Disqus: Is Your Data Worth Trading for Convenience?

Nearly a decade ago third-party comment systems emerged to take on some of the burdens of running native WordPress commenting.

These products (Disqus, LiveFyre, and others) have offered features that aimed to enhance the commenting experience for both bloggers and commenters. Things like:

  • Social sign-on
  • Commenter profiles
  • Community recommendations
  • A back-end dashboard with all your comments across the web.

The features and problem solving quickly helped Disqus become one of the most popular and most used third-party comment systems around the web, with everyone from independent bloggers to big-name news publications using the platform.

While Disqus should be recommended for helping to further blog comments as a viable and worthy part of the blogging experience, it should also be recognized that this all comes with a price for end users.

Disqus and monetization

In order to build its user base Disqus made its comments platform free to use. It did trial paid subscriptions in 2010, but these were short-lived and were phased out in 2013.

Instead, Disqus makes its money from advertising, by placing ads adjacent to the comment area of your blog post.

This service, called Reveal, enables Disqus to place ads on a blogger’s post in a variety of positions:

  • Above the comments. This places an ad box before the comment section and is the default position.
  • In-thread. This interrupts the comment flow by placing an ad box between individual comments.
  • Below comments. Exactly the same as the Above Comment placement, except now it’s after the comment section.

The goal of Reveal is simple: since Disqus doesn’t make its money from paid accounts, its primary source of revenue is from ads. By installing Reveal on its large user base, the thinking is the revenue should be equally large.

The problem is, these ads can be a bit hit and miss.

Disqus Ads

The image above is from a blog post by Erik Dietrich, founder of Daedtech, entitled “Reputation Suicide: Why I’m Quitting Disqus”.

In the post, Erik talks about Disqus’ recent decision to charge to remove ads from being displayed on the blogs of free accounts, as well as the quality of the ads on display and the relevance to the user.

Instead, users would need to pay $10 per month to remove the ads, as this email shows (also from Erik’s post).

Disqus Email

In the comments section – and in no small part due to the pushback Disqus received on this new approach across its users – a member of the Disqus team advised they would improve the quality of ads, and that their new model would allow free, smaller users to opt-out of displaying ads instead of paying a monthly fee.

While this can be considered a win for content creators like Erik, it’s dependent on the remaining ad-enabled users making enough money for Disqus, or enough accounts willing to pay the monthly fee.

Given Disqus laid off about 20% of its staff in December of last year as it moves into a data provision model, publishers using the platform may yet be hit by a monthly fee to remove ads, regardless of publication size.

Speaking of data provision models…

Disqus and the ongoing privacy concern

Monetization is one thing and, to be fair to Disqus, is something that many content-focused businesses struggle to master.

Do you offer free to the majority, and hope some premium users cover the cost, or do you offer tiered pricing in the hope that there’s a plan that is suitable for everyone?

If the monetization issue was something that Disqus is having push back on, it’s nothing compared to the ongoing concerns regarding privacy, and what Disqus does with all that data it collects from you and your site visitors.

This issue first got wider attention when Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg posted about changes to Disqus’ model in a post at the end of 2014.

When discussing the announcement that Disqus now had “the largest and deepest profiles on the web” and what that meant for advertisers, Matt translated it simply and eloquently:

We’re tracking everyone who visits a website with Disqus enabled and building a profile on them based on the content of the sites they visit and any comments they leave. “Deeper” than Facebook.

We all know how Facebook treats our privacy, so this move by Disqus rightly raised concerns and continues to do so today.

Well-known blogger Chris Lema also highlighted his removal of Disqus due to privacy concerns not only for him but any commenter on his site, regardless of whether they’re a single comment user or a frequent one.

It means, I think, that even though I might have turned off the ads on my own site, the people coming to my site, and commenting, were having that data aggregated by Disqus to turn into a profile to be used for placing and selling ad space.

That means my visitors – without knowing and without me warning them – were getting tracked while on my site for something Disqus planned to do.

And I hadn’t realized it.

So I just killed Disqus commenting on my site.

Chris Lema

While Disqus have since introduced a “do not track” option, this is hidden through a bunch of clicks and hoops inside their Terms and Conditions and must be enabled on a user-by-user basis.

Speaking of Disqus’ Privacy Terms, there are some other key areas that stand out.

  • Information Collection on the Service Our Service allows for an interactive experience by integrating a commenting platform. By using our Service you understand and agree that we are providing a public comment sharing platform and that we or other Users may search for, see, use, re-post any of your User Content that you make publicly available through the Service. 
  • Ads on Disqus The Disqus Privacy Policy does not apply to, and we cannot control the activities of, third-party advertisers. Please consult the respective privacy policies of such advertisers or contact such advertisers for more information.

Looking at the first point, the part that both publishers and commenters may want to consider in more depth is the part about “… may use, re-post any of your User Content…”.

Now, while this language is to encourage wider distribution of content/comments, it also opens it up to abuse and misuse.

Would you let anyone use your content as they see fit, just to use a blog comment system? Click To Tweet

The second point is more concerning. Because Disqus is looking to make money from ads, it’s opened up its platform to a plethora of advertisers, all of varying quality.

While Disqus may say they’ll look to ensure the quality control ensures no embarrassing ads being displayed, that’s not guaranteed. Nor are they saying their Privacy Policy will stop you from being taken advantage of by unethical data scraping practices by its advertising partners.

Why would you do this?

Look, this isn’t meant to be a post bashing Disqus. As mentioned at the start, the company was an early leader in the blog comment space when it came to third-party features, and they helped return comments to the fore.

That should be applauded – without Disqus, it’s arguable that blog comments today may not be as popular as they continue to be.

However, improving comments and the user experience shouldn’t come with a hidden price, especially when that price is something as valuable as your data and the integrity of your site – especially when better solutions exist.

As blog comments see a rebirth in both value and importance, the distinction becomes even bigger. You can either accept selling your data in exchange for some extra comment features, or you can remain in control at all times.

If you’re ready to start taking that control back, we’re ready to get you started.

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