Should you allow comments on your website or shouldn't you?

When I was younger I often went hiking in the mountains. One day I was following a trail that led through a small village at the foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy. I still had some ways to go to reach my final destination and wasn't sure how long it would take.
An old man was sitting on a bench in the village square so I approached him and asked how long it would take me to reach the next town. "Walk!" he says.

Since the man was old, I though he hadn't heard my question so I repeated it a little louder.

"Walk!" was his reply again.

Now, you must know that Northern Italians are not renown for their friendliness but this man was being a little too rude. After all, I had just asked for simple directions. Well, I thought, if he doesn't want to answer me, fine. I will ask someone else. So I said thank you and walked away.

I had barely taken a dozen steps when I heard a voice calling me. It was the old man, gesturing to come back. Now what did he want? Maybe he forgot to insult me? I went back anyway and abruptly the man said: "It will take you an hour and fifteen minutes to get there". "Well, why didn't you tell me the first time I asked?", I said. The answer surprised me.

"I hadn't seen you coming so I wasn't sure how fast you walked. When I saw you walking I knew it would take you only an hour and fifteen minutes". People commenting on our blog posts may feel like that old man. Some comments may seem rude and make us nervous or downright angry. But they can turn out to be very helpful in the end.

If you publish a blog or an article on the internet, you express your point of view.
For you, that's the "right" way to see a topic. But different people may have different opinions and when they leave comments about your articles on your own web site, they may make you uneasy. So, should you disallow comments completely? Before you decide, read on and see the reasons why comments can make your site better. Or why comments can make your site worse.

Why it's good to have comments on your website

There are three main reasons why it's good to allow comments on your web site:
- different perspectives can make you more authoritative
- you can quickly correct factual mistakes
- you are perceived as a good listener.

Knowing about different points of view can make you more authoritative

Obviously, your point of view on a subject is the "right" one. Or is it? If you don't listen to other people's arguments you won't ever know.
Every topic can be looked at from many different angles and some angles may surprise you and give you a deeper understanding of the matter.

By exploring all the different angles, even the ones you disagree with or have never heard before, you will quickly raise your level of expertise.
Even wrong opinions can benefit you because you can use them as objections to kill easily. And this will raise your perceived expertise.
Having an opportunity to read different opinions would be enough to convince you to allow comments on your website but there's another reason why allowing comments is a good idea. They help you correct your mistakes.

Why comments help you correct mistakes

Mistakes are a fact of life and sooner or later they will creep up in your articles. It may be a misspelled name, the wrong date, or a broken hyperlink. Even though they may seem unimportant, little factual or grammatical errors annoy readers. Overall they make for a poor article, make you look sloppy and may detract from your credibility.
Inevitably, when visitors can leave a comment, they will alert you about these mistakes. Since websites are easily updateable you can fix them as soon as possible, so future visitors won't even see them. And this leads us to the third reason why comments are a good thing: you are perceived as a good listener.

Comments make you a good listener

Everybody has experienced being cornered by a "talker". It's not pleasant listening to someone who talks and talks without leaving you a chance to utter a word.
Contrast this with being in company of a great, attentive "listener". Now it's our turn to talk and we are often left with a feeling of admiration and respect for that person.
If you allow comments on your blog you will instantly be perceived as a "listener". And your readers will like you as a result.

And now that we have seen the reasons why you should allow comments on your website, let's look at the reasons against it.

Why it's a good idea NOT to allow comments on your website

There are three main reasons why comments on a website can create trouble:
- spam
- vocal criticism
- comments out of scope

Spam

Spam is a serious problem when it comes to comments. Spam robots incessantly search the internet for places where to leave messages that promise infinite money or worse. But there are other forms of spam that can be very annoying.

For example, some people like to race to be the first to leave a comment on a blog post. All they write in the comment is the word "First!".
This kind of comment often generates admirers that write "Second[/i]!" and "[i]Third!" responses which make the comment section look kind of silly. Avoiding spam comments requires the site owner to monitor constantly the site and sometimes this cannot be possible, so the spam accumulates. But spam is nothing compared to the second reason why comments can be a pain: vocal criticism.

Vocal criticism

Vocal criticism means that a comment disagrees with your point of view. The disagreement can be gentle but most of the time it can be very strong. When a visitor has just finished reading your article it may be confronted, right on the same page, with a comment that ridicules the article. This generates confusion.
Is the article valid? Is the author credible? Even if the comment expresses a point of view that is plain wrong, the reader may not know it and give it undue credibility. But there's another more subtle argument to make.

The other argument is that having a lot of bad comments can be frustrating for the author. We see our articles a little bit like our babies and we don't like other people to say bad things in public about them. Unless we don't even look at the comments, which is difficult to do, in the long run we may feel demoralized and may resort to putting out less controversial but boring articles.
If this two reason aren't enough to make you turn off comments on your site, here's a third one.

Out of scope comments

The third reason is that comments can be completely out of scope. What does this mean?
When you publish something on the internet, you don't expect readers to view your article all at the same time. Some readers will come right away. Others will come later. Maybe years later.
In the meantime, something might have happened that made the article not relevant anymore. But people would still comment like the article was written yesterday.

This happens often with technical articles: a procedure becomes obsolete and may actually cause harm now but the reader that finds the article three years later, and doesn't pay attention to the publishing date, may still try to use it. Obviously the procedure fails and the irate reader leaves a terrible review.
All these out of scope, negative comments can quickly lower the credibility of the author.

As we have seen, allowing comments on your website can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it. But can you have the best of both worlds?
To a certain extent you can. Let's look at how some websites have solved this problem.

Some websites solve this problem in three ways

- They use a separate section of the website or a dedicated forum for comments
- They require visitors to sign up for an account in order to leave a comment
- They publish follow-up articles based on comments received via email

Let's look at these methods in more detail.

A separate section of the website or forum for comments

Ars Technica, a website that publishes articles about technology, uses this system. When you read an article you won't be able to see the comments. In order to see them you need to click a link that will reveal them. In this way, the article is separated from the comments that are still available to people who want to read them.
KunstlerCast.com publishes weekly podcasts about suburban living. Each podcast has a moderated forum thread where listeners can write about it. The main website links to the forum but keeps it separate from the page where you download the podcasts.

Require visitors to sign up for an account in order to leave a comment

Many sites use this system. The advantage is that a lot of automated spam can be avoided. It's very difficult for a spam robot to open an account in order to leave a comment.
Also, people that want to leave frivolous comments are often discouraged by the sign up process.

Follow up articles based on comments received but not published

Some websites and podcast sites don't allow comments but readers can write to the site via email or through a form. A curator reads the emails and categorizes them so the author can respond in an efficient manner to the comments received. This system requires actual people to do most of the work, so it can't be totally automated but often the results are very interesting.

Let's summarize

Comments on your website can be very helpful because:
- They allow you to be aware of different perspectives that can make you more authoritative,
- They also allow you to quickly correct factual mistakes,
- They let the visitors know that you value their opinions

The downside of letting people comment on your website are:
- They can be a vehicle for spam or poorly written comments
- They allow critics to be very vocal and diminish the credibility of the article
- They can be totally out of place, especially if the comment is published years after the article is written.

Several websites have come up with solutions to the comment problem. The most used solutions are:
- Keep articles and comments separate on different sections of the website or in a forum
- Create a barrier by requiring people to sign up before they can post a comment.
- Publishing follow up articles based on comments received only via email.

Like many things in life, allowing comments on your website can be a good strategy or a nightmare. But as you can see there are ways to profit from comments while minimizing the headaches that may come with them.
And sometimes you may find that a harsh comment will actually turn out to be very helpful, like that old man's directions in the mountain village.