FAQs are a cancer on your website

I get asked to add lists of frequently-asked questions to websites. I do my best to talk my clients back from this ledge.

FAQs are a cancer. Once an FAQ section takes hold, the tumour demands regular feeding — which comes at the expense of the rest of the site. The easy way to deal with anything that comes up is to just toss it in the FAQ — but if organizing the content on your website doesn’t matter, why not just have everything on a single page? Why even bother putting things in a sensible order? Just make people read the ever-growing list of FAQs and be done with it.

To your visitors, FAQs are a frustrating game of hide-and-seek.

Still need convincing?

  • Do FAQs reflect reality? We’ve all seen too many FAQs that should be renamed QWFWOCWAAU (Questions We Frequently Wish Our Customers Were Actually Asking Us). “Only ACME brand batteries should be used in ACME flashlights.” Really?
  • “FAQ” is an internally-focussed term, but most websites are meant for external audiences. The name itself is written from the perspective of the website owner, not the visitor. That alone should set off alarms bells, because you are not the audience. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of building and maintaining a effective website.
  • FAQs shift the effort onto the visitor. Everyone says they want a user-friendly website, but FAQs are inherently user-hostile — not in terms of their actual content, of course — but because of the extra effort their structure imposes on visitors.
  • What an FAQ page conveys to your visitors: “We could’ve answered your shipping question on the Shipping page, but it was easier for us to add it to the FAQ than to edit the copy on the Shipping page; your wasted time and inconvenience are irrelevant.”
  • FAQs hide bigger, underlying problems. FAQ pages are especially appealing to those hoping to mask deeper organizational, structural, technical, or policy problems. These can appear in the form of confusing copy, outdated/inconsistent/inaccurate information, or internal governance issues (e.g. who is in charge of what internally). Dumping the costs of these issues on visitors (by taking shortcuts like FAQ pages) may seem acceptable, but it’s an opportunity your competitors will thank you for.

How should you handle these questions?

Of course the content and layout of your home page (or your customer support page, your products pages, etc.) should be informed by the questions you’re asked. Give priority to the most common and most important issues, near the tops of those pages. Rewrite or reorganize the pages to highlight the answers.

If something isn’t important enough to belong in the right context, in the most appropriate place — and the only place it seems to fit is an FAQ page — then it’s time to question whether it needs to be there at all.

Eliminating FAQs — by putting answers where they belong — is a great way to simplify a site.