Don’t let comments distort page length and discourage readers
When you’re deciding whether or not to read something, you make a calculation:
Is the time it will take to read this less than the time I have available?
If you notice an interesting four page article in a magazine on a long train journey, you’re far more likely to read it than if you were waiting in a queue for two minutes.
The length of printed text, whether in a magazine or on a billboard, is easy to determine. All you have to do is look at the physical dimensions of what it’s printed on to make a reasonable guess of how long it’ll take to read. Online, this judgement is often based on the size of the scrollbar, which shrinks as the page becomes longer.
However, unlike print, the length of online text can change when articles have comments. Typically, these are displayed below the main content, with no pagination or other means to hide them. Shown this way, the length of the page and thus the scrollbar is distorted.
Once many comments are posted, the actual content of the page may only make up a small fraction of its entire length. When this happens, an article appears to be far longer than it actually is and so people are less likely to read it.
Smashing Magazine is a prime example. In this article, comments take up approximately 20,500 pixels of vertical space, or 74% of the entire page. Consequently, the scroll bar reverts to its smallest size, indicating that the article is extremely long. This is discouraging for anyone who isn’t prepared to scroll down to check the actual article length before they start reading.
There are three ways to remedy this:
- Remove comments altogether
- Move them to another page
- Reduce their presence on the page
While the first option is the most effective, comments bring enough value to most websites to discount removing them altogether. Separating comments from the content – as seen on A List Apart – can work, but it may reduce the number of people commenting as the ability to do so is less obvious.
The third option offers a suitable compromise by showing comments, but not letting them take over the page. On Thunderbolt, we show the first three and then provide a link to instantly reveal the rest.
This ensures that most of the page is content and that the scrollbar is representative of its actual length. Beyond the first three, any additional comments have no effect on page length. People can quickly scan the discussion and only if they’re interested, see it.
Given that the scroll bar is such a core navigational tool, it’s surprising how many websites don’t seem to care how it behaves. When articles receive a substantial number of comments, their effect on page length should be contained so that the scroll bar size doesn’t trick readers into thinking that the article is longer than it really is.