Hands-on: 3 comment platforms make blog management easier

Disqus, IntenseDebate and Livefyre can help site owners keep control of the conversation.

Anyone who manages a high-traffic website knows the importance of the phrase "audience engagement." That's Webspeak for having an audience of readers who regularly post lively comments, keep the discussion going and give your site another reason to be visited.

The hard part is when managing those audience conversations becomes a job unto itself. The task of administering comments and/or discussion threads is limited both by the capacity of the host and the architecture of the system being used. What works well for an audience of dozens may implode when suddenly faced with an audience of thousands. Screening out spam and moderating messages can turn into a full-time job. And if a particular post goes viral, the sheer server load generated by a sudden spike in comment traffic might be more than your Web provider can handle.

One solution to such discussion dilemmas is to switch the comments portion of your site to a third-party discussion-management system. All comment-related traffic is off-loaded to their servers, managed with their tools, and spam-screened by their own spam-detection systems. You're no longer limited by whatever comment-moderation tools your blog site or CMS originally came with, and you are more protected from everything from traffic overload to spam-floods.

Currently, three services hold sway as the reigning champs for third-party discussion systems: Disqus, IntenseDebate and Livefyre. All provide the same basic functions but serve slightly different administrative needs and target audiences.

I tested three systems using a WordPress blog which I ran on a shared-hosting Web service account, and which contained 1,200 comments over 1,700 entries that needed to be migrated. I also looked at integration with other blog platforms, the import/export process, accepted credentials for posters, comment moderation and higher tiers of the service (if any exist).

I chose WordPress as the target platform because all three supported WordPress directly, and because of WordPress's sheer ubiquity. All three also have provisions for supporting blog platforms for which they don't have native integration, although that requires knowledge of HTML and JavaScript.

Disqus

Disqus has become something of the gold standard for third-party commenting systems. It's not hard to see why: it's easy to set up, comes loaded with a good spate of management controls, has a broadly-implemented user base, and gives you ways to migrate your messages both in and out of the system. Major clients include CNN, Time, Engadget and IGN. (Full disclosure: Computerworld also uses Disqus for its commenting system.)

Its biggest drawback is its price -- if you want to use anything other than the free, basic tier of service, Disqus can get expensive. That said, the core service has no explicit limits on how many comments can be supported or the rate of posting, so it should be a good place for most site admins to start.

The Disqus moderation panel appears either embedded in your WordPress administrative console or can be launched separately.Click to view larger image.

Setting up a Disqus account takes only a few steps. You register your site and a primary moderator, choose basic settings for how Disqus should behave with your server (e.g., whether English is the primary language for site prompts), and then install Disqus' comment system on your blog.

That last step is where most of the heavy lifting is, especially if you already have comments in your blog that you want to migrate to Disqus. Fortunately, Disqus provides tools to automate the import process. With WordPress, for instance, Disqus offers a plugin that automates everything, including replacing the comments form and migrating existing comments. If you have a lot of comments, you don't need to worry about babysitting the import process; it happens silently in the background, and you'll be sent an email notification when the import is finished. The total time for import will vary based on the number of comments and Disqus's own load: The site advises that imports can "take up to 24 hours to complete."

Disqus can be integrated into 11 other services: Blogger, Tumblr, Movable Type, TypePad, Drupal, Joomla, Squarespace, Yola, DokuWiki, Sandvox and chi.mp. It also offers "a generic JavaScript snippet that can be implemented anywhere."

When people post comments to a Disqus-moderated site, they can use a number of common authentication systems: Google, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, OpenID, or Disqus itself. Site moderators can also allow anonymous comments. That's the default setting, so those who want to limit the discussion to verified users should change this. I had no trouble using my own OpenID server or any of my other account credentials to log in and post.

Individual comments can also be "liked," which adds to a user's reputation score. This is a simple three-tiered ranking system -- high, medium and low reputation -- which allows an at-a-glance assessment of a general user's behavior. High rep means many likes and a high degree of participation; low rep means many flagged or deleted comments.

Disqus's control panel lets you see comments across all your moderated blogs in a single dashboard, but you can also drill down and see comments on individual blogs if needed. Individual commenters or IP addresses can also be white- or blacklisted, and a bevy of keyboard shortcuts make it easy to whip through a whole pile of pending comments.

Disqus enhances comments from the reader's point of view as well as the moderator's. Discussions are automatically threaded, and if you receive email notification of a given post, you can reply to the email and have your reply added to the thread under whatever Disqus credentials are attached to that email address. It's a great timesaver, especially if you're replying via a mobile device with a small display.

Disqus doesn't hold your comments hostage. If you don't want to use the service anymore, you can export comments from a given blog at any time. What's even nicer is how comments posted to Disqus are automatically echoed back into your blog's native comment system -- so if you disable Disqus, you don't need to export comments from Disqus and re-import them into your blog.

That said, if you do use the export function, it's nice to know no babysitting is needed there either. The export is done via a queue on the server side, and you're notified by email when the exported comments are ready to be downloaded. Comments are exported in a documented XML format, and there are various tools (e.g., a WordPress plugin to import comments from a Disqus XML file back into a website.

At a Glance

Disqus

DisqusPrice: Free; Professional ($299/month) adds analytics, reporting, advanced theme control, priority support; VIP ($999/month) adds unlimited forums and admins, dedicated servers, uptime guarantees.Pros: Easy setup and migration, natively supports a broad range of blogging servicesCons: Import process can be slow on the free service tier

The basic version of Disqus' service is free, and its feature spread should be more than enough for most individual blogs or modest-traffic sites. After that, however, the costs go up.

The professional version ($299 per month) adds analytics and reporting, advanced theme control and priority support. The VIP service level ($999 per month) adds even more goodies, such as dedicated servers, uptime guarantees and many other things high-traffic sites will appreciate -- and pay for.

Bottom line

It's hard to wrong with Disqus. The free version of the service isn't limited in any significant way, your comments can be moved in and out of the system as you see fit and if you use WordPress or another popular blog platform it's easy to set up and migrate to Disqus.

IntenseDebate

IntenseDebate is offered by Automattic, the creators of WordPress, who acquired the service back in 2008. That implies WordPress users are bound to get the most from it, and IntenseDebate does indeed sport a very strong degree of integration with WordPress. It doesn't skimp on working with other blogs, either -- Blogger, TypePad, Tumblr and generic blogs via a JavaScript include -- but anyone using WordPress will reap the biggest and most direct benefits.

IntenseDebate's moderation panel can be used in conjunction with, rather than to replace, the native WordPress comment moderation system.Click to view larger image.

IntenseDebate clients include the Microsoft Partner Network, Portland news outlet KATU.com, and startup accelerator TechStars.

A high level of integration between WordPress and IntenseDebate is clear from the beginning. As with Disqus, installation is a simple three-step process: you supply your website's URL, pick the publishing platform in use, and then install platform-appropriate plugins.

When I entered my WordPress site's URL, IntenseDebate checked the site and discovered that WordPress was in use; it then performed the rest of the configuration automatically. The only thing it didn't do was install the IntenseDebate plugin, but that was only one additional step on my part. Note that IntenseDebate works with only the open-source WordPress CMS software found at WordPress.org. IntenseDebate does not (yet) work on blogs hosted on the free WordPress.com service.

Once IntenseDebate's WordPress plugin has been installed and activated (using your IntenseDebate account), it automates the process of importing comments in much the same way Disqus does. You don't have to hang around for the import process to finish; you'll be notified by email when it's done, and your blog is still usable in the interim (although some of the comments may briefly vanish as they're migrated). That said, I had to restart the import when it got stuck without warning at one point, but after that it finished the whole process in a matter of minutes.

The last stage of the setup process lets you choose how comments are managed and presented in four ways: you can use the IntenseDebate comment template or WordPress's own styling for comments; you can have IntenseDebate manage how links in comments are shown or let WordPress's own code handle that; you can have native WordPress comments shown when site visitors use mobile devices or let IntenseDebate take over there, too; and you can use IntenseDebate's comment moderation panel or WordPress's.

The default is to use IntenseDebate for all of these functions except for mobile versions of sites, most likely because a site may have its own custom mobile-device format tweaks that you wouldn't want to override. You can also tweak the display of IntenseDebate comments by editing a CSS stylesheet.

IntenseDebate allows the usual trinity of user-authentication systems -- Facebook, Twitter and OpenID -- as well as IntenseDebate or WordPress.com logins, email-only identification and anonymous posting. You can automatically approve comments from people who post with IntenseDebate or WordPress.com accounts, but you can't automatically approve comments from people using other authentication systems.

Other options allow commenters to display images linked within the context of their posts, comment threading to be enabled or disabled (I leave it on), or to allow the text area to expand as you type, which in my experience encourages longer posts. RSS feeds are created automatically for individual posts' comments or all posts on IntenseDebate-managed sites.

WordPress's own comment-moderation page isn't replaced entirely by IntenseDebate, just augmented by it. You can, if you want, perform comment moderation directly on the IntenseDebate site instead. Its management interface is a little slicker than the one WordPress itself provides, but I like that you can stick with WordPress' original if you're more comfortable there.

One major selling point for IntenseDebate is a reputation-scoring system. Thumbs-up and thumbs-down votes can be awarded to individual comments. A reputation score is derived from that over time, and you can allow people with a certain minimum reputation score to have their comments automatically approved. (There's no maximum score -- the higher, the better.) However, some might find Disqus' reputation scoring, which provides only three basic tiers of reputation -- high, medium and low -- easier to deal with than IntenseDebate's open-ended numbering system.

IntenseDebate can use the Akismet spam-filter system (used by WordPress by default as well) instead of its own internal spam-filter mechanism -- or they can be used together. And, as with Disqus, you can add multiple moderators if you want other people to help pick up the slack.

IntenseDebate can be removed cleanly from a blog with relatively few steps. For WordPress, all I had to do was turn off the plugin, since all comments were also synced in the background to WordPress's own database (although they can be exported separately if need be). Disqus works the same way, so both products are on even footing there.

At a Glance

IntenseDebate

Automattic Inc.Price: FreePros: Useful reputation-scoring functionCons: Several small technical limitations, no paid-tier service

A few of the limitations in IntenseDebate are irksome. One that bit me a number of times is how public-facing names for commenters cannot be longer than 20 characters. If you import comments that sport longer user names, the names are truncated without warning.

Also, IntenseDebate does not have any other level of service beyond the basic, free iteration. This is both good and bad: good because it means the entire feature set is available to any user, but bad because there's no way to purchase increased reliability or support. What you see is all you get.

Bottom line

IntenseDebate's close integration with WordPress is well-implemented; however, it doesn't have any higher service tiers and also sports some other technical limitations.

Livefyre

Livefyre bills itself as "the best real-time conversation platform on the Web." The wording is actually significant: real-time conversation is something that has the air of social networks about it (Twitter comes most immediately to mind). Sure enough, one of Livefyre's most useful functions is the way it serves to loop in people on social networks and allow the conversation to be taken to them.

Major Livefyre clients include The New York Times, MTV, the Tribeca Film Festival and MIT's Technology Review.

The moderation panel on Livefyre's site has the ability to narrow the scope of displayed comments by multiple criteria, selectable via checkboxes.Click to view larger image.

The setup process starts with creating an account or certifying yourself via an existing social-media account. Allowed account types, which are also used to certify commenters, include Livefyre, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and OpenID.

Once that's done, you indicate your blog software, although right now the number of natively-supported blog platforms consists solely of WordPress and Tumblr. Blogger, Joomla and Drupal support are coming soon, but for now, everyone without direct platform support has to use the same block-of-JavaScript approach that Disqus and IntenseDebate also use to provide their services to as-yet-unsupported systems.

WordPress users have only to install the Livefyre plugin to get things rolling. The comment import process requires no babysitting, although it didn't alert me by email after finishing. Not a huge issue, but judging from the number of posts in their support forum about comment import operations that develop problems, it would be nice to have some positive way of knowing the import's done without checking manually.

The comment form Livefyre installs on your blog sports some ingenious features inspired directly by the way posting works on social networks. For example, users who type an @ in the comment panel and then begin to type a name will see a list of people autosuggested from the friends lists available on the various social networks connected to their account. This way, people known to the commenter across a panoply of social networks can be pinged to join the discussion, even if they're not actually involved.

The comments panel also sports a "listener" count -- a report of the number of people who are currently reading the site -- which is a quick at-a-glance way to see how much attention a given post is receiving. The style of the message area can also be customized with CSS.

Comments can be cross-posted to Facebook and Twitter, if those services are registered with the poster's account. The site admin can also automatically have all comment traffic echoed back to specific pages or accounts on either of those services, as a way to further expand the conversation.

Livefyre users can be notified by email when something happens in a conversation they're in -- a reply, a "like" action, and so on. If users don't relish the idea of being bombarded with these notifications, Livefyre lets them either compile those responses into hourly email digests or suppress them entirely.

The moderation panel on Livefyre's site has one very powerful function I didn't see anywhere else: the ability to narrow the scope of displayed comments by multiple criteria, selectable via checkboxes. For example, you can view active comments that are flagged as off-topic and contain a given search term. This is a great way to drill down and identify tricky abuse cases -- for instance, users who look legitimate but who are in fact spambots in disguise because they keep posting the same irrelevant material.

At a Glance

Livefyre

Livefyre, Inc.Price: Free; professional-level pricing available upon requestPros: Strong cross-integration with social networking, useful drill-down interface in comment moderation panelCons: Paid version requires a price quote request

I also appreciated the ability to change the nesting level for comments -- the maximum number is four, but some site designs don't deal well with anything deeper than two due to narrow columnar formatting.

Livefyre's free service tier supports up to 2 million monthly views and has most of the features needed for even a generous-sized blog. To get pricing for the professional version (which includes premium support and guaranteed uptime), you need to submit a quote request which includes the average amount of traffic to your site per month. Quoted prices vary depending on traffic, since Livefyre claims each client will have different data migration, support, authentication and customization needs.

Bottom line

For actively including other social media platforms and extending the conversation into them, Livefyre is the best of the three services reviewed here.

Conclusions

All of these services share a few key features. They're easy to set up, especially on WordPress; they do a reasonably good job of making your comments portable in case you want to switch services; and they fall back to your native blog's comments if their services are unavailable.

IntenseDebate's two biggest features -- tight integration with WordPress and reputation-scoring -- don't set it apart as definitively as they ought to, since the other products here do at least as well in either of those categories. Also, some of the limitations (like the 20-character name limit) seem arbitrary. IntenseDebate has only one level of service -- free -- but that at least makes it predictable.

Livefyre works best if one of your priorities is to tie in other social networks and their audiences, allowing conversations to extend beyond your own site but still remain manageable. The commercial version of Livefyre is far more customizable and better supported, but the basic edition should be fine for the majority of users.

But if you're looking for a solid discussion-management tool, Disqus is the easiest default choice: it's the most widely-used, directly supports the broadest range of blog platforms, and isn't missing anything crucial. (Disqus's steep monthly pricing for any of its other tiers beyond the basic service is for those who want to make advanced use of its APIs or get guaranteed performance.) It's hard to go wrong with it no matter what you're doing.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.

Read more about content management in Computerworld's Content Management Topic Center.

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