The Scourge of Social Plug-Ins
First of all, unless you are The Next Web, Mashable or another web giant attracting heaps of traffic on a daily basis, a social count button isn’t going to do you or your brand any favours. Picture this scenario: you arrive at a random article on this website, you notice social buttons and note that the article has been shared 0 times on Facebook, 1 time on Twitter and 0 on Google Plus. What is your first instinctive thought? Here’s what I think — if I spot the buttons before reading the content and notice that it hasn’t been shared, I immediately doubt the integrity of the author and the trust of the message from the website as a whole. I read a lot of articles on a daily basis and sometimes I’ll gauge the usefulness of article on the recency of the post vs the share count. Yes, it’s shallow, like judging a book by it’s cover although in my defence, there are a lot of “books” to get through, whether intentional or not a social button can read like a review.
I don’t want to tread over any ground that Oliver Reichenstein has already covered in his fantastic Sweep the Sleaze article and follow up (and you should read it next if you haven’t already) so I’ll talk about things from user perceptions rather than usage and mechanics1. A low button count is damaging. That’s my opinion and you’ll have trouble convincing me otherwise. The low count can be a result of people sharing the article by other means, like using the native sharing options in an operating system like iOS or just through good old fashioned manual sharing by copying and pasting a link into your preferred social network. These methods aren’t going to add anything to the button count, it’ll remain embarrassingly low like a poor review. According to Oliver Reichenstein’s piece around 20% links shared on websites he surveyed were completed via a social button, the other 80% were manual shares. So we can conclude that the ROI is poor.
As I mentioned before, if you are a running high traffic site and you want to use the buttons as some sort of demonstration of popularity, then I guess that’s a viable use case albeit a bit egotistical. I would wager though that the people that use them are passive sharers and wouldn’t add any value to the piece you want them to share and they probably don’t have the influence you would like to spread your message further and to the right people.
Social buttons are tools created by social networks to benefit… social networks. They want to take the conversation off your page and onto their network. I’m fine with that because I made the conscious decision to leave comments off on my website, but just think about that for your project.
Speaking of comments, they can be as damaging and in some cases more damaging than a poor share count. For comments to work right you need to stay out of the user’s way and that means leaving them completely unfiltered and moderating later. Obviously this leaves your site open to trolling — but that’s the nature of the beast, the danger of comment roulette.
Think about it this way — we are publishers. Would the New York Times let someone wander into their offices off the street and write an unsolicited remark at the end of one of their articles? Imagine reading the front page of the New York Times and at the end of a finely written piece you find the words “First!” or “Great article thanks!”. It just looks trashy. Compliments are nice to receive but to publicly display them amongst a list of generic back-pats just doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t need someone to essentially say “Good hustle Moore!” after my content.
By now you have probably guessed my opinion of comment models on the web — it’s not that I think the standard comments model is broken, I just feel like it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. If I wanted to open up a commenting system for my website, I would potentially do something like this:
- Write the article (no brainer)
- Associate a hashtag with the article (or all articles) — a hook that I can look for on social networks
- Make the effort to find people’s opinions on the piece on social networks (if they use the hashtag, then this is step is easy, if not, so what — just keep looking. Valuable opinions are worth mining for)
- Revisit the article having gathered opinions and use the insightful thoughts to add value to my original content and credit the necessary people
You might be thinking, that sounds like a lot of work — it is. But take note that while digging for opinions, I’m engaging with my audience, maybe asking them to elaborate on some comments, while building trust and integrity with my work. The beauty of an approach like this is that if something you write is completely wrong or you have missed a crucial point then you can find people that disagree (trolls or otherwise) engage with them and maybe even correct the original article with their views. The important part is you maintain full editorial control, not by altering their comments, but building upon their input and giving credit where it’s due.
People can add value to an article without the article being incorrect, they can elaborate on points which you can add to the end of the piece and improve it. I call it editorial comments.
They’re a performance hog too. In general a web page gains around 100kb of useless bloat with social media buttons (depending on how many networks you add). Update — in the spirit of editorial comments Jake Bresnehan mentioned on Twitter that Nicolas Gallagher has produced a lightweight social plugin script that weighs in at 4kb minified — a great deal lighter than the official editions. ↩