blogs) use Captchas to avoid spam, but many hate Captchas with a passion and won’t leave comments at all.

Was I Asking for Too Much?

Every time I searched before, I wasn’t able to find a solution that would meet all of the above requirements and address a few other issues.

I also wanted:

  • threaded comments, to show replies under the original comment, as I’ve always had here
  • an ability to subscribe to comments
  • a system that would keep comments here in my site’s database rather than saving them to a third party I didn’t trust
  • a nice-to-have: an ability for commenters to edit their comments

All of the big commenting systems, such as Disqus, fail on at least one of those issues above or in the previous section. The one system I’d been thinking about switching to after that post years ago no longer exists, leaving even fewer options. Why was this so hard?

A Comment System? Or an Answer to a Prayer?

My website redesign made my search a priority, as my new theme messed up threaded comments, marking even top-level comments as replies. Once I installed this theme on my sandbox site, not a single letter displayed at the bottom of the comment section on old posts, as the last comment was indented right off the screen.

I spent a full day trying to figure out a fix, all to no avail. Not good.

A renewed search of options showed that a recent update to a fairly new comment system, WPDiscuz, implemented everything I wanted. And more. Squee!

So I’m really hoping this plugin works as well as I think it should. *fingers crossed*

Let’s cover the features:

  • Ease of Use: Check—No separate log in, just name and email (adding website is optional).
  • Works with Gravatar: Check—Set up a Gravatar account with all the email addresses you use for commenting and your picture will follow.
  • Links to Visitor’s Websites: Check—If you add your website to the comment form, you’ll get a nice purple link (especially with some CSS code I added to help).
  • Mobile-Friendly: Check—It just works. Yay!
  • Screen-Reader Friendly: Check—It worked with the ChromeVox extension I tested it with anyway. *smile*
  • Spam Unfriendly: Check—Doesn’t interfere with the Akismet spam-catching plugin.
  • Threaded Comments: Check—And as soon as I installed the plugin, those messed up comment threads fixed themselves too. Bonus!
  • Subscriptions: Check—I haven’t been able to test all aspects of this feature yet, but if it works like it’s supposed to, visitors will have three(!) subscription options:
    • Subscribe to “All New Comments on This Post” (sign up above the comment form)
    • Subscribe to “All Replies to All My Comments on All Posts” (sign up above the comment form, selecting in the drop-down box)
    • Subscribe to “New Replies to This Comment” (check box on the comment form—currently defaulted to on, but I could change that…what do you think?)
  • Ownership: Check—All comments are stored in my site’s database, and the backend moderation system remains the same. (However, I have to reply from the post itself for subscription notifications to work. Bummer.)
  • Comment Editing: Check—I think. I haven’t had time to test this, but visitors should have 15 minutes to edit their comment.

Plus, this system allows people to “Like” comments, hide replies to a conversation, and to sort by newest, oldest, or most-liked comments. It also includes Quicktags, so visitors can easily add bolding or italics to their comment.

(I chose to use CSS to hide some of the less-used and more-complicated Quicktags. They added clutter and confusion, and the only people who would know how to use them don’t need the Quicktags. *smile*)

Is it perfect? No. Right now, the system won’t let me move the form to the bottom, where visitors might be more encouraged to read the other conversations, and I had to kludge a way to include the Quicktag instructions. But it has a lot of potential.

I still don’t know if my health will ever allow me to reply to every comment again, but at least now if I do reply, visitors should know. I want people to feel like they can come here and ask me questions, start a conversation, or feel like part of a community. Here’s hoping! *smile*

Can you think of a blog’s comment section that feels like a community or that you enjoy being part of? What do you think makes a comment section feel like a community? What do you think of the new system here? Should I leave “Notify of replies to my comment” defaulted to on, or change the default to off? Do you want to test some of the features, and see if they work as well as I hope? *grin*

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What do you think?

20 Comments on "Blog Commenting: Building a Community"

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Davonne Burns
Davonne Burns

Having a good comment section is pretty important. I know I haven’t been commenting as much for a while now and not because I didn’t want to but mostly because of being low on spoons for ages now. 🙁
I’ll say, this does look very nice. And I can format without having to wrack my brain to remember HTML. XD

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane
Hey Jami, this may be a silly question to ask, but if I select “notify of all replies to all my comments on all posts,” that means I don’t need to worry anymore about whether I have the “Notify of new replies to this comment” checked, right? (Though I might leave it checked anyway just in case.) Also, I got your comment subscription emails! One thing I would suggest is to state in the email which specific type of subscription it is? I picked “notify of all replies to all my comments on all posts”, and I got three subscription emails, which is not a problem, except that they all say the same thing: “…You just subscribed for new comments on Jami Gold’s blog. This means you will receive an email when new comments are posted according to [the?] subscription option you’ve chosen…” Hmm, I would suggest, if it’s not too much hassle, to have the email say specifically which option we’ve chosen, e.g. (will receive an email) “when there are new replies to your comment”/ “when there are new comments on this post”/ “when there are new replies to any of your comments on any of my posts”. My examples might have been worded clumsily, haha, but you get what I mean. This might not be an issue if someone subscribed to something much simpler, like only “Notify of new replies to this comment.” But since I chose “…all replies to all my comments on all posts,” I got… Read more »
Pauline Baird Jones

Very cool, Jami. I will admit I haven’t always had time to check back and see if you replied, so I really like being able to be notified of responses! Congrats!

Laurie Evans
Laurie Evans

Looking around now…wow, great job! I know it’s a lot of work. I’m always tweaking my own site, but I have limited knowledge and need to hire help for some things.

Glad you found a comment system that fits what you wanted. That’s hard to find…some comment systems are just draconian and I won’t use them.

Anita
Hi Jami! I am so glad you wrote this post because comment sections are something I think all writers struggle with for the reasons you have very concisely summed up! I think another fear of why people turn off their comment sections is because of “trolling” and similar concerns. I feel that there is a lot of pressure on writers to comment on every single blog or follow what every single person is doing, and I really liked Google Reader because it helped me stay organized and on top of things, but I’ve struggled and let things fall by the wayside with Feedly, so it’s mostly now me just making sure I subscribe to my favourite blogs (like this one!) and engaging where appropriate. I also love that you’ve addressed that for websites like yours, which get a high volume of comments, it is not always possible to respond to every single comment, especially for individuals with health concerns and limited energy. In my early blogging days as a book reviewer, I was active on book blogging hops and actively commented on fellow bloggers, followed them on social media, etc, and although I do some of that in the writing sphere, I find that Facebook and Twitter have sort of become the place where people now prefer to comment, one of the reasons being because of systems like Disqus which forces users to log in and caused me all kinds of headaches when I would go to leave comments for… Read more »
Sharon Hughson

Yeah, I still feel like my blog goes unread because I rarely get a single comment. Doesn’t matter if I end with questions. Doesn’t even matter if I post about crazy popular topics people are yammering on about elsewhere.
So…I wish there could be a conversation in my comment section, but after nearly six years, I think I’ve lost hope.
(I like the new layout of your website. It looks awesome. What made you decide it was time for a new author tagline?)

Deborah Makarios

Thanks for highlighting the ‘subscribe to all replies to all my comments on all posts’ option! I like being able to keep up with the conversation, without being deluged with an email for every comment on your posts, or an email for subscribing separately to every post I comment on.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks. You’ve done a lot of research – I don’t use comments where you have to sign in with facebook, gmail or other as I do not use those sites.

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[…] If you’re trying to improve your blog, Jane Friedman shares WordPress plugins she can’t live without, Kathryn Lilley provides tips for crediting photos used in blogs as well as suggesting sources [we used a source she mentions for the terrific photos in this post], and Jami Gold speaks about blog commenting: building a community. […]

Adan Ramie

I’ve never seen a commenting plugin like this one, but so far, it looks great. If it really works like it says it does for you, I might have to try it on my own site! I love being able to only get replies to my comments, not every single reply that anyone ever posts. That’s a much better system, in my opinion, because sometimes I don’t want to get notifications on something I commented on six months ago – especially if it’s not even a reply to me! I never thought to post about plugins for my site. I might have to try that out. Here’s hoping you feel up to commenting more soon, because that will mean you’re feeling better. My best!

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