Are Comments Facebook’s Next Big Service?

Speculation didn’t quite reach Facebook phone level, but the buzz around last week’s CNET story pre-announcing upgrades to Facebook’s nascent comments service makes it sound as if the social network is about to launch another potentially world-dominating technology and crush companies like Disqus and Echo in its wake. Which would be tough, since there’s still plenty of room for competitive innovation as far as comment systems go.

Facebook has a comments plug-in for its widely-adopted Connect service that sites like People magazine are using. It added voting and threading to the plug-in last year, and may be working on a very basic credibility scoring system for commenters. Like Facebook Likes and Connect, a comments system could weave Facebook threads far beyond its own site, while potentially providing rich data for Facebook ad targeting. So far, Facebook doesn’t charge for any of these services, but rather uses them to enhance the overall Facebook platform, make its services and brand ubiquitous for its users and lock in other companies’ sites to its network.

Competitive Comments Landscape

Sites can choose from many full-featured third-party commenting systems that can often pull in related content streams from professional or social media sources, including other comment tools. They typically support multiple log-in mechanisms, and commenters can post and share comments through Twitter and Facebook status updates. Some maintain their own ID system and all create a network of comments across their customers. Players include:

  • Disqus has been around since 2007. It offers online publishers tiered levels of service ranging from $19 per month to $1,000 per month and up. The higher-priced services include analytics, single sign-on, theme customization, better API access, guaranteed uptime and customer service. Customers include CNN, Fox News and Engadget.
  • Echo started life as widget maker JS-Kit in 2006, and has a new product launch event scheduled for February 8. Part of its pitch to publishers is that it won’t compete with them with its own ID system, or by hosting experiences on its own domain. Its customers include a few Time Warner properties (Time, Sports Illustrated), the Washington Post and Technorati.
  • IntenseDebate is owned by Automattic, the company that owns the big blog platform WordPress (see disclosure), which acquired IntenseDebate in 2008. Many WordPress blogs integrate its comments. IntenseDebate also supports Blogger, Tumblr and TypePad.
  • Livefyre is one of the newer players. It uses the FriendFeed engine and promotes itself as the comment network that’s closest to real-time.

Outlook for Facebook Comments

Likes and Connect caught on like wildfire, and if Facebook is serious about comments, it will get plenty of attention from publishers and other sites that embrace consumer comments (e.g., retailers, corporate sites, financial services). Comments could even play a role in enterprise collaboration. Comment competitors and companies evaluating alternatives should realize Facebook’s advantage in this space is limited to its user base and potential distribution. How can other comment systems differentiate themselves? Here are a few ways:

  • User identity: Current players use the old familiar “embrace and extend” strategy by enabling and integrating Facebook log-ins with those from Google, Yahoo and the publisher’s own. To date, Facebook has not integrated other log-ins, and it delivers single sign-on by superseding the native log-in system. Nor does Facebook share “ownership” of the customer, or data about him. Some sites may want to preserve user anonymity or support different user personae.
  • Customer service: Facebook’s developer resources aren’t infinite. Companies can likely do better customization and integration with content management systems, and offer white-label unbranded options.
  • Moderation and ratings services: Comment systems should invest in tools supporting moderation and commenter credibility, and even consider offering professional human-based moderation. Livefyre has a clever points system to encourage quality and prevent flames and off-topic commentary.

DisclosureWordPress is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Question of the week

How can companies compete with Facebook comments?
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David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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