In late August, shortly after comment hosting companyJS-Kit announced the public launch of their Echo service, I forked over my credit card and paid $12 for one year’s worth of service.
With commenting becoming more and more fragmented, taking place increasingly on sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, Echo appeared to be an interesting way to unify all of these references and create one giant world-wide conversation out of the feedback. Though JS-Kit said that that ECHO would be “death to commenting” they had found a seemingly innovative way to keep the conversation alive.
The idea seemed simple and powerful and, with the 30-day money-back guarantee, it also seemed to be worth a shot. However, as I jumped into the system, I found it to be more of a mixed bag, a strange combination of really great features and big ideas but also of frustrations and headaches.
Though there is clearly a lot of potential for ECHO, there’s also a lot that needs fixing. There’s no doubt they have a good thing going, but the devil truly is in the details.
The Big Idea
ECHO, like Disqus or Intense Debate, is a replacement for your existing comments system or an add on that can be used on a site without native commenting. However, what makes it unique is that it collects comments from elsewhere on the Web including Twitter, Friendfeed, Delicious, Google Reader and StumbleUpon to and place those comments on your page.
Also, visitors can either leave anonymous comments or use a number of site logins, including Twitter, Google and Facebook, to identify themselves. There is also the ability to leave replies to any comment, even if they didn’t originate on the site, and, in some cases, even send a private reply via email.
Beyond that, it is a fairly standard commenting system. Users leave comments, post replies and have avatars. Also, as with other commenting platforms, ECHO will synchronize with your existing blog database if you use the WordPress plugin and you can export/import comments into or out of ECHO at any time.
With that in mind, there’s a lot to love about ECHO, especially if you are a user of another commenting system. ECHO’s features are unique and, from what I’ve seen, they do seem to work fairly well.
What ECHO Does Right
For the most part, the public-facing ECHO experience seems to be pretty solid. ECHO looks good, is easy very to use and, in my case, blended into my site without any modification. JS-Kit did a very good job designing the public portion of its service to make it a good entrant into the field.
An added bonus is the real-time nature of the commenting system. As new comments appear, visitors on the page do not need to refresh the page to see the changes, making it a very slick system for sites with very active conversations. However, if you have the kind of blog that only gets a few comments per day, you probably won’t see any benefit from this feature.
However, the best aspect about it is how well it works. ECHO had some lofty goals set for it through JS-Kit’s marketing hype but it meets them. The aggregation has been nearly perfect, even beating Tweetmeme to new tweets about a post. This post on my site illustrates how useful it can be. The post itself has only four comments, but by pulling in other comments from four different sources, it found 8 additional pieces of conversation about it.
To be certain, it isn’t perfect. If a tweet appears on FriendFeed, something that happens on that post above, ECHO treats it as two separate comments. However, this is not something that ECHO can be readily faulted for as it can not safely ignore duplicate comments and it is better to have duplicates than miss legitimate dialog.
Unfortunately though, there are problems with ECHO that JS-Kit can be blamed for. As great as the system is on the front end, the back end is something of a nightmare to use.
Where ECHO Goes Wrong
The problem with ECHO is that it is something of a paradox, the clean, effective front-end hides a kludgy, unusable backend. As an administrator using the service I found the management tools to be confusing, inelegant and to be missing features.
Considering that the first step I took after leading up ECHO was to try and import my comments. However, ECHO’s online importer refused to automatically import all of my site’s comments saying that it was too large. Instead, I was forced to send my blog login credentials to ECHO via email (a very large security risk), install an additional file in my admin directory and then wait over the weekend as JS-Kit’s team manually imported my comments. All of this on a site that both Disqus and ID have imported without incident.
Shortly after that, I found that I could only manage my comments when I was not logged into JS-Kit. Logging in removed my ability to manage my comments though, when I was logged out, ECHO gave me warnings that I needed to create an account but every attempt to do so resulted in more error messages. As it turned out, I needed to log out of JS-Kist, remove my administrator rights there and then login and add it back. Somehow I had created a “cookie account” which gave me a JS-Kit account without having signed up or logged in, but one that would have been gone the second I had cleared my cookies (though access could be restored through a series of confusing steps).
However, even after everything is set up and working there are still limitations and problems. For one, if you don’t require your comments to be moderated, there is no “inbox” system for your comments. You have to handle all on-site comment moderation on your site. Compare this to Disqus and ID, both of which provide a “one stop” place to examine and manage all of your site’s comments. This means that, if you miss an email about a comment, you may never know you need to remove or spam one that got through.
But this lack of an important feature isn’t a surprise to me. The entire back-end seems to reflect a lack of care or concern in making it easy to use or efficient. The terms are confusing, it’s hard to find what you need and the entire admin area is just unattractive. Compared to the front-end, the back-end is downright ugly. It is generally difficult and unpleasant to use.
It’s a strange paradox that such a powerful and effective front-end would give way to an ineffective backend, but that appears to be the case.
Would I recommend JS-Kit ECHO? It’s hard to say. The busier your site is, the more you’ll get out of the front-end features but the more the lack of a proper back-end will impede you and the more difficult setup you are looking at.
The elephant in the room is that ECHO is the only of the three major commenting services that charges money for its basic non-white label service, $12 per year. While that’s not an unreasonable amount to charge for such a service, coming out to a dollar per month, it seems difficult to justify that when both Disqus and ID are free and have better-thought-out admin interfaces.
ECHO provides some unique and compelling new features, only some of which can be duplicated via other means, but does that make it worth the headache and the money? It depends on the nature of your site’s comments and your threshold for problems.
Personally, if I had it to do over again, I would have waited until JS-Kit had sorted out the issues with account setup and management before signing up. However, now that I’ve already made the investment to set up the service, I am even more hesitant to leave.
ECHO has a lot of potential but also a lot of headaches. It isn’t a “set and forget” system like Disqus and it is definitely not recommended for novices right now. That being said, the potential is there. You might not want to jump in right now, but its definitely a service to keep your eye on moving forward.