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).
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.