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Frequently asked questions are a staple of the Internet--even predating the web. And the idea makes sense. If people are continually asking the same questions, why not answer them once on your website so then you won't have to answer them over and over again? That's the theory, anyway. But, in practice, getting the same question over and over again might point you to some other ideas besides updating your FAQ page.

Now, it's not bad to have an FAQ page, necessarily. I check them out when I am looking at a small website and really trying to understand the company. But, increasingly, they are not the sign of a professional website--many companies have eliminated them.

The idea of collecting up customer questions and answering them is a good one, but an FAQ page is not the only place to answer questions. Let me give you an example.

I am a crazy baseball fan, so much so, that whenever I have a business trip, I try to sneak away one evening to a ballgame. And I always have the same question: "Can I bring my briefcase with my computer to the game?" Some ballparks are OK with this and some aren't. And they hardly ever answer that question anywhere on the site except at the FAQ page, along with eight million other questions. And I rarely know what words to use to search for it on the page.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the FAQ page except that those questions ought to be answered in other places, too. I am a big proponent of task-based information. In this case, the task is "going to the game" (as opposed to "checking the schedule" or buying a ticket"). Every ball club's website could have a page about going to the game, where it listed the driving and mass transit directions, the parking fees, the time the gates open for batting practice, what you are allowed to carry into the park, special accommodations for the disabled, and whatever else someone going to the game might need to know.

Instead, check out this typical A to Z Guide for the Baltimore Orioles. (I'm not picking on the Orioles--most of the baseball team websites look the same.) This is a variant of a frequently asked question page--it just lists topics in alphabetical order rather than as questions. First, give the Orioles some credit--at least they have some kind of organization, while many FAQ pages list the questions in random order, even when there are dozens.

When you first look at the page, you are struck by how long it is. You obviously can't scroll down through it and read it all, but all you have to help you is the A to Z navigation, which would be fine if you had any idea what letter your topic was under. Where would you look for "What am I allowed to carry into the park?" Turns out that you look under "Bags" if you want to know how big your briefcase can be (which I did) or you look under "Container policy" if you want to know whether you can bring a bottle of soda. You might need to refer to the "Camera/Video Equipment" and "Banner/Signs" topics depending on what else you wanted to bring.

And if all of the A-Z topics pertained to going to a game, maybe it would be OK, but these topics are all over the map, ranging from the location of defibrillators to requests to sing the national anthem to nearby hotels. Again, I have no issue with the A to Z Guide except, "Why is that the only place for this information?" It should also be presented in other places where it might be more natural to find it.

I wish this was an isolated case, but I see it all the time. The website owner has good intentions by parking the answers to questions on the site so that someone can find it, but this seems like a lazy way to do the job. If it is really an important question, I'd think that you'd want to place that answer in as many places as make sense so that the most people can find it. I've seen sites that relegate their hours of operation to their FAQ page. I have no problem with it being there, but couldn't it be on your home page, too?

That is the problem with FAQ pages. They make it easy to be disorganized with your information. It is easy for the site owner to throw a few more questions up there, but it's not so easy for site visitors. Site owners need to think about how they are organizing the information they put out there. A long list of questions or topics (even alphabetized) is not good enough.

So, the next time you think you have a new frequently-asked question to answer on your site, go ahead and do that. But also ask yourself a couple of questions. "Is this a question I could eliminate by changing or simplifying a policy rather than constantly answering it?" And, "Where else should I be answering this question on my site besides the FAQ page?" If you ask yourself those questions before posting a new frequently asked question, you might find that your customers aren't questioning you so much.

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May 11, 2010

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


I agree that sometimes FAQs are a dumping ground and they often point to bigger navigation on the problems on the site which should be investigated. If an FAQ page is implemented, the designer should use anchor links or a search function if the page is very long.

Totally agree, Gillian, and while it helps to have anchors and searchability, it still begs the question of how to scan or choose the words that you are looking for. As long as we have that problem, even the best-designed FAQ page can become a dumping ground (as you said) for information that also belongs somewhere else on the site.

The FAQ page for the Orlando International Airport seems to offer something closer to what you're talking about. It has links to categories like "Checking In," "Getting Around," "Security" and so forth.

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