Blogger Hacks, Categories, Tips & Tricks

Monday, October 09, 2006
Lurkers and Blog Participation
Here's usability guru Jakob Nielsen on participation inequality in online systems, providing much-needed grist for our blog-participation mill. As usual, Dr Nielsen is succinct and insightful. The thrust is that "In most online systems, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.".

This disparity follows Zipf Law, whereby 90% of users are lurkers (yes, you know who you are), 9% contribute occasionally while only 1% account for most activity. This pattern seems to hold up to a wide range of online activities, like wikis, discussion forums, review sites and the like. But, interestingly, not blogs. Blogs suffer from this phenomenon to a higher degree, with a 95-5-0.1 split!

If the Freshblog subscription figures (currently around 1100) proxied for readers, then this would indicate we have 1045 passive lurkers, 55 occasional contributors and a measly 1.1 readers doing most of the heavy-lifting. While I'd be the first to congratulate John on his prolificity, I think the real split's probably closer to 95-4-1, or in whole numbers, 1045 lurkers, 44 occasional contributors and 10 regulars. So we might be doing better than the average blog, but there's more to be done. Fortunately, the good doctor also has a prescription. Most obviously, encouraging lurkers to "decloak" (yes, "delurk" is the approrpriate Usenet-era term) will get the participation rates up. Here's some blog-relevant tips from Jakob Nielsen:

  • Make it easier to contribute. C'mon people, hit that comment button! Honestly, how much easier could it be? Thumbs up / thumbs down buttons on each post footer?

  • Make participation a side-effect. A great suggestion, but it requires users' passive actions (looking at, bookmarking, forwarding a page) to somehow "count". Displaying the popularity of outgoing links ("24th most followed link") might fall under this category. As does "today's top searches" and "today's top pages".

  • Edit, don't create. Sure, give people templates. Works great in wikis. But blogs? Would people want "comment templates"? Or even a "clone this comment" button? Would that increase or decrease the signal-to-noise ratio?

  • Reward participants. Sounds good in theory, but you invariably end up with some sort of unwieldy, readily-gamed, karma-based system, like Slashdot's mod points. (In fairness, imagine how much worse that site would be without karma.)

  • Promote quality contributors. Dr Nielsen suggests giving greater prominence to quality contributions. This smacks of the "highlight own comments" hacks by Adi and Singpolyma - the presumption being that a blog's owner is likely to be of high quality. In a similar vein, sometimes blog owners invite their more-profligate commentors to join officially (effectively graduating from long, unreadable comments to long, undreadable posts :-) Is there a middle ground, whereby high-quality commentors can have their "associate" status recognised in the form of prominence?

Perhaps an alternative view is to say "well, if you want to get the participation rate up, why not just work hard to repel lurkers?" At which point, maybe it becomes apparent that the participation rate is the wrong metric ... after all, lurkers are pretty easy to tend, mostly feeding and watering themselves. Besides, they may make contributions behind the scenes, forwarding and discussing post via email or suggesting blogs of note to friends. Should bloggers be focused on the quality and quantity of contributions, not the proportion of seemingly-passive readership?

With a nod to that mischievous logician Lewis Carroll, can I ask: any lurkers feel like commenting on this?

With these discussion points in mind, perhaps this is the perfect post on which to decloak yourself and add your first Freshblog comment ...

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Posted at 10:32 AM by Greg.
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Blogger John said...
Nielsen identifies the problem well; I know that I have many more visitors than contributors. The balance is sort of like a 99% to 1% ratio in any given day. I think that the problem is inherent in the way the web is structured. There are many different sites on many different topics; I may feel expert (or knowledgeable enough to comment) on some sites, but not so much on others. E.g., while I comment frequently on sites in my niche (birding), I lurk and barely comment on the political sites and tech sites where I lurk. His example of Wikipedia is a good example - some people go to share knowledge, but most go to learn. I did not find Nielsen's suggestions that helpful. They make work for some sites with particular modules installed, but not for most.

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Blogger Greg said...
Thanks, John. (For the record, a different John to the author here.) It's a good point - people lurk on some blogs, but not on others. I lurk on about 20 blogs related to economics - I'm interested in the area but don't know enough to participate because I feel I wouldn't meet the "contribution threshold".

Well, dammit, questions are contributions too! So I'm going to swallow my own medicine and ask some on these eco blogs.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
All very true. I think one thing to note is that a trackback is probably just as valid a feedback as a comment in many cases. However I know that I probably comment/trackback here at FreshBlog about ever 20 posts or worse. (Usually on specifically hackery-related posts and not just reports ;) ). Not that I don't find other posts useful or interesting, far from it! I just don't often feel I have anything intelligent to say. I know on some other blogs (ie TechCrunch) I barely ever comment at all.

The #1 thing, imho, to increase commenting and interaction is to USE COCOMMENT (or similar). If you reply to me, AND I can know about it, THEN we're in business ;) The old process of emailing your replies as well as posting them as comments works too for larger items or readers who don't use coCo.

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Blogger John said...
I'm curious about anonymity in this context. I lurk some places because I can... No (easily accessible / instantly obvious) footprints left behind. My profile is semi-anonymous (borderline crap!) & there's only a limited amount of "me" making it out through my fingertips and onto the screen.

What if we all had to contribute a little more "me"? Could we attach some signals / content to profiles that would present us with a richer picture of one another? Could we also flag blogs that are "lurker friendly" (not psychotic about the boundaries of the niche)? I'm not going to kick anyone out of here, for instance... (well, except maybe that spam commenter who keeps linking to Fox News stories... What's up with that?)

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Blogger John said...
See also Tailrank....

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
something to think about: if everything you write is available in a feed reader, what is the incentive for lurkers to come to the blog and comment? but, if the blog provides some useful service (such as hacks) that the readers spend time to play with and succeed/fail, they are more likely to give some feedback.

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Blogger Greg said...
In terms of full versus partial feeds and encouraging participation, the armchair economist in me poses the following trade-off:

How many pageviews would you sacrifice to get one comment?

Or, a related question:

How many lurkers would you sacrifice to get one active participant?

I think this answer varies from blog to blog. Advertising-driven ones are presumably more interested in clickthroughs, so comments are comparatively "cheap". The same could be said for proselytising blogs. Self-hosted blogs (where bandwidth charges mean the marginal cost per page served is not zero) would face a different trade-off.

However, the vast majority of blogs receive no (substantial) advertising revenues, and bear no (substantial) costs - it's all about attention.

For my money, and not to cause offence to lurkers (though I doubt any read the comments), I'd swap hundreds of lurkers for one Singpolyma - and still come out smiling. Others may rather chase that five figure FeedBurner count or the three digit Technorati ranking.

While all attention is good, I reckon interactive attention (feedback) is the best kind.

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Blogger Greg said...

We just dropped about 250 subscribers in one day, according to FeedBurner. While these numbers have jumped around by this much in the past due to tech problems, I can't help but wonder if it was something I said ...

On the plus side, the participation rate just went up.

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Anonymous Jitendra said...
Check out our analysis on the reasons for the participation inequality at

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Blogger Singpolyma said...
"not to cause offence to lurkers (though I doubt any read the comments)"

One thing that also at least causes comments to be read (besides coCo) is per-post comment feeds integrated into the reader (not supported on many readers, but it works on mine :D). This is something Blogger BETA will help us towards, and I'll probably eventually do a tips post to help people with the integration part.

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Blogger Geoffrey Coan said...
Well I guess I must count as one of the lurkers because I subscribe to the RSS feed on my desktop machine. Most of the time I tend to use my laptop so the articles accumulate until I get time to read them (hmmm, 120 unread Freshblog articles right now so I've a bit to go!).

To get around this I tend to get the ones I read more often sent as feedblitz emails (per your other thread & why do people choose to receive RSS via email) - most of the time email works just fine for casual blog reading.

One suggestion I would make is that it's quite hard to comment when reading the RSS feed. There's no 'comment on this' button by default so it requires a trip via the original article before you can post anything. Must be possible to get round this limitation somehow ?

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Anonymous Lorrie said...
Who knew from comment buttons?! Thanks. I'd participate on a blog with topics that inspires me but don't know enough about blogs to make an effective search.

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Blogger yash gupta said...
coco is definately a thing that`ll help get more comments/participants I believe. I find myself being easily able to go back to the blog where someone has replied to my comment.

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