Rethinking Your FAQ Page

FAQ pages can be wonderful things. They can also be a sign of extreme laziness. Laziness? But you’re answering your visitors’ questions; surely that’s good customer service, right? Perhaps – and perhaps it isn’t quite good enough.

I’ve advocated for the use of FAQ pages before, and I still think that web sites should include them. But an article by Mike Moran at Search Engine Guide recently made me think about why we actually include those pages…and what they start to look like after they’ve been up for a while.

An FAQ page, in order to be useful, needs to be maintained. Webmasters maintain it by noting how frequently certain questions get asked, and the most popular ones get added, along with answers. It’s a Frequently Asked Questions page, after all. But the list of questions keeps growing, and pretty soon it’s too long to be contained within a single page. Then what do you do?

Ask yourself a better question now. Do you really think your visitors are going to scroll all the way down through a long list of questions to find the one that applies to them? I consider myself to be relatively patient and tech-savvy, and even I find myself staring with dread when I see that scroll bar on the right getting shorter and shorter (while the track it has to travel gets longer and longer).

If you can’t fit everything on one page, you need to start considering alternatives. You could use a little AJAX magic to display just the questions, and hide the answers until a visitor clicks on a particular question. Traveling that route means dealing with potential SEO issues; Google sometimes has problems with AJAX-based questions. And anyway, that only delays the inevitable; even if you list just the questions, you could easily get enough to make for a very long page.

You need to break up your FAQ page in some way that makes sense. But how do you do that?

You could, if you were sadistic, simply leave your FAQ the way it is, with its questions and everything in its current order, and break it into pages. The longer it gets, the more pages it becomes. If your questions weren’t very well-organized to begin with, that approach won’t help your visitors – and that’s what an FAQ page is supposed to be all about, right?

Okay, so what if you leave the page the way it is, but include links at strategic points that take visitors back to the top? That’s a non-starter. What does the visitor actually gain when you use that approach, if your questions aren’t organized in some way already? Remember that point, by the way, as I’ll be revisiting it later.

You might consider creating the kind of FAQ I’ve seen used by universities and other large organizations whose web site visitors naturally have lots of questions. They like to sort questions and answers in alphabetical order by keyword. Basically, you put those 26 letters at the top of your screen, linked to appropriate sections, and have at it. So “Courses” would be under “C,” “Tuition” under “T,” and so on.

That’s great in theory, but it doesn’t always work in practice. Moran notes that he enjoys sneaking away to watch a baseball game when he’s on a business trip; being a responsible business person, though, he likes to stay in touch and try to get some work done. So he always wants to know if he can bring his briefcase with his computer to the game. Not all stadium websites answer this question.

I’m setting this up because he mentions the FAQ for the Baltimore Oriole’s stadium, which is set up as an A-to-Z guide. So what letter should Moran look under for the answer to his question? “C” for computer? “E” for electronics? “S” for stadium security? He found his answer under “B” – not for “briefcase,” but for “bags.”

Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Let me let Moran explain it in his own words: “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.”

Sheesh! That’s not exactly the most helpful FAQ. If you want to use this approach and have it work, you’re going to have to do some serious cross-referencing and probably test it out with multiple people. It’s an old keyword problem raising its head again; different people are going to think of the same thing with different words. This can’t exactly be standardized.

One website that takes a better approach with its FAQ belongs to the Orlando International Airport. It’s clear that whoever organized this page got into the heads of travelers. It features clickable links for separate categories: “Checking in,” “Getting Around,” “While You’re Waiting,” “Ground Transportation,” “Security” and so forth. The divisions seem natural, based on the areas with which most people would be concerned.

The divisions make sense, and the answers are brief but cover the material. For example, whether wireless access is available at the airport is answered under the “While You’re Waiting” section and covered in just a few sentences that contain the most vital information.

How do you handle material that requires a longer answer? Under “Security,” the question of “What can I take in my carry-on baggage?” is answered in one sentence that includes a hyperlink to a dedicated security page. Sometimes, though, you do need to include the full information; the answer to “Will the security screening damage my photographic film?” is surprisingly long. Even here, though, the author of the page kept in mind the visitor’s attention span by using bullets for lists and keeping paragraphs short.

The hyperlink to the dedicated security page brings up a point that Moran raised in his article. “If it really is an important question, I’d think that you’d want to place that answer in as many places as make sense so that most people can find it,” he observed. Your FAQ should not be the only or even the main place that visitors go to get their questions answered. Things like what hours you’re open, for example, arguably belong on your About Us page and maybe even your home page, not just your FAQ.

It’s easy to get frustrated if you can’t find what you’re looking for on a website, and nobody wants to stay on a frustrating site. Think about the sensible places a visitor might search for particular information. When you need to add a new question to your FAQ, think about where else on your site that information belongs as well. 

If you need some selfish reasons to do this, consider this: organizing pages conceptually should work well with Google’s algorithm. The search engine wants to see what a particular page is about; an FAQ covering dozens of topics, one would think, would be harder to categorize (and less likely to come up with an answer when someone is searching) than a page that’s more focused on the question the searcher is asking.

Even more importantly, if your information is organized in a way that makes it easy for your visitors to find it, they’ll stop calling and emailing YOU quite so much with the same questions every time. That should leave you more time for the other parts of your business. Good luck!

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