December 19, 2008

How to Use Comments To Attract Visitors…And Make Money

Posted in Community, Software tagged , at 11:22 pm by mj

Obligatory disclaimer: I’m hardly a “typical case,” and I don’t have the resources to conduct usability studies, experiments, or surveys for these kinds of things (wouldn’t that be an interesting job).

Sometime in 2005, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner–authors of Freakonomics–started an excellent Freakonomics blog. It was more interesting than the book, honestly, and far less self-aggrandizing than the first edition.

By late 2007, it was bought by the New York Times, and soon after, they switched to partial feeds (after breaking their feeds entirely for a time, as I recall). I, of course, summarily removed it from my feed reader. Who has time for partial feeds, especially if you spend most of your time reading on the train, plane, or automobile (OK, rarely do I read blogs in an automobile, but trains and planes have easily constituted 75% of my blog reading time for the last several years)? And how can 30 characters or 30 words or whatever arbitrary cutoff point provide you enough information to decide whether you want to star it to read later?

This evening, I just happened to follow a link to a Freakonomics blog article (it was this story on standardized test answers followed from God plays dice, a math-oriented blog) and spent about 90 minutes on the site. It really does have interesting content. Most of that time was perusing some of the interesting comments, and that’s also what drove me to click through additional stories–hoping to find more interesting comments.

Here’s an example: A Career Option for Bernie Madoff?. I would never, ever guess that this would be worth reading, especially if it meant first starring the item in my reader, and then finding it and clicking it, and waiting for it to load and then render. Never. I doubt it was even intended to be interesting; it was more of a throw-away story submitted for the amusement of regular readers.

But I’ve found the discussion interesting, mostly because the (convicted felon) former CFO of Crazy Eddie was commenting.

Robert Scoble recently lamented a related shortcoming with blog presentation. Scoble wants a service that highlights individual commenters’ “social capital” so you know who’s talking out of their ass (such as me), and whose opinions really matter or might even hint at things to come.

The projects discussed in his comments all seem to be headed in the same direction: some kind of Javascript pop-up or other icon that tells you something about a comment author as you’re reading the comments (I’m convinced that in the future, we will only hear our friends and idols and important decision-makers; history really is cyclic). But what if you’re deciding whether to read the comments at all?

Slashdot is another example. I’ve been “reading” (skimming, really) slashdot for 10 years, since its first year of operation. I have never bothered creating an account. Aside from a handful of anonymous comments over the years, I’ve never really cared to participate in that community or discussions. It’s rarely my first source for news (unless I’ve been under a metaphorical rock for a few weeks); the summaries are usually wrong; and my opthamologist has attributed 28.3% of my retinal decay to the site design.

Yet I keep coming back–often weeks after a story was submitted–because of the interesting comments. But even if you go to the front page–sans feed reader–it’s a crap-shoot. Even with the community moderation system, you simply don’t know if there are great comments embedded within a story. So I sometimes click hoping for a definitive comment, and sort by score (highest first). That often yields good results, at least in a statistical sense: the more comments on a story, the more of them will be truly excellent (maybe because authors are trying to increase their karma by commenting on high-traffic stories?).

So here’s what I think can make us all happy, and make partial feeds useful too: find some way to incorporate the interesting-ness of comments on a story into the feed.

It’s not going to be enough to say “ten of your friends have commented on this story”–although that would be exciting, and doable with existing feed readers.

It’s not even going to be enough to say “two CEOs and three software engineers of companies whose stocks you own have commented.” That would be awesome, too.

It’ll have to combine “people who are interesting” with “comments that are interesting, regardless of the author.”

And dammit, if it wouldn’t revolutionize the way I, at least, read blogs.

If I had that, I’d have all the information I need to once again start skimming partial feeds. It’s even better than ratings on the story level, since it tells you so much more about how it’s engaging its audience.

Is there a market opportunity in there somewhere?