Lessons I Learned Moderating Comments in WordPress

In the past 4-5 weeks, I’ve moderated every comment submitted to WP Tavern. Not only was it an experiment to see what would happen but a new way for me to use WordPress. The experiment introduced me to several drawbacks in WordPress’ comment moderation system.

Lack of Context

Comments that are pending moderation in the WordPress backend that are in response to another comment are hard to moderate. Take the following screenshot for example. This comment is in response to a comment submitted by Norcross. Unless I open Norcross’ comment in a new browser tab or window, I have no idea what the context of the conversation is. Pending notifications in the WordPress mobile app also don’t show text from the parent comment.

WordPress 4.3 Comment Content Area
WordPress 4.3 Comment Content Area

I propose that WordPress core adds the text from parent comments to replies in the backend so I know what people are responding too. This also helps when replying to comments from the backend as I’ll know the context of the conversation.

Lack of Notifications That a Comment in Moderation is Approved

WordPress does not send an email notification when a comment is approved from moderation. However, there are a lot of people working to add this feature to WordPress 4.4.

A Whitelisting System for Anonymous Comments

The biggest drawback to comment moderation is that not every comment needs to be moderated. A whitelisting system can lessen the burden of having to moderate each comment.

WordPress provides the ability to blacklist comments. You can also configure a set of parameters to determine when a comment goes into the moderation queue such as, number of links, content within the comment, and if the comment author has a previously approved comment. None of these configurations are useful if WordPress is configured to send every comment to moderation.

WP Tavern does not have open registration and allows comments from anonymous people. This makes whitelisting difficult since the IP address, name, URL, and email address of a commenter can easily change or be imitated. The whitelisting component of WordPress becomes more useful if you can tie it to a registered user account.

I’m unsure if WordPress can improve this area of the moderation system or if it’s an assumed risk administrators take when accepting anonymous comments.

A Major Time Suck

Moderating every comment is a pain and sucks up time that can be spent doing something else. During my vacation last week, I continued to moderate comments from the WordPress mobile app because if I didn’t, the conversation stopped. I’ve concluded that by accepting anonymous comments, there needs to be a way for the audience to help moderate instead of doing it on my own.

In a future post, I’m going to list a few WordPress plugins I’ve discovered that takes the commenting system to the next level. Many of the plugins solve one or most of the problems listed above.


35 responses to “Lessons I Learned Moderating Comments in WordPress”

  1. Just on the context issue, displaying comments on a nested way on the back end like they are on the front end would be a big help. Something like

    Post title
    In response to:
    Answered comment
    Reply comment

      • Stephen’s tool is very nice. I’d prefer to see the context above the comment (linear) in question. Would it work better to use a very lightweight lightbox effect to show the main comment highlighted with three comments before it and three comments after it?

        I’ve always thought (and do think) that front end moderation of sophisticated conversations is the easy solution. If you have a tricky comment you jump into the front end and moderate the whole discussion focused on that discussion and not the other five or twenty posts with comments. It also helps to be able to blacklist email addresses and IP addresses on the fly with a single click.

        When you are done, you can go back to the backend comments system to pick up individual comments (and those that you moderated in context will be gone).

        To that end we coded five years ago for contentious political sites our (entirely free) Thoughtful Comments which does just that. Thoughtful Comments is entirely native and makes no changes to your comment database.

        It’s great to see other people trying to improve the native WordPress comments situation. Native comments load faster and offer substantial benefits for SEO (user generated content: we’ve tested posts without comments vs posts with comments and posts with regular comments rank better all other factors being equal). Right now with javascript comments from Epoch, Jeff, our comments don’t show up at all in a browser without javascript (note to Jason Lemieux/Epoch: perhaps test for javascript on load and if no javascript load the comments natively).

        • Just a quick note that the UI of my plugin totally changed, thanks to Jason from Postmatic. Looks much nicer now. The comment appears as an expandable blockquote at the top of the comment.

  2. I’ve found a decent time compromise by allowing repeat commenters through. That way I only have to moderate new commenters, trolls, and missed spam, and regulars can go back and forth all they want without me needing to tap “approve” unless they trip one of the other rules, or until someone steps out of line and I have to step in.

    OTOH, my site doesn’t allow completely anonymous comments (you can enter a fake name & email address, but you’ve got to enter something).

    Strangely, the mod config still catches some repeat commenters, mostly when they use Facebook or Twitter. It seems to be an incompatibility between moderation and the Social plugin. I keep meaning to track it down, but haven’t gotten around to it.

    • I don’t see an advantage to entirely anonymous comments, unless one is running a whistleblower site.

      The worst part is watching anonymous answer anonymous with long discussion to later argue which anonymous made which irritating comment.

  3. I seldom comment these days because it is too much effort. Getting past auto moderation or sites which use Disqus and force registration with the site itself or secondary services and some still expect me to deal with CAPTCHAs too.

    It’s much simpler to bypass all that and send them a comment via Twitter.

    I don’t recommend adding more hoops to jump through to commenting. I won’t register for any sites. Mostly because as soon as you register you are stuck on email lists which send more clutter to the email account I get almost no use out of any longer.

    Commenting itself needs to change, not just how WordPress formats it. I’d turn comments off entirely and leave a link to my Twitter account. One percent of my comments are legitimate the rest are from my Mother, people asking for free ads on my sites, or comment spammers.

    • My site is very geographically specific, and every comment on articles in the one month since I launched the site has been over social media (mostly on members-only facebook groups focused on the area I write about).

      I’m going to leave the comment section available for now, but I don’t think that’s where my reader engagement will take place.

  4. Perhaps you should assign some regular Tavern people to be in charge of moderating comments. That way we can approve comments even when you are asleep or on holiday and save you an extra stress in your life.

  5. Did you know it takes roughly the same amount of time now as it did in 1940 to clean a house? Some things can be optimized, but not necessarily sped-up all around.

    Two ways to show parent comments on the admin dashboard:

    * https://wordpress.org/plugins/at-reply-two/ (mine)
    * https://wordpress.org/plugins/show-parent-comment/ (Stephen Cronin’s)

    His uses JS, and mine uses html5 with a shim for fallback. Mine also has Twitter-style @-replies (it hijacks the reply link) so his is a more pure fix and mine just happens to fill my need.

  6. I think the whole nesting of comments needs to change too. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have the solution or what it should be changed to, but I just know from experience that replying to someone else’s reply which was a reply to some other comment, makes the entire structure/conversation incomprehensible.

    Something else that is a pain with nesting comments is that the area of the comments becomes narrower and narrower. Once you get 5 levels deep the comments are not nice to read.
    One way to solve that could be to have comments “bleed” into the sidebar area (in the case of WP Tavern that is).

    In that aspect LinkedIn Discussion Groups do it easier/better by simply placing each comment under the other, in other words no nesting.

    • Nesting is definitely a sensitive topic. I’ve found nesting to two levels to encourage more productive conversation (people can’t go so far off on tangents). Visual display is much easier with two levels (that reply + reply to reply: i.e. three levels – comment – reply – second level reply).

  7. Good stuff Jeff. Looking forward to the followup.

    I noticed the new “Report” button. I like that idea, though I might move it down inline with the “Reply” button.

  8. Indeed it would be great if WordPress would have an option by default to see the parent comments. The report button is also a good idea to make the moderation much easier.
    Now all comments are approved automatically and if someone reports a comment, you will receive an email about it? How does this work exactly?

  9. Between a rock and a hard place?

    Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!

    I think we get too precious about the quality of comments on our blog; believing it somehow reflects on the value of the content. And I know a few of us get way too stressed, and start to indulge in a form of censorship.

    Although, obviously, you need to keep the bots out, the answer is not better systems; its better commenters. And you get better commenters with better content.

    There’s always one idiot who turns up and starts some shenanigans, but that’s true of all our lives, isn’t it? And our personal radar is pretty well tuned to this, in real life, and we know clicking the alert button will soon take care of that.

    Turn on Akismet and Cloudflare, for example ~ and whatever programmatic layers of defence you really do need ~ and then turn off your approval systems. Work hard to write the kind of content people love and value, and ban the dorks who don’t know how to behave.

    But don’t, please don’t moderate me. If you do, I will just go elsewhere and write my thoughtful, helpful and sometimes irrational and ideas on somebody else’s thought provoking blog.

    And if I do slip up and give in to the ranting going on inside my head. Laugh at me, or with me, but don’t censor me.

    I am the reason you started a blog in the first place.


    • Comment moderation should be more freewheeling. Keep the good and reject the chaff. I cut down unwieldy comments to the gems inside if indeed there are insights there. I might have taken the knife to your last one, actually Terence, as solid as the core message is. This obsession with all or nothing with comments (has to do with newspapers and retractions) is very old school

      • If its “old school” to believe that everyone has a contribution to make ~ whether it sits well with my worldview or prejudices, or not ~ then I guess I must be “old school”.

        I would rather be thought “old school” than a “keyboard Hitler” or “Net Nanny”.

        • I like to see a coherent and inspiring comment section than cater to the whims and extravagances of troubled keyboard warriors. Heck, there’s seven billion people out there and about three billion of them have access to the internet. Some pruning is requisite if one prefers a garden to thorn patch. I hope we can agree to disagree.

          • Agree to disagree?

            Agreeing to disagree with you is a one-sided agreement. Whereas I have stated I have no intention of censoring your views, you still maintain your right to censor mine.

            Which is the crux of what I am getting at here.

            Unless someone is obviously up to no good, being a total a-hole, or is an unintelligible shit-for-brains, his or her contribution has every much right to be heard as yours. And, I would argue, should be encouraged.

            So telling me in advance, if you don’t like what I write about, or the way I write about it, you will get out your little blue pen, just means I am not going to waste my time contributing to your blog.

            Although I might totally disagree, I would prefer to hear what you have to say, even if you don’t extend me the same courtesy.

            • I can settle this by saying I’m one of the few on WP Tavern that can censor you both :P the thing is, everyone has their own moderation strategy. Mine is in flux. I’m in between freewheeling and laying down the law. I’m trying to nail it down and also find ways for my readership to help me.

              • On the contrary, Jeff, you can’t settle this by censoring anybody. That’s the point.

                These things get worked out, and our views get formed and reformed, through discussion, not by censorship. And for there to be meaningful discussion, there has to be disagreement. So editing out those people you disagree with, only produces bland, soporific, blah content. Which is of no interest to anyone.

                Hell Jeff, isn’t that what democratizing publishing means?

                The democratization of publishing means people are increasingly free and

                • I had no intention in censoring anyone, it was more of a joke. I’m with you in that things get worked out *most of the time* but it’s my duty to insure that things don’t get out of hand before that happens. I’m pretty much in agreement with everything you said.

  10. able to contribute their own ideas, stories and opinions, largely thanks to the internet.

    ​Where does it say, “unless I disagree with your stated views”?​

    Did I just get censored, or did I find a bug in Postmatic? ;-)

    • Without disagreements, we don’t learn from one another. It’s how those disagreements are discussed which is the issue most of the time.

      • Style, as opposed to content?

        Wow Jeff. Consider what you are saying there.

        I can write something really obnoxious and express views which are abhorrent to you, and completely contrary to what you believe, but as long as I couch it in a nice or clever way, you will just let it go?

        I don’t think so.

        So let me ask you, where is the difference between what the Chinese government imposes on its citizens ~ and which free anonymous proxies and WordPress helps them avoid ~ and your form of censorship? [By “your form” I mean, any form, not you specifically]

        But on a contrary note, I don’t think it means we each have a valid but separate idea and enforce our own worldview on what “The democratization of publishing” means.

        Perhaps its easier to say what it is not.

        It clearly doesn’t mean, “as long as I agree with what you write”, or even “as long as I like the way you write it”.

        This is the nub of the issue, I think.

        I would argue, the freedom to publish without censorship is worth the individual effort required to ignore questionable posts and poor-quality content. The freedom to publish, which WordPress extends to everyone ~ and is extended to you, of course ~ should be extended [by you] to all serious, legal discussion on whatever subject, with whatever outcome.

        To me, at least, that is ~ in part ~ what “The democratization of publishing” means.

  11. Just had a thought.

    Crowd Control gives your users the ability to report comments as inappropriate with a single click. If a comment gets flagged multiple times it’ll be removed from the post and marked as pending moderation. It’ll even send you an email to let you know. Now you can still go away on vacation and rest assured the trolls won’t overrun your site.

    But you knew that already, right?

      • So we substitute censorship with mob-rule, or democracy, as some people call it… ;-)

        I think we tamper with free expression of ideas in a democracy, at our peril, however its done.

        Democracy is digital. It’s not gray. Its either black or white. On or off.

        You can’t be a little bit democratic just the same as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, or a very unique.

        You either are, or you’re not.

        And if we are, then we should guard against all forms of censorship, however imposed.

        Either, overtly, or by the mechanical turk.

        On, or off. That’s the choice.

        Not how can I do it another way?


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