Commenting rules: Stay on topic, lay off the ads, watch for spam

In the anarchic world of blog comments, anything that relates to the subjects discussed in the post is fair game, but don't pitch commercial products, and beware of spammers! Everything else is fair game.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Anybody who writes about technology on the Web owes a debt of gratitude to the knowledgeable readers who comment on our posts. Sometimes the comments are more informative than the original post, and they often lead to topics for future posts.

You might think I would object to the negative comments, but I learn more from the critiques than I do from the praises, so please keep the complaints coming. Many CNET readers are serious gearheads, and some of them will always know more about the topic of a particular post than I do. I sincerely appreciate these readers sharing what they know.

If your comment doesn't pertain, kindly refrain
There's really only one type of comment that's irksome: anything off topic. There's no good reason to share your opinion on the grammar and spelling of other commenters, for example--unless you suspect comment spam (more on that below). You have to look beyond the deviations from standard English to the heart of what the person is expressing on the subject at hand. Everybody has a right to be heard, bad spellers included.

Commenters can be predictable. You can be sure some Windows users will object whenever a Mac and Linux lover responds to a post about a Windows problem by suggesting we all dump Windows in favor of their favorite OS. But I don't see anything wrong with either opinion.

In fact, the Windows haters make a good point. Many Windows users would prefer the usability of the Macintosh or the cost savings of Linux. But Windows dominates in the work-a-day world and will continue to do so, at least in the short term. Still, anyone who has a choice of OS should seriously consider a Mac or Linux PC. Frequent reminders of this fact are welcome.

Software pitches not welcome
Software makers must walk a fine line when commenting on posts that mention their product or a competing product. The people behind the programs I write about are free to comment in defense of their products, and readers shouldn't hesitate to endorse or criticize a product mentioned or recommend a competing product or service.

However, if the post is about freeware, kindly refrain from telling us about your company's commercial alternative. No matter how good your program might be, it's just bad form.

Consider a private message to the author
The makers of products covered in tech blogs are more likely to respond by sending the author a private e-mail. Likewise, many readers choose to e-mail writers a question or detailed comment relating to a specific post. A personal message can be a much more effective way to get the attention of the author.

There's another advantage to e-mailing responses rather than posting comments: e-mails are usually less anonymous. Few commenters use their real names, and while e-mail accounts are often just as anonymous, people are more likely to provide their real name in an e-mail. Personally, I rarely respond to comments on my own posts--except to acknowledge someone correcting a mistake--but I answer nearly every reader e-mail.

Content spam examples
Content spam takes various forms, as illustrated by Joseph Lei on the Proofpoint blog. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Can you trust links in comments?
In a word, no. I don't trust half the links Google and other search engines serve up, so I sure won't trust a link pasted into a comment. You always have to watch out for comment spam, which can sometimes appear to be a relevant comment with a link.

In February 2010 search engine guru Danny Sullivan described a particularly dangerous example of comment spam by a disreputable online essay provider. In a post on the Proofpoint blog last month, Joseph Lei compiled examples illustrating various approaches to comment spam (shown to the right).

Services such as Akismet and Mollum promise to eradicate comment spam from Web sites. Both services have free plans for personal use; Mollum's free service is also available to nonprofits.

The people behind this site do a good job blocking content spam. After more than 350 posts in three and a half years, I've seen few comments to CNET articles I would consider spammy or otherwise inappropriate. Most CNET commenters have something worthwhile to add to the discussion, and they're motivated by a sincere desire to enhance the information in the article or address what they perceive as a shortcoming. Thank you!