The folly of the FAQ

So-called “frequently asked questions” generally aren’t! At best they are a poor substitute for well structured content. At worst they are questions the writer wishes someone would ask. 

“Frequently asked questions” (FAQs), are found on many web sites. Most content management systems provide some sort of plug-in to make adding them to your website an easy task. But before you think about adding a FAQ or two to your website think about what purpose it serves for your site visitors and how they might use your FAQ.

If a visitor looking for information on your site finds some FAQs, they need to:

  • think about whether the information they want would be a frequently asked question or not
  • read all the questions to see if the information they want is there
  • wonder what to do next if their question isn’t answered.

Your visitors will nearly always be much better served by well written content on a well structured and organised site. 

For example compare the information in this FAQ excerpt: 

Frequently asked questions

Q.  If I’m not happy with the goods I purchase can I return them for a full refund?

A.  We will happily refund the purchase price of your goods if you return them within 14 days in original condition in undamaged packaging.

Q  How long is the product warrantied for?

A  All products come with a 12 month money back warranty against faulty workmanship.

Q  Can I extend the warranty period?

A  All product warranties can be extended for a further 12 months. Ask our friendly staff for a quote.

with the same information in structured content:

Refunds

Return your item within 14 days, in original conditon and in undamaged packaging for a full refund.

Warranty

All products are warrantied for 12 months against faulty workmanship. Warranties can be extended for a further 12 months.

Just in that small example you can see that:

  • The FAQ heading gives no clues as to what questions will be answered
  • The FAQ approach is necessarily more wordy because of the question/answer format. This format promotes a more conversational (and wordy) approach to conveying the information. This approach doesn’t fit well with how people read on the web.
  • It is harder to quickly scan FAQ content to see whether it answers the questions you want. On the other hand, structured content, with sensible headings, is much easier to scan.
  • FAQ content can nearly always be turned into succinct and logical structured content.

So why are FAQs so common?

In many cases FAQs are an easy way to write content. It is easier to formulate a series of questions and answers than do the work of analysing and structuring the content so it can be presented logically and succinctly. If you think of new information that has to be added you can simply write a new question and answer and tack it on the end, rather than reworking the content to fit it in where it logically belongs.

Often the “frequently asked questions” aren’t actually frequently asked at all. The writer works out what they want to say on a particular subject and develops questions and answers accordingly. Labelling such content “Frequently asked questions” is misleading and could even affect the credibility of your website in the eyes of savvy visitors.

What is the alternative?

The alternative, as we have seen above, is well structured, logically organised content. It will be less wordy and easier for your site visitors to scan. 

If you must have a FAQ

If you feel that a FAQ really is the best way to deal with some of the content on your site then consider doing the following:

  • List all the questions (without the answers visible) so they can be more quickly read to see if the the question of interest is included. The visitor should then be able to click on that question to see the answer. 
  • Group  questions by topics that will make sense to your visitors, and use those topics as subheadings in your FAQ, so that visitors can easily find the part of the FAQ that is of interest to them.
  • Pay special attention to keeping them up-to-date. Because FAQ content is often quite unstructured it is easy to miss when the information in them becomes outdated.

Published: Wednesday, 14 November 2012