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Archived entry | Matt Wilcox .net

Comment Control

What’s wrong with comments

Two things:

Firstly, everyone has an opinion and the easier it is to express it, the less considered a comment tends to be. When you can just type a message and have your browser fill in the ‘email address’ and ‘your name’ fields there is almost no barrier to the visitor dumping their current state of mind in a comment - they read (or part-read) a post and immediatly write a reply, hit “send” and leave. And usually a comment of that nature will be flippant, trollish, missing the point, or largely useless. The easier it is to leave a comment, the lower the average comment’s quality will be.

Secondly, spam. There’s no need to go over what spam has done to comments other than to say how poor our attempts to defeat spam are. We either turn commenting off altogether, or resort to automated filtering (which makes mistakes and still needs moderating) or some form of fragile and useless “are you a human” test. That’s fundamentally flawed. A lot of “spam bots” are human, and they’re employed to leave comments as fast as they can in as many places as they can. We shouldn’t be testing for humans. We should be testing for understanding.

How to fix comments

Test for understanding of the article’s content.

I intend to do this when I rebuild my site. I’ll have a small “quiz” on each post and test the user understood the points I’m making. If they didn’t, they don’t get to comment. Harsh? No. Let’s look at what doing this buys me…

It buys me quality. I’m not interested in flippant comments, trolls, or arguing unrelated points. By crafting a simple quiz I get to cut the majority of those types of comments out before they’re made. By making it an effort to comment, people with weak agenda’s vanish because most of those people would rather leave than spend the cognitive effort required to comment. Those that do spend the time and effort are worth listening to - especially if they disagree with my article! Because they took the time to say so and they understood my article’s main points and arguments - I know they did, because I tested them! Won’t this put people off who have valid feedback? Maybe - but if the visitors comment wasn’t worth an additional 10sec of their time to leave it, then it wasn’t worth any of my time to read it.

Testing for understanding also buys me much better spam protection. It doesn’t matter if the spammer is a bot or a human; they need to have read and understood the article to post a comment. That’s far too time consuming (and therefor unprofitable) for human spammers even if they had the article to read for context (I imagine many don’t, I imagine they just use systems that scrape forms).

As a consequence of both the above points, the system buys me time. Time I can spend doing fun, useful, and pleasurable things instead of moderating valueless comments or searching through a sea of automatically flagged spam trying to find genuine comments within.


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  1. Michael. posted 8hrs, 6min, 40sec after the entry and said:

    That's an interesting method of obtaining better comments, and one I may have to steal… (Not that I have any comments at the moment, but I keep collecting ideas.)

    One thing that I would also suggest is to make a minimum char count. That way you weed out a number of worthless comments right off (thanks for the great post!). (I think that Twitter is mostly not useful for conversation, but apparently many don't agree…)

    With your quiz, would you have something like a multiple choice? E.g. for this post: "what is a major point in this post? a) I don't know, b) that spam bots are a major problem, c) that making commenting easier is better, d) that testing understanding is important, rather than testing for humanness". With of course, the answer being d (or something similar).

    I'm definitely writing this idea down somewhere… (along with the anti-machine measure of asking what the third (or fifth or seventh) word in the post is).

  2. Justin Avery posted 16hrs, 32min, 49sec after the entry and said:

    Great article. I really like your point of view and you raise some interesting points. BUY VIAGRA ONLINE.

    Right well I'm kidding there… About the V.

    I really don't appreciate the use of captcha, sometimes I spend longer trying to decipher the words than I do on the response.

    For the sites that I'm likely to return often I am willing to go through the registration process, but on some sites they include a 40 step questionnaire which is not cool.

    The idea of including a quiz is great, but it could spell disaster for a reader that is seeking further clarification from your post because they may not have gleamed it on the first read. Aside from that, and the the time to build the quiz into the comment feature it's a good recommendation.

    The quiz will take some time to write, but I think it's a fair trade off for quality comments on your article (after all it does benefit your site).

    I dare you to try and work on getting suitable comments out of YouTube next.

  3. Mai posted 23 days, 2hrs, 42mins after the entry and said:

    Superb idea. Would you be willing to post a "how to" instructions for wordpress sites?

  4. Bill posted 39 days, 2hrs, 4mins after the entry and said:

    So, do you have it in use here?

  5. Matt Wilcox posted 41 days, 23hrs, 54mins after the entry and said:

    @Bill: no, this is still the old site.

  6. welcomebrand posted 42 days, 23hrs, 1mins after the entry and said:

    I totally understand the thought process behind the idea Matt but to be honest if I had to face a test just to comment on an article I'd be a little insulted and then I'd probably leave.

    Comment spam is a mare at the best of times but by enforcing this sort of thing, you're making the limitations of your own process for managing and eliminating my problem not yours.

    You're assuming guilt before I've done anything and I suspect once the novelty wears off, you'd lose potentially valuable comments rather than gain them. It's difficult to generate good discussion on any blog without any barriers for people who are just decent folks let alone getting them to jump through hoops just to leave a thought.


    Matt says: Well I’d be sad to lose your input, but I’m willing to pay the price. As explained; if people don’t want to spend the minimal effort, I’m not sure they had anything worth my time anyway. No insult is intended, and I can’t see any valid reason anyone would feel insulted by this kind of process, and if I make comment spam a problem shared with my readers, that lightens the burden so they get more content more often. Win for everyone. Or, I could do what most other bloggers have done in response and more or less stop blogging… That’s a loose for everyone.

  7. Lloyd posted 57 days, 18hrs, 15mins after the entry and said:

    I've seen spambots that would actually pass this test. If you read articles over on Cracked, then you scroll down to the comments you can start reading a comment that fully goes along with the article. Then it goes into the standard $90/hr. on the web type comment and you're all like wtf. While I commend you on the idea, you might have to think further outside of the box. Any bot or human dedicated enough will defeat most anti-spam methods. Or at the least, figure out a way to cut its effectiveness in half.

  8. Lloyd posted 57 days, 20hrs, 46mins after the entry and said:

    Ahh, I faced all of the barriers you had to offer. The first being the "This message is not spam" check box, which I didn't put much thought past "Well that could be somewhat effective. Next, the referrer header. I have them disabled by default in my browser so that stopped me the first go round. In fact, I'm glad I came back because I had forgotten to turn it back on. The last being the e-mail verification took me by surprise. I say, you have really battened down the hatches with your anti-spam methods and I applaud you.

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