Facebook added some features to its commenting system this week, but for publishers the tool is still a work in progress.

Launched in March, the system lets readers use their Facebook logins to comment on other websites. The company reports 50,000 sites are now using it. Among those early adopters are TechCrunch, SB Nation, Sporting News, Examiner.com and the Los Angeles Times blogs.

Facebook claims its commenting tool can improve conversation and increase traffic to participating sites. In March the company reported that SB Nation had seen its Facebook referral traffic increase 400 percent. Sporting News publisher Jeff Price told BusinessWeek that Facebook comments had improved the conversation, and the perception of the site among advertisers.

Officially, the tool is known as the Comments Box and it is one of many efforts to extend the social network's integration into the wider Web, which include the Facebook Connect authentication protocol.

While it is still far too early to pass judgment on the system, I touched base with Martin Beck, the social media editor at the Los Angeles Times to get his take on it. The Times has been using the comments tool since mid-March, but only on a handful of its blogs. Previously those sites had been using the built-in comments native to the Typepad blogging platform.

Beck said the old system lacked some important moderation tools, so comments had to be pre-approved prior to being published. Using Facebook’s comments has, in some cases, enhanced the flow of real-time conversation.

Beck notes the paper’s tech blogger, Nathan Olivarez-Giles, has seen an increase in comments, and has had to moderate far fewer. Olivarez-Giles told him the system has led to better discussion, because “I think the removal of anonymity in the Facebook system has helped prompt people to leave more meaningful and thought out comments.”

At the same time, comments to the Times’ sports blog have declined – maybe by a quarter, Beck estimated.

That mirrors reports at TechCrunch indicating that comments on its site have decreased since implementing the tool. But MG Siegler writes that those they do receive are, “are actually coherent thoughts in response to the post itself,” a stark contrast to the previous norm.

And that is the challenge of building a digital community around article comments – is it about quality or quantity? Many news editors believe requiring readers to use their real names (as with Facebook authentication) will improve the quality of comments.

Mark Eldridge, a commenter on TechCrunch, summed that up from the reader’s point of view:

“[The] solution TC has gone for is to dissuade anyone from speaking their mind, lest they say something a current or future employer disagrees with, and it shows up in a search index. Tech bloggers seem to have an inability to appreciate why people want to be anonymous, because by virtue of their work all their opinions are public.”

However the use of real names is not a required component of Facebook comments. The system enables users to sign-in using AOL, Yahoo, and now Hotmail accounts – all of which allow screen names. The option to require Facebook-only sign-ins can be selected by the site owner.

Notably conspicuous in their absence are Gmail and Twitter logins – Facebook has not announced when those services might be integrated.

Being Facebook, the strength of the commenting system is in its social features. Comments show up in user’s newsfeeds – potentially driving their friends to also read and engage with the content. According to Mike Melanson at ReadWriteWeb, Facebook is claiming that feature has contributed to Townsquare Media seeing a 45 percent increase in traffic from the social network since integrating the comments tool.

There are still some gaps to be filled in Facebook’s tool before it is adopted more widely. A few of the issues were addressed in this week’s update:

  • An API is now available for publishers to access comments and create “most popular” lists.
  • Comments can be sorted for social relevancy with friends (and friends-of-friends) appearing at the top.
  • Comments appearing in newsfeeds can now optionally include more detail, including a title, description and photo. Facebook expects this will help drive more traffic back to the originating site.

A few missing features have been noted in Facebook’s support forums:

  • Replies to comments are “threaded” but only one level deep – making it difficult to track longer discussions.
  • Comments are ordered by friend relationship – not chronologically.
  • The design of the comment widget is limited – offering either “light” or “dark” versions.

Even if those options are added in a future upgrade, the tool is still simply not as robust as similar options from Disqus or Intense Debate, which are both dedicated commenting systems.

But for media organizations unhappy with their current commenting platform – Facebook’s offering is worth investigating.

Beck said the Times rolled the tool out to one additional blog this week, and overall they are happy with the results. But, they are not ready to expand the tool to the paper’s main website.

He said it was too soon to measure the effectiveness of the referral traffic coming back from Facebook, and the staff still was debating whether requiring real names was the appropriate policy. As at TechCrunch, reader feedback has been mixed on that.

“We have to balance those sentiments with the perceived improvements in quality of conversation, efficiency of moderation and referral traffic,” he said.