This is my first column of 2012 and I’m going to start the year by being controversial.

The proverbial notion within content strategy is to vehemently protest the existence of a FAQ page on a website. Further, the FAQ page is the first page abolished during a migration and redesign. There’s a certain amount of snobbishness that goes along with this advice: “Do they have a FAQ page?” Sniff, sniff. Roll of the eyes.

Actually, I would say that content strategists recommending the abolishment of a FAQ page is the very action we always accuse our clients of doing: inside/out thinking. Instead of focusing on user needs, we prioritize content based on what we would like to see happen.

There are two reasons I think content strategists do this: FAQ pages were and are named improperly and we don’t like to admit that users are socialized to certain (bad) behaviors on websites.

By ignoring the need for a FAQ page, we ignore user behaviors. While we may not agree with them, they are still true.

Users Have a Grab & Go Mentality

What’s the first rule of marketing?

Know thy audience.

Most users want to get in and get out. As Gerry McGovern says, they have a task bias: they want to perform a task and move on. During many visits, this is assessing and gathering information. FAQ pages help to do this by putting all the relevant information on a one stop-and-shop page.

If users want all the high-level information they need on one page, why do we keep saying it’s bad practice to deliver content this way?

FAQ Pages Aren’t Really FAQ Pages

I think FAQ pages get a bad rap because they tend to go on and on and don’t prioritize information the way users want frequently asked questions answered.

But if you’ve done enough usability testing, you know that users come to sites with questions already in their heads and want those answers. In fact, I would go as far as to say that when Gerry McGovern talks about a task, it could mean a question the user wants to answer.

There’s a checklist in people’s minds in the form of questions. Why not give them one page where all the information lives and is presented in a question/answer format?

If You’re Going to Do It, Do It Right

What I would say to all the naysayers is that the reason we don’t like FAQ pages is because they are messy, they duplicate content and they rarely go deep enough. Users are socialized to visit FAQ pages, but as Web experts, we hate this. We wish there was a better way. When we reject the notion and concept of a FAQ page, however, we’re ignoring the truth about users: how they like and want to consume information.

How to Write FAQ Pages

If you are going to buck the new thinking about FAQ pages and create one, here are my 5 golden rules to writing successful FAQ pages:

  1. Treat FAQ pages like Overview pages: Nobody ever reads the overview pages, which are usually grafittied with marketing mumbo jumbo. They skip to the FAQ pages. So write your FAQ pages with an overview in mind and turn that content into a question/answer format.
  2. Treat FAQ pages like landing pages: Landing pages should give users intuitive pathways to further information. Answer the question briefly and send users to another core page on the site that answers the question in-depth.
  3. Stick to no more than 5-7 FAQs: These pages get a bad rap because they are overstuffed. Nobody has that many frequently asked questions -- how many could each user have? 2-3? So limit the amount you write about.
  4. Highlight what you want them to know: Use the page as an opportunity to shape users’ understanding of your website, company, association, etc….
  5. Update it often: This means if the core content changes, make sure the FAQ page changes. This is what makes content strategists so mad -- most FAQ pages look like stranded islands of content ignored and overgrown.

I’m hoping this gets a good conversation going about FAQ pages and if they really are worthwhile. Tell us about your experiences with them in the comments below.

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