There has been a significant backlash against comments in the past couple of years, with many sites dispensing with comments completely, and trying to push those conversations to social media instead. But is this a smart move?
Google has often referred to user generated content as a valuable quality signal, something that can be irreplaceable for some types of sites. And while comments aren’t the “magic sauce” by any stretch of the imagination, in a time when SEOs are making their sites secure for the teeny, tiny ranking boost (yes, while we know a site being secure it a great thing, it wasn’t until that ranking boost was announced that suddenly being secure was important to SEOs), comments can play a part in a site’s overall quality and subsequent ranking.
Why Sites are Removing Comments
There are multiple reasons sites have given to remove comments… and not surprisingly, a big one is as a move to prevent Google from negatively impacting a site due to low quality comments. This is the same reason many site owners state when removing other types of user generated content, such as forums or contributor articles.
But many operate under the assumption that user generated content equals low quality. And while there certainly is a staggering amount of very poor quality UGC out there, there are many, many examples of sites based significantly on user generated content that are incredibly well.
Direct Benefits in Google
While we have known many types of user generated content can be a quality signal, it still gets a bad rap. Gary Illyes from Google had a Twitter discussion during Pubcon last year about how UGC can definitely provide value…. take Stack Overflow for example. And there is a huge difference between blog spam or crappy guest blog posts and thoughtful, high quality UGC, regardless of whether it takes the form of comments, forum posts or even contributed content.
But comments are definitely on the short end of the stick of late, and the perception that comments are low quality is a big reason.
I also asked Illyes for confirmation specifically about blog comments, since so many sites are removing them.
@methode You've talked about types of UGC (ie. Q&As such as Stack Overflow & forums) being valuable quality content in the eyes of Google…
— Jennifer Slegg (@jenstar) April 27, 2016
@jenstar yep. In general if we see that there's a healthy, thriving community on a site, that can help a lot
— Gary Illyes (@methode) April 27, 2016
I then asked for a bit of clarification, specifically if comments could “help” in ways beyond simply the quality content part of the algo equation.
@jenstar it feeds into general quality. Say, there's good content, 5 points, great links from great pages, 2 points, thriving community, 1pt
— Gary Illyes (@methode) April 27, 2016
Of course, comments themselves are also a contributor to the good content part too. So it being a visible sign of a thriving community are bonus points for SEOs.
He also clarifies that is not in an ordered list, or “stack rank.”
@jenstar also, that wasn't a stack rank. The points I gave are random
— Gary Illyes (@methode) April 27, 2016
John Mueller has also talked about comments bring a positive signal as well, something we talked about extensively in our Panda Algo Guide. And he also confirms Google views comments as part of the content.
That’s something where we essentially try to treat these comments as part of your content. So if these comments bring useful information in addition to the content that you’ve provided also on these pages, then that could be a really good addition to your website. It could really increase the value of your website overall. If the comments show that there’s a really engaged community behind there that encourages new users when they go to these pages to also comment, to go back directly to these pages, to recommend these pages to their friends, that could also be a really good thing.
You don’t have to worry about a handful of “great post!” type comments (checking, of course, that they aren’t also linking to a spam site) but if the majority of the comments are very short non-helpful comments, you might consider approving fewer of them.
And in case you are reverse engineering what Illyes said, Google doesn’t have any kind of negative impact on sites if they don’t have “community involvement.”
— Gary Illyes (@methode) April 27, 2016
It isn’t unusual that sometimes comments can be even more valuable than the actual content that led to the comment being contributed. This is especially true in technical market areas.
Take for example this article on a recent Google patent at SEO by the Sea. While there are some typical “Great post, Bill!” type of comments, there are also a large number of high quality and thoughtful content with additional insight, differing opinions and related links that people found of interest. If these were disabled, they would be scattered throughout private Facebook groups, hard to find Twitter threads and instant messaging conversations.
Also, comments can be considered high enough quality that Google will skip the main content on the page and pull from the comments for a featured snippet. And that example is far from the only one, I have seen multiple others, and in most cases the content on the actual main part of the page wouldn’t have been suitable for the featured snippet. So if any site with comment-based featured snippets decided to get rid of their comments, they would also lose those featured snippets too.
But as with anything, poor quality comments can negatively impact the value of that content. You definitely need to be careful with what gets approved and what doesn’t. This also impacts users – if they see a ton of auto-approved spam content selling pharmaceuticals, Nike and get rich quick scams, they will perceive the site as being low quality, even if the article might be very high quality.
And even if it adds a slight increase to your site’s value for Google, webmasters spend far more time agonizing over title tags, or even meta tags, than the time it takes to do some quick comment approvals each day.
Comments & the Panda Algo Connection
Just like great comments can boost a site, poor quality comments can have a detrimental affect on a site, especially where Panda is concerned. So make sure you are not approving low quality or spammy comments on your site.
More from John Mueller:
When our quality algorithms go to your website, and they see that there’s some good content here on this page, but there’s some really bad or kind of low quality content on the bottom part of the page, then we kind of have to make a judgment call on these pages themselves and say, well, some good, some bad. Is this overwhelmingly bad? Is this overwhelmingly good? Where do we draw the line?
Instead of knee-jerking to remove comments if you are worried you are impacted by Panda, instead, take a read through the Panda Algo guide, and if you feel you are still suffering from the effects of Panda, go through comments to remove the low quality ones instead of axing comments completely.
Don’t forget that Panda is now on a rolling update, which makes it a bit easier for those who are gradually going through older posts that might have lower quality updates, so there isn’t the panic race to complete it before the next Panda update. That said, it can be a bit more difficult to know if changes of removing low quality content is working, or if other things were impacting it.
But if you think your general ranking woes are related to comments, unless you have an abundance of very low quality comments that overwhelm the good quality ones, there are probably going to be other areas worth looking at more closely. Not all ranking issues are attributed to Panda and Penguin, there are plenty of other ranking signals to be focused on too.
Comments & E-A-T
In the Google Quality Rater Guidelines, raters are asked to consider E-A-T, which is “expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness.” (we go into it in depth in our 2014 look at the guidelines, which introduced E-A-T.)
When you remove comments from your site, it becomes harder for visitors to vet the quality of the content. Often comments can reinforce the accuracy of the content in the articles, and raters can use this to try and gauge how trustworthy the content is. Remove comments and you are losing a pretty strong signal of E-A-T.
But comments can play a role in those raters determining if it does have a high level of E-A-T. While it won’t necessarily happen on every single article, or even most of them, some comments who definitely say things that helps a rater ascertain E-A-T on the page or site.
While the quality raters do not have a direct impact on the rankings of the sites they rate, it shows the types of sites Google wants to be ranking, so it is definitely a measured risk to disable comments.
Comments are also great for showing how popular a site is. While share counts can be easily manipulated, it is much harder to fake legitimate comments on blog posts on a large scale. So comments are often seen as a quick way to tell how popular a website is.
Comments also bring back users repeatedly. Especially if the discussion is particularly good or there’s good nature debate happening, people will check back to check for other comments. So suddenly sites can lose a ton of extra pageviews due to this.
And even if a person isn’t actually engaging in comments, they too could visit again in the future to see newly added comments on a post they are interested in.
Is It Best For Your Users?
This is a key way to look at it. If the comments are low quality and spammy, it will probably annoy users to see them. And this is not the right kind of content to enhance your site in the eyes of Google.
There are often sites that disable comments and face a mini backlash from visitors who really enjoyed reading and writing comments. So make sure you aren’t sacrificing repeat visitors who may end up going to a competitive site instead.
Don’t forget that many people also view things like commenting on blog posts and forums as part of their social activity, especially for those who might not get outside the house as often as others. And these are often the ones who are most prolific.. and they could be the ones who are your site’s mini ambassadors too, who recommend your site whenever they can. So again, are you going to alienate those users by dropping comments?
Google has often said that webmasters should do what’s best for your users, so really consider who removing comments is best for… you or the users?
Harder to Identify Issues
Even on high quality news sites, sometimes inaccurate articles are published, but when there are these inaccuracies, it often becomes quickly apparent in the comments with others saying variations of “uhhhh” and “I think this has some issues. If you look at…” But with comments gone, this becomes harder.
They can also be a great heads up for typos or other errors that a quick edit can fix.
How many times have you tweeted at a non-ecommerce site and gotten crickets in response? If you are encouraging conversation on social media, then pay attention to those social media channels so when one of your visitors is trying to alert you to issues with your content, you actually see it.
Does Moving Comments Onto Social Media Actually Work?
Some felt that if they attempted to move comments off their site, by suggesting talking about posts on social media, it would stimulate more conversation, and hence more shares, on various social media channels. So potentially those who comment via social media would be doing free promotion for their sites as well.
The downside of this is that many won’t take to social media if the option to leave a comment right on the content itself is unavailable. Perhaps they only use their Twitter for business and the site in question was something more personal. Or maybe they don’t want your site connected to their Facebook brand to comment. Perhaps they follow few people and few people follow them…. it is a real scenario of whether anyone would actually see that comment, even if it is extraordinarily insightful.
Sending Users Away
In a time when everyone analyses bounce rates and trying to keep people on their site, sending users away to comment on an article elsewhere means they might make that comment and never return. But perhaps if the site didn’t lead them to Twitter or Facebook, they would have read 4 more articles, signed up for a newsletter and purchased something.
While you don’t want to build a fortress around a visitor, you don’t want to usher them out the door either.
Adding or Re-Adding Comments
It can take time for visitors to start commenting, especially if they are familiar with the site being comment-free, or those visitors remember when the comments were shut off. Encourage comments and respond to the comments as well. You can even call on friends to help get the ball rolling, because sometimes it takes people seeing others are commenting before they jump in too.
If you are turning back on comments, check and see if your archive of previous comments are still in the database. Do a quick check to ensure they are as quality as you remember (or do an audit if you are seeing lower quality comments you no longer want Google to see), and start showing them again. It may take time before Google reindexes them all with comments, especially for older content Google doesn’t crawl as regularly.
Don’t be so quick to remove your comments because you think it brings down the quality of the site. While low quality spammy type of comments can bring down the quality, with moderation it can increase the value of your site in Google’s eyes.
And while site owners should be focused on users, we all know that most prioritize Google over visitors. But having good quality comments on blog posts benefits both, meaning you are providing value to your visitors, while also showing Google that those users are contributing as a “thriving community.”
Don’t fall into the trap believing that all user generated content is bad. Some user generated content is amazing and incredibly helpful…. for both users and Google.
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