Where Do You Get Answers Online? (Why Q&A Websites Are Your Best Choice)July 23, 2012 11:29 am ·
According to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 73% of all Americans use search engines, and on any given day more than half of American adults are using a search engine. As a nation, we’ve become quite comfortable with asking a computer to solve our problems.
But what about the results? While search engines may be the first stop to solve a problem, they are merely a middleman in the process; a broker who hands you a stack of places to actually get answers.. Many specific question searches (e.g. “How do I fix a leaky toilet?”) will return a grab bag of videos, eHow articles, wikis and forum discussions in the results.
This is where the real answers are found: forums, wikis, Q&A sites, videos, articles—sites where real people are contributing useful answers to questions. And while each content type has its place online, we’d argue (not surprisingly) that a well-run, well-targeted question and answer site is the best option for finding specific answers to your question. Here are three reasons why.
Specificity: Do one thing, do it well
Jack of all trades, master of none—the online answer business has certainly proved this point to be true. While monster sites like eHow and Yahoo Answers seem to turn up for just about every question, the content is often thin at best and blatantly wrong at worst. A good question and answer resource requires a proper balance between scope and specificity: you want to be broad enough topically to attract a wide range of visitors, but narrow enough to retain a committed base of experts.
Specificity is all the more important when it comes to those who are answering your questions. Contributors self sort, finding the categories in which they have the most interest and knowledge. This in turn gives them the greatest opportunity for success while ensuring quality solutions for users. Over time, the people who ask questions in a specific topic area develop a relationship with the experts who answer questions there. Trust is built and the community flourishes.
Incentive for experts to participate
Askers have plenty of incentive to get answers. You know how it is when you’re trying to solve a problem—the desperate “help me now!” feeling is a powerful motivator for participation. But what about the experts, what’s in it for them? Forums, wikis and other sources may be targeted at a specific niche, but they don’t necessarily have any built-in incentives for experts to participate beyond doing so out of the goodness of their hearts.
A “gamified” question and answer community solves this problem. Badges, certificates and other on-site motivators provide recognition for participation and external validation for the experts’ skill sets. Points-based games based on answering questions also provide healthy competition amongst a peer group that may otherwise not have an outlet for their talents. These added incentives foster an environment that encourages quality answers and return participation. Experts get acknowledgement, askers get answers–its a win-win.
Dynamic interaction with knowledgeable users
Have you found and eHow article that is “almost” the answer? While some questions have black and white answers across the board, many questions are situational and require a personalized answer. The downside of many wikis and other article-based answer sources is that if a solution isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, there’s no easy mechanism to ask your own question.
A good question and answer site makes it easy for users to search proven answers, but it doesn’t stop there. Each on-site solution needs to have a clear and simple way for users to ask their own unique question. And most importantly, users need to be confident that they’re asking a question to a still-engaged expert audience. Many forums feature useful answers that are 5-10 years old and a base of users that have long since moved on. Creating a reliable space for askers and experts to interact is critical to a successful online answer resource.
Conclusion: get answers and give thanks
When you think about it, “asking the computer” a question isn’t much different than asking your neighbor or coworker or father-in-law for help. You’re not asking a machine, you’re asking a real human being to help you—someone who (hopefully) has a lot more knowledge and experience in a given area than you do. So whether you get answers in a wiki, forum, how-to article or question and answer site, take a moment to thank the person on the other side of the screen. They’ll be happy to know they’ve helped.