Removing Blog Comments: The View So Far

Agree or disagree, trust or question, the one constant was that everyone had a reaction. Now almost three weeks later, it’s time for us to react to the reaction.


That’s what this post by Sonia Simone sent through the Copyblogger community.

The post, you’ll recall, announced our decision to remove blog comments and gave the reasoning for why we decided to do so — reasoning that some accepted at face value, others parsed for hidden meaning, and the rest ignored before ZOMG’ing to their social account of choice to share the headline.

In this episode, Sonia, Demian, and I shed light on the following:

  • The super-secret, ulterior, Machiavellian motives that did (or didn’t) influence the decision to turn off blog comments
  • Why comment moderation is an underrated time suck
  • What it means when a company says it has “outgrown a comments section”
  • Why content is an asset to be controlled … but conversations might not be
  • Why a business never outgrows the need to listen to its customers
  • How removing comments has changed the experience for Copyblogger authors
  • What the “number one, most important reason to keep” blog comments is
  • Guidance on whether you should consider removing blog comments from your site

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The Show Notes

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Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: Sonia Simone Discusses the Fallout From Removing Blog Comments

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. I’m your host, Jerod Morris. If you want to get a content marketing education during a walk around the block or your drive home from work, this podcast is the way to do it. Today Demian Farnworth and I are joined by Copyblogger Chief Content Officer, Sonia Simone, to discuss blog comments.

As you probably already know, we removed blog comments at Copyblogger recently, and the decision created quite a bit of discussion. Sonia shares her thoughts on how the experiment is going so far, and how she would advise any site owner considering a similar course of action.

How super-secret, ulterior, Machiavellian motives did (or didn’t) influence the decision to turn off blog comments

Jerod: Okay, Sonia. So about two weeks ago, March 24th, we announced that we were removing comments from Copyblogger. And it’s obviously too soon to make any data-based judgments about the impact of that decision, but I’m very curious just to gauge your feelings, your general feelings, about how it’s gone so far.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. It’s been really interesting.

One of the things that has come out that I did not expect is the number of people around the web who believe that I have super-secret, ulterior motives, and they’re trying to read the tea leaves to figure out, “What are they really doing?” Like, what’s the real strategy here?

So first thing is, I am really flattered that people think I’m that Machiavellian. I think that’s kind of a great compliment. But there are no tea leaves to read. Pretty much we said everything. Those were the real reasons that we laid out in the post.

And I think it’s been an interesting mixed bag. I like comments. I like blog comments. So it took me a while to lose that muscle memory of going into the dashboard and checking for the unread comments. But I’ve got to say, I’m spending about the same amount of time in conversation. I’m just spending a lot more of it having conversations with people, and a lot less of it looking at comments, trying to figure out whether or not I should be approving them. So that’s kind of a win.

Why comment moderation is an underrated time suck

Jerod: And that is part of the problem. The time spent. And that’s one of the responses that we’ve gotten as well. Spam filters catch everything, so that’s really not that big of an issue. But as you kind of alluded to, it really is, isn’t it?

Sonia: Yeah, and I think — it’s hard to talk about this without sounding incredibly snotty — but there are issues that come up when you have a lot of traffic that don’t come up when you’re not at that level of traffic.

I don’t like to get into “big blog, little blog” kind of nonsense conversations, but there are some issues that come up when you have a lot of traffic, and one of them is that your site really becomes a platform for a lot of grandstanding, for a lot of showboating.

I had an amazing number of e-mails from people, many of which really gave me kind of a chuckle and made me smile, from people who said, “You know, I wish you hadn’t turned off comments because I used to get all kinds of traffic to my site from leaving comments on Copyblogger.” And there were some other quite creative and innovative ways people would use Copyblogger comments to get traffic to their sites.

And I applaud all of their resourcefulness and initiative. I think that’s great. But there is a flip side to that, which is the conversation becomes skewed in the favor of a lot of self-promotion. And a lot of people — it’s almost like they’re on stage, you know? They’re using the stage, they’re using the blog comments as a platform. That doesn’t necessarily come up on a blog that doesn’t get quite the same amount of traffic.

And so a lot of people said, “Well, I don’t understand the problem they face.” And I think it’s just a question of we’re in really different contexts. So yeah.

The spam filters definitely caught almost everything that was posted by a robot. What they didn’t catch was a lot of seemingly innocuous posts left by various people, a lot of SEO firms leaving comments that really were not tremendously valuable. They really weren’t part of the “conversation.” They didn’t add a lot. They just created a lot of clutter.

And I hope nobody takes that all of the comments on Copyblogger were of low quality. And some people are saying that. “Oh, it’s worthless, the blog comment conversation’s worthless.” I don’t think that’s true at all.

I also don’t think that we cut off the most valuable conversation arena that we had just because of the nature of the platform, the visibility of it. People just tend to be more relaxed, more themselves, more genuinely conversational in our social accounts. Particularly our Google Plus presence.

What it means when a company says it has “outgrown a comments section”

Demian Farnworth: So Sonia, what does it mean when a company says that they’ve outgrown a comments section? Is that possible? What does that mean? What does that look like?

Sonia: I don’t think every company outgrows comments, and I don’t think any company outgrows the need to engage in a lot of very specific and very time-consuming conversation with their audience, their customers, their vendors, the general public.

Conversation is part of how 21st centuries do business. And I’m for that, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. The one thing our company was not lacking was opportunities for conversation. We have an embarrassment of riches there. So I think Copyblogger was in a very specific situation because we are very high visibility, and we do get an awful lot of traffic, and people use the comments section on Copyblogger the way that they might not in another company. So I don’t know if it’s outgrowing the blog comments.

I think it’s just more a question of making a call, making a business decision, about whether the comments are serving a valuable business purpose, or could that purpose be served a different way?

You know, any business owner, big company, small company, $10 million dollar company, $100 million dollar company, you need good listening posts. You need ways to observe how people think about you, feel about you, feel about your products, how they’re using your products. That’s important for a company of any size, and so we just happen to be really blessed with opportunities to do that because of the nature of the kind of business we are.

Having grown out of a blog, we have so many conversations around our business. But no, it’s important, and I don’t want anybody to take away the idea that companies should stop listening to their audiences, because that would be very foolish.

Demian: Mmm-hmm.

Why content is an asset to be controlled … but conversations are not

Jerod: Now I want to ask you how the concept of digital sharecropping played into this. It seems like there are two ways to look at it:

One way, that we talked about even when we were making the decision, was about wanting people who left these really substantial comments on the Copyblogger blog to use those to seed blog posts on their own site, and start conversations with their own audience. And then you’ve also got — I guess the argument could be made that we’re even digital sharecropping some — having these conversations on Google-Plus. How do you look at those two different areas?

Sonia: Yeah. And that conversation came up a lot, and I was glad, because it means that people who care about our stuff are really taking that digital sharecropping message to heart, which is awesome.

And just for the record, here’s how I see it. I don’t put my business assets on a platform that I don’t control. So I don’t put my content on a platform I don’t control unless I have it somewhere I can keep it and benefit from it. I wouldn’t post original content to Facebook. I would just never — it doesn’t make a lot of sense, other than just a post, a simple throw-away kind of a post. So our content lives on our domain, in our e-mail lists. These are assets we can control.

I think the difference is I don’t see the conversation as an asset. I see conversations as an experience that the business does not own, and I think actually businesses are delusional if they think they do own the conversations around their product, their topic. The conversation is an experience a business has that it uses to get better, and that it uses to grow and evolve and serve the audience better. And so conversations are meant to be ephemeral.

It’s funny because we’re in this 21st Century digital age, and we want to archive everything. We want everything to be, you know, backed up and triple backed up, and if a meteor comes tomorrow and takes out all the servers that house Google-Plus, and we lose those conversations, that’s a shame. But they’re conversations. To me they’re not meant to live forever. What they’re meant to do is educate me, inform me, change how I think, change how I feel.

The change, the transformation that the conversation creates takes place in me, so it’s fine with me if it’s on another platform. And you know, I’m a control freak about everything. But I am not a control freak about my conversations because the valuable part is how it changes me, not the words on a server somewhere.

How removing comments has changed the experience for Copyblogger authors

Jerod: And to close this out, Sonia, I do want to get your thoughts on, guidance for other people who may be facing this decision.

Before we do that, though. Demian, I’m actually curious to get your perspective as a writer who’s had some posts go up since then. Has it changed the experience for you at all? Having the comments and conversation in a place other than right underneath the post where it had always been?

Demian: That’s a great question. I don’t think so. What changes is where you look for the responses.

The nice thing about Google-Plus is I’m notified when someone actually mentions my name, or if I’m following that discussion then I’m notified within Gmail or Google-Plus, any one of the Google products. So it’s nice in that way. There’s a lot more ease of use.

You know, with Copyblogger it used to be we’d get emails every time somebody commented. But that can get overwhelming if you have a lively discussion. But then, eventually we pulled that feature. And so now I just have to go on there and look. So I like the idea of being notified, and again, the only real habit change was just where to look for the comments. So outside of that, though, no.

When should you keep blog comments? When should you not?

Jerod: All right. Sonia, to close this up here, one of the — I suppose you could call it — criticisms of the decision, is that people thought that we would be leading a lot of other sites to close comments when those comments could still be valuable for them. And I’ve seen, just on our Twitter account, people talking about how they’ve been thinking about doing this, and maybe felt more empowered because we had done it. What kind of advice or guidance would you give to people who are considering possibly turning their comments off?

Sonia: First, the very first thing is, and Ramsay Taplin brought up this in his post, and I thought it was really important: If you’re really enjoying it, if you’re really enjoying the experience and your comments are really giving you energy and you’re enjoying that conversation, that’s the number one most important reason you should keep them, even if it makes — even if you could find a business reason to turn them off. If you like them, please keep them. Lots of people love the comments on their blogs. So that’s excellent.

And I think the other thing to really keep in mind is the importance — it is still important to have those conversations and to get those reactions, and for most blogs your comments are a great place to do that. It’s right there, it’s all in one place, it’s convenient. So we were in a very unusual circumstance. I think most blogs would probably want to go ahead and leave comments there.

But where I do challenge people is I’m seeing some responses that, you know, “a blog without comments isn’t a blog,” or that it’s somehow morally or ethically not okay (chuckles) to take your comments off. If it’s something you’ve really been wanting to do, and you have other ways of talking to people, then this can be — you know, for a lot of businesses this means taking a customer out to lunch twice a month and just sitting down and talking to them about their experience with the business. Blog comments are not the only way to talk to your customers.

So if you are dying to do it, and you feel like that value isn’t there for you proportionate to the work, because man, moderating spam comments is the singularly low productivity behavior.

Demian: Yes. I second that.

Sonia: I mean, it’s way down there. Having your teeth cleaned is like, way more enjoyable and actually useful. So yeah. I think it comes down to your preference, and then do you have another way to make the connections to have a conversation to listen?

What you don’t want to do is use it as an excuse to quit listening to what people have to say, including those conversations that are uncomfortable or inconvenient. Those are part of doing business. So as long as you have that in place, then I really think it’s up to your judgment as a business owner.

And also, it’s not like you turn off comments on your blog and then you can never turn them on again. If you find that you miss them, or that you’re having an unintended scenario and you think you should, bring them back on. So that’s the great thing about these kinds of tools. They have a lot of flexibility and you can do experiments.

Ours was a little bold, but that’s how we roll.

Jerod: Yeah, and we will be analyzing it and figuring out the pluses and minuses …

Sonia: Sure.

Jerod: …and the impacts, and will be reporting out on that. Well, this has been a very hot topic, Sonia, and I appreciate your taking the time today, and letting everybody get your insight on it.

Sonia: Awesome. Thanks, Jerod. Take care.

Jerod: All right. You too.

Thank you for listening to The Lede. If you like what you’re hearing, please consider leaving us a rating or a review on iTunes. You can also tweet about the show or tell a friend, and to those of you who have included The Lede in your best-of podcasts posts, like James Dillon of Gorilla SEO, thank you so very much. We greatly appreciate any love that you all give us.

We’ll be back next week with another episode, most likely the next in our eleven-part series on the essential elements of a blog post. Talk to you soon, everybody.

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