web development

Six comments apps for personal blogs

The new ‘ad-free’ comment hosting services that are challenging Disqus

In spite of widespread warnings of spam and malicious feedback, I’d still like to try readers’ comments on my blog.

My first step has been to get up-to-date with what’s available. For as long as I remember, Disqus has been the leading alternative for bloggers to WordPress’s and other CMS’s native comments system. (In 2011, it had 75% share of this third-party market.)

But in the last year, since I started working on this blog, a handful of developers have released updated SaaS apps that compete directly with Disqus — all featuring an ‘advertising-free’ business model. I’ve listed below my favourites from those I’ve come across so far.

My list is roughly in the order I found them. I’ve not tested these apps — I’ve only looked at their demo versions — so my conclusions are limited, and subjective.

Nevertheless, I hope this list might be be a useful starting point for others, who are on the same quest as me.

1  Disqus

Trusted by millions of publishers

Disqus is a commercial hosted service, connected to an iframe that’s embedded in post pages, containing a readers’ comment form and a list of approved comments. It has comprehensive moderation tools, and code snippets to display comment counts on blog listing pages, too.

Disqus is a big (50 million comments per month), advertising- and subscription-driven operation. But there’s also a generous free option for non-profit and personal users, and this can be advertising-free, too (this option is slightly hidden-away in the small print in the FAQ’s of their pricing page).

Disqus’s familiar comment form

Disqus is used by many large commercial websites, and several independent bloggers I admire. It’s also been a recommended option for many CMS/blogging platforms that don’t have their own native commenting (such as Ghost).

I’ve tried Disqus on a previous blogging experiment a couple of years ago, and although it did everything I wanted (for free), I wasn’t comfortable with it.

I thought their readers’ interface was messy, almost as though it was designed specifically to contrast with whatever site design it was embedded in. I was surprised that a reader’s entire comments history, across every Disqus’ customer website, could be accessed by anyone at the touch of a link. And I read about widespread criticism of their security practices, impact on internet speed, and dependence on ad-tracking revenue.

Since then, Disqus have made significant changes to address many of these issues. And, despite the trade-offs that remain, their super-solid and capable service is still a good option for many websites, large and small alike.

2  Commento

Embed comments without giving up your privacy

The first alternative I found was Commento, by an independent developer whose startup was originally sponsored by Mozilla. It matches many of Disqus’ core features, except it’s completely advertising-free, with a less fussy design, and a clear focus on privacy.

Commento’s UI is cleaner — but still hard to blend in

In fact seemed like everything I was looking for. Except, like the other hosted/iframe embedded services I found, its styling and options can’t easily be customised to match my site’s (minimalist) design. And, at $99 annual subscription, it’s a bit pricey for my fledgling website, and its negligible traffic. (Yet, there are some support and sustainability advantages in Commento’s pricing strategy.)

3  Talkyard

Let their comments make your blog more interesting

Talkyard is another excellent indie alternative with high privacy and open-source ideals. It’s actually designed as a discussion forum app, but it can also be used for blog post comments, when it looks very similar to Commento.

Talkyard’s comments list and pop-up entry panel

Except, Talkyard’s also got a pop-up entry and preview panel that adds useful functionality. Its design is a bit crude, but it keeps the comments display clean. Talkyard is a lot cheaper too — it starts at just €1.90 per month. Well worth investigating.

4  Remarkbox

Remarkbox is the third indie hosted comments service I found. To my eyes, its design is less finished than the others, but it also has a live preview for Markdown, this time in an inline dropdown. Its punchily-written website struck a few chords with me:

Free comment systems have a business model that prioritizes ad revenue (and hijacking your traffic and readers), over page speed… We optimize for speed and take a minimalist approach by default, so that your comments stay lean and feel like part of your site, not something bolted on

Remarkbox’s layout is the most basic,
except it adds a live preview

In keeping with Remarkbox’s minimalist approach, is its funky new pricing model: pay what you can. So Remarkbox is maybe the most in-tune with indie blogging, so far.

5  FastComments

It’s the fastest live comment service around

Although I’ve not tried it out yet, I really like the idea of FastComments’ customizing widget, which promises both styling and text changes, even within the iframe display itself.

FastComments’s layout is busy, but super-clear and functional

This, together with its extensive moderation controls and detailed documentation, potentially makes FastComments the strongest alternative to Disqus, especially for higher traffic blogs. Its pricing starts at $4.99 monthly subscription for individuals.

6  Hyvor Talk

A privacy-focused, fully-featured commenting platform

The last app I found is Hyvor Talk, recently-launched by two 19-year old students in Sri Lanka. To me it looks just as well-featured, and thoughtfully designed, as the others listed here. It’s even got a snippet to add comment counts to the blog page. Their blog has useful info for bloggers, including their own startup story. Subscriptions start at $5 per month. Well worth a try!

Hyvor Talk’s layout — a strong design,
but harder to integrate

Summary table  Comparison of key features

Despite its over-simplifications (and my likely errors and omissions), this table reveals many similarities in all these apps — but big differences in how each app manages its comments moderation.

Conclusions …and what next?

This post was always intended as a ‘starting point’, and I’ve only taken a superficial look at these apps. But if I was seriously planning to use one of them, I’d want to look much more closely at the practicalities of moderating comments, especially on higher traffic sites.

FastComments’ excellent documentation highlights some of these complexities — the trade-offs between ‘sign-on’ options, moderation tools, and reader engagement — and it’s well worth a read. Disqus, unsurprisingly, has the most comprehensive range of moderation tools, and I think this industry leader might still be the safest bet if your priority is managing higher volume, or troublesome, comments traffic.

But, for first-time bloggers like me, these are not immediate problems. The conclusion I reached half-way through writing this post, is that my initial needs are much simpler:

I don’t want ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’, or threaded conversations, and I hope to manage with just simple moderation tools

I might change my mind, if and when my blog gains some traction — or I might abandon the idea of comments entirely!

But, for now, I’ve decided to install a self-hosted commenting solution — a plugin for my Kirby CMS website — and I’ll write more about this in my next post.

Readers’ comments

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