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A Word on Comments

Whenever I speak to folks that blog these days, it seems, people are concerned about the dearth of commentary on their blogs. Even a couple of people I know with substantial traffic numbers are lamenting the lack of external commentary.

As an example, here’s what one of my favorite bloggers, Lenovo’s David Churbuck, had to say on the comment issue a few days ago:

Comments are King. One’s first comment is a rush, sort of a minor miracle. This spurs one to wonder: “How in the world did this stranger find me?”…Comments are not a statistical indicator of a blog’s relevance or ranking according to the most important blog search engine, Technorati. This is a good thing. If comment counts did matter then I would be approving each and every piece of comment spam I receive and you would be reading a lot of Chinese character spam and porno come-ons. Valid comments and trackbacks are the most valid measure of engagement. Look at Mark Cuban’s blog where the guy routinely gets over a hundred comments to his posts. I don’t get anything near that number here. I think my single post record is 15 or so, but it stings when asked directly: “How many comments do you get?” My answer — “Not enough.”

1. There probably is a golden ratio of comments to posts. Mine is nearly 1-to-1. 685 posts with 681 comments.

While this wistful desire for more commenting stems in part from a basic human need to be heard, part of it, I think, derives from the conviction that comments are the real metric for success with respect to blogging. While I’m sure there are those who’d argue against me, and I probably have some bias in the matter, I don’t buy that.

My bias is should be obvious, as I publish both entry and comment numbers on the front page of the blog: as of this posting, I’m running at 2224 comments to 1053 entries. That ratio, for the math impaired (I’m one of you), is about 2.1 to 1. For each entry, therefore, I can expect a bit over two comments. And given that I try to respond to each and every commenter, it’s more like one comment and then my response. So a Mark Cuban or a Robert Scoble, I am clearly not. I mention that in case you want to factor that in to your take on all of this.

But here’s why I think gauging success by comments is a doomed approach. While there are probably a thousand different motives for commenting on someone’s blog, I think the majority boil down to three basic categories:

  1. The commenter knows the author personally

  2. The commenter is interested in the subject matter
  3. The commenter is inspired/motivated/etc by other commenters

For those of you that might begin to argue that I’m leaving out an important commenter type – the troll – I’m lumping that in to #3. It’s also worth mentioning, of course, that in many cases – perhaps most cases – the motivation is a combination of these factors. Say #1 and #2.

If we can accept the above contention for the moment, the question becomes this: what does this tell us about the nature of commenting? My answer to that question would be simple: commenting is mostly out of your control. Not entirely, of course: you control how many people you know, you control the subject matter, and so on, but that type of control is indirect at best. You could know a thousand people, but none of them read blogs. Likewise, Baus’ Law mandates that anticipating interest in subject matter is a virtual impossibility (unless you’re a.) FUDing, b.) flaming, or c.) have naughty pictures of someone ;). In other words, the volume of comments on your blog is mostly (but not entirely) out of your control.

Perhaps you’re the type of person, however, that can’t help but stress over even the things you don’t have control over: what are you to do in that case? Well, at that point it might be useful to consider what comes along with high comment volumes, namely the inability to maintain the same individual relationship with your audience, and the terrible twin curses of spam and trolls. The grass isn’t always greener, and I’ve said many times before that I have no interest in the kind of traffic and commentary Scoble et al attract: the benefit simply doesn’t outweigh the cost, IMO. Not that I have to worry about that, of course.

One other quick item worth mentioning is this: comments don’t necessarily include the reactions that occur to your content external to your site. I, for example, do a lot of my commenting on entries that I find of interest in the del.icio.us link to it. With the rare exception of sites like Sam Ruby‘s, that sort of external commentary is never reflected in your totals. Even Trackbacks can be problematic, as our own implementation indicates.

If comments aren’t a good indicator, then, what is? Most of us are not content to simply ship our words off wholesale into the ether, trusting benignly that we have “readers” somewhere. Rather than comments, I suggest tracking consumption of your web content and feed traffic. The former is easier than the latter, with free services like Google Analytics or Statcounter that will give you a fairly precise read on how many people are reading your content, and what they’re reading. It’s even possible to get metrics on consumption of your feeds via services like FeedBurner’s, although it’s less detailed than what’s available on the web.

Make no mistake; comments are a good thing, and to be actively courted whenever possible. But don’t make the mistake of making them out to be something they are not – a pass/fail metric for you efforts.

Categories: Blogs.

  • http://dandaviesbrackett.blogspot.com Dan Davies Brackett

    There’s also first-mover disadvantage to a lot of commenters. I don’t suffer from it myself (witness this comment), but I’ve heard lots of people who are reluctant to leave the first comment. I wonder if there’s a way to make that less intimidating?

  • http://www.manninchina.com Mike

    Stephen, I came here off of Churbuck’s blog. I completely agree with your thoughts. For me, blogging is just about putting my words out there…it makes me feel good and I hope there are some people out there; friends, family or other, that enjoy reading it. But, when I lack comments for a long period of time, I can help but wonder … “Does anyone care?” So, as you say, having an average of a couple comments per post good.

    thanks for the insights

  • http://aqualung.typepad.com Ric

    This post has now officially exceeded the average number of comments (and not one of them is Steve’s)!

    I think it’s always gratifying when you get “real” comments – it can get a bit lonely if you don’t think ANYBODY is reading your posts – I quite like David’s take on them! As for a measure of blogging success, I think that comes down to what YOU see as the reason for blogging, and determine for yourself what constitutes a successful acheivement of that.

    Personally I probably spend more time and effort commenting on other people’s post than posting on my own blog – which is why I use coComment to put those comments on my own page. Commenting is what makes blogs a conversation rather than a broadcast (and one of the reasons I disagree with Seth Godin’s stance on comments).

  • http://aqualung.typepad.com Ric

    … and something else (trying hard to inflate your stats, Steve!) – I use a feed reader for most blogs, and I DO find that sometimes (particularly when I’m a bit behind) I am reluctant to leave the feed reader to visit the “real” blog to post a comment. I guess that makes feed readers a two-edged sword, and what makes knowing how many subscribers you have interesting.

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady stephen o’grady

    you’re all blowing my average! :)

    anyhow, Dan, i agree. it is difficult for some to be the first response – which is the exact reverse of the behavior you see at high comment volume sites where there’s an effort to be the first commenter.

    Mike: thanks for the comment. my response to that would be – see from the web/feed metrics if people are actually reading you. if they are, then they care. if they’re not, then you might have a problem. i just don’t think comments are the way to determine that.

    ric: two comments, even :) but i agree – i think ultimately it comes down to what you’re looking for from the blog. if i was an engadget or some such getting no comments, i’d be very worried. but i think for a lot of the “opinion” oriented blogs, commenting is less natural.

  • SOGSR

    Another comment-your math skills have always been suspect-thus spake Bruce Dugan. SOGSR