Somewhat ironically, given the title, this blog post is in response to a question we get asked on a regular basis: Why don’t we allow FAQs on the website?
As part of our web migration project, we’ve been working with people across the university to improve existing content as we move it into our new content management system. We want people to be able to find the information they need quickly and easily. Frequently asked questions pages, however, often only serve to muddy the waters and can actually make it more difficult for our users to access the content they are looking for. This blog post explains why putting your content in FAQ form reduces its effectiveness, and what you could do instead to help your users find the content they want.
More difficult to find information
To understand why FAQs don’t work well on a website, you need to know a little about how people actually read – or in many cases don’t read – the text on the page. It can be likened to driving down the road and gathering information on a billboard as you speed past it. You don’t read it word for word and instead absorb only the most obvious information.
Research by the Nielsen Norman Group showed that one pattern people follow is the F-shaped pattern, where they scan along the top of the content, then mostly along the left-hand side, quickly looking for keywords. Because of this crawl pattern, it’s important to ensure that your content is ‘front loaded’, in other words, your keywords are towards the left side of the page.
Another common scan style is the « layer cake » style where users will scan the headings and subheadings and skip the underlying paragraph text.
Structuring content like FAQs, and using questions as headers, therefore goes against the normal behavior of people when they look at the content of a page, and slows them down. Going back to the analogy of driving down the road, we are effectively putting slowdowns in their way. The use of questions means that phrases such as « how do I », « where am I going » are repeated on the left side of the page instead of the words people are looking for.
Question writing also tends to be more verbose than titles, leading to a longer line length. Particularly on mobile devices this can be more difficult to read and not entirely comfortable for a user.
On the Internet, it sometimes seems that little thought has gone into grouping FAQs into useful sections. Too often they can become a dumping ground for a disparate collection of information. This makes it difficult for someone to find the answer to a genuine question as they will have to sift through a lot of material first to find what they really want to know buried in the midst of it. It can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack!
This lack of order and structured titles can also hinder SEO and make it harder for Google to find and subsequently index our content.
Not user questions
Another problem with FAQs is that sometimes they don’t answer genuine questions from a user, but are created by the company to try to disseminate information they think people should read. You often see this on retail pages: « when was the business founded? », « how many employees do you have? » – while most of the time you are really in a hurry to know their shipping charges or return policy. I don’t think we at the University are particularly guilty of this, but we have a habit of assuming what people’s questions are, rather than always researching. This means that many times we may just be second guessing the questions people have.
We also see FAQs that duplicate information found elsewhere on the website. This is problematic as when updates are made, one version can easily be overlooked leading to conflicting information on the site. In addition to confusing users, this also weakens trust in your brand.
So what’s the alternative?
Perhaps you have an FAQ page on your site and are now wondering what to do with it. Often the information it contains can be very useful to users as long as it is presented in the right way and at the right time.
If something is actually asked on a regular basis, such as people emailing or calling with similar questions, we should write and structure the website content accordingly so that the answer is easy to find within the content itself. People tend to visit your FAQ page as a last resort, when they can’t find the information on your site, but you can avoid this by providing the information when people need it, which will also mean a smoother journey for your site. ‘user.
If many people come to you with a question about a specific topic, create content based on that theme. Keep similar topics together and structure the material logically.
For example, imagine you are organizing an event aimed at families. Instead of having something hidden in the FAQ like ‘who is this event suitable for?’ this information can be communicated more directly in the event description with the use of a heading such as ‘Welcome Kids’ or ‘Family Friendly’ and text to explain that the event is suitable for the whole family.
Case study: interlibrary loan
An example of how titles, rather than FAQs, can enhance content is seen with our new interlibrary loan page. It was previously structured as a series of frequently asked questions (see image below), but we were able to restructure the page and put headers that are easily crawlable and think about the user’s journey from application to collection and renewal, providing the relevant information that a user would need at each step.
The original page was especially difficult for a user to scan as there was not even any content to interrupt the questions as they were in an accordion style, with repeating blocks of color and nothing in between.
THE new guide to interlibrary loan that uses headers, it might seem longer, but it’s actually easier to see. A quick scroll down the page and keywords, like « application, » « restrictions, » and « collection, » pop up. We’re also helped by the fact that our H2-level headers appear as a contextual navigation on the right side of the page (on desktop) or at the top of the page (on mobile), so users can instantly navigate to a section of interest.
The structure of the page, using appropriate headers, will also ensure that this page appears in search results, regardless of how the user types the query.
Overall, and as this example shows, FAQs are an ineffective way to write and structure content. Thinking a little more about how you organize and display your material can make a significant difference to your users, both in how easily they find and use the information on your site. It will accelerate your users towards their goal and leave them with a much more positive impression of your website.
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash