BT’s Design Team
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BT’s Design Team

Here’s a frequently asked question for you — are FAQs all bad?

Image courtesy of Content Design London

In this blog post, Head of Content Design and SEO Rebecca Hales writes about content design for humans and content design for machines. Can you reconcile the two when creating commercially competitive content?

When I started working for BT I was not a fan of frequently asked questions (or FAQs). They duplicate information that — if it really matters to your users — should form part of a wider well-structured, user-centric journey on your site. They also create content overhead: an FAQ needs to be monitored and maintained and risks confusing users if you don’t keep it up to date.

“The problem of FAQs really shows in search, where you will end up with duplicate results competing for attention. You are fighting with your own content. That can’t be efficient for you or for users.” — Sarah Winters, writing on the Government Digital Service (GDS) blog back in 2013.

In my view, Sarah talks a lot of sense on the subject. So much so that I regret not buying a ‘No FAQs’ mug when they were available, to be honest.

Yay, let’s delete all the FAQs

When I joined last year to head up the content design and SEO team, one of the first content improvement projects I got excited about was a huge exercise to cull FAQs in the BT ‘help’ area. Part of me was jealous of the content designers who were going through more than 3000 FAQs and deleting more than two-thirds of them. So therapeutic!

I naively floated the idea that perhaps the remaining 900 FAQs would not be needed if we examined what our audience was searching for and thought about solving those problems in other, simpler, more integrated ways.

Chris Cummins, one of our brilliant content design managers, pointed out to me that our colleagues in the propositions and marketing teams provide the FAQs about products and services. Those stakeholders expect FAQs to be published to help customers: find the products when searching online, understand the benefits of those products, and self-serve should an issue arise.

And that, for me, was an example of one of the most difficult issues our content designers deal with on a daily basis: balancing user needs with business needs.

It highlighted a conflict within my own role: while wearing my head of content design hat I wanted to argue for front-loaded content written in plain English as an alternative to FAQs. But with my head of SEO hat on, I had to acknowledge the valuable role FAQs play in driving traffic via organic search in a competitive commercial world.

Fine, don’t delete all the FAQs

FAQs are, in theory, an easy way to address the distance that exists between user needs and business needs. Because you need to know what users’ FAQs are in order to tune your search results (and surface the things the business wants to promote) you may as well show the current FAQs in order to provide a better service.

But this eliminates deep thinking about the search term your user has entered to arrive at that FAQ, and why. Deep thinking that can help content designers improve and simplify the wider experience and present better content as part of an end-to-end journey.

And FAQs take up valuable space, too. We don’t want to confuse customers with repetitive information or put obstacles in the way of them completing an action by putting an FAQ on a page where it’s not needed.

Alright then, let’s make FAQs work harder

Competing business needs and user needs mean we’ve had to find a compromise on FAQs that works for the team here at BT, EE and Plusnet. We can’t remove FAQs entirely in a commercially competitive world but we can make those FAQs more user-centred.

Our SEO team, led by Jack Sperry, drives tens of millions of pounds worth of traffic to our sites each year and FAQs are an important part of our organic SEO strategy.

We treat search engines as a user that helps other users find content. Search engines have specific user needs we need to meet so that they can get a good understanding of our websites. When people have questions about a product or service a search engine is often the first step in the user journey. From an SEO perspective, our aim is to optimise content so that it’s available to users via voice or text result ‘featured snippets’ before they reach our website.

From a content design point of view, we want to make sure that when customers enter our site, the information they need to know appears at the point they need it and forms a cohesive part of their wider experience.

So we’ve developed some rules to help our content designers make the right choice when it comes to FAQs:

  1. All FAQs are data-led and unique on our sites. If our user research and SEO analysis shows that people are genuinely asking a question frequently and BT, EE, and Plusnet are best-placed to answer it, an FAQ might be appropriate. If there’s no data to support the need for the FAQ, don’t publish it.
  2. Put the human user first. FAQs should not get in the way of a user completing a goal on a page. Quickly providing human users with relevant, easy-to-understand information in plain English on the page also benefits the robot user.
  3. Give the robot user both questions and answers. If you want Google to know what question your content is answering, include the question early in the body text (it does not need to be in a standalone FAQ or Q&A format).
  4. All FAQs meet accessibility guidelines. If you do include an FAQ or multiple FAQs on a page, make your headings and subheadings clear and consistent. FAQs should not appear in images, which exclude both people who browse using a screen-reader and search engines.
  5. Care for your FAQs. If you decide to use an FAQ or Q&A format, content designers should work with content editors and the SEO squad to understand how it’s continuing to perform and be ready to improve or remove it as necessary.
The top portion of the EE Black Friday Sale page with sales promotions.
Our EE Black Friday Sale page showing deals in the top half of the page and data-led, unique FAQs at the foot of the page.
The bottom portion of the EE Black Friday Sale page with FAQs in place.

I’m still not a fan of the FAQ format, but at least if we follow these rules I can take some comfort in the fact any FAQs we do have on our sites have fought for their existence and are working that little bit harder to meet an established user need.

Do you have a strict ‘no FAQs given’ approach? Let us know in the comments below.

“faq” by aronbaker2 is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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