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FAQs as an alternative to search engines


Tired of trying to understand search engines? Still not finding the information that you want on the internet? FAQs (frequently asked questions) could be the answer. FAQs have been with us since the early days of the internet but have been largely overlooked by traditional media in their efforts to popularise the world wide web. Companies such as Yahoo have made the headlines with their search engines but the good old FAQ has been neglected. I contend that when you know what you are searching for, a FAQ is often the best place to look.

FAQs have grown out of the need for efficiency and good manners, primarily on newsgroups (the electronic bulletin boards of the internet). There are always new people joining these bulletin boards and it became rather tiresome for the old hands in the group to repeatedly answer the same questions. Hence the FAQ which is a collection of the most frequently asked questions. FAQs usually start with questions such as why, what, who and where. The concept is incredibly simple but the information contained in FAQs is invaluable.

A FAQ is also based on the internet’s community model. While there is normally one person who moderates a FAQ, contributions are welcome from anyone who feels they can add something to the document.

FAQ vs. Search engine
Search engines leave the narrowing of results to the user which often causes frustration. A typical search on a search engine can return tens of thousands of documents. I was recently looking for information on converting some Excel spreadsheets to an old version of Lotus 123 so I headed over to AltaVista and submitted +123 +excel +convert. The result from AltaVista

Word count: excel: 322763; convert: 359758; 123: 902813
Documents 1-10 of about 900 matching the query, best matches first.

Although 900 documents sounds reasonable, I still find "about 900" web pages that all match my query rather intimidating. I browsed through the first two screens (15 minutes) and they were not what I was looking for. My options were to plough through the 900, refine my search to reduce the number of documents or to find the information in another manner.

I thought that maybe someone out there may have the same problem as me so considered searching newsgroups and then remembered a great site that contains a list of all the FAQs available on the net. I surfed over to where a simple page gives you options to look at FAQs sorted in various different ways or even search the contents of the FAQs.

In my case I was looking for information on converting spreadsheets so I quickly located the spreadsheet FAQ. What I found was an incredible resource on the main spreadsheet products in the marketing, ideas, tips, advice and links to other websites with even more information. If you’re looking for spreadsheet information then I would recommend the FAQ before a search engine. It is so much less painful.

The Landfield Group maintain information on 3160 (all known) FAQ’s on their website. Information is updated daily. Their category index lists everything from Abdominal Training to Zoroastrianism. What’s Zoroastrianism? Check the FAQ.

Another advantage of a FAQ is that if you cannot find an answer to your question then you can drop a message to the newsgroup which is of course the whole idea of the FAQ. If your question is relevant it will probably be added to the FAQ.

While search engines strive to contain every document on the internet, FAQs are normally restricted to one topic. If you can’t find a FAQ on your topic then either start one or resort to the search engines.

AltaVista (( which regular readers will know is my favourite search engine has recently added a feature called Live Topics. If you browser supports Java you can view a very advanced display of topics that relate to your search and the relationship between the topics. If your browser is still running sans Java then you can view a text only version which is equally as powerful but not quite as pretty. Live Topics is invaluable if you are doing serious research.