Tuesday, June 2, 2009

An Overview of Q&A Sites

Since the web took off in the mid-1990’s, one of the most frequently mentioned benefits of it was the ability to go online and find answers to virtually any question that existed. And while Yahoo Answers, Askville (Amazon’s answer site) and others have dominated the market, there have emerged quite a number of sites focused on the legal market. LawGuru has been around for a while and when Avvo launched, their initial product focused on lawyers answering questions from consumers. Which brings up the question – if you are a lawyer looking to drum up business, are legal Q&A sites effective?

How They Work
The legal Q&A sites all work similarly. Consumers visit the site, type in a legal question and wait for a response. As a lawyer, you register (for free) and get questions that are relevant to the types of law you practice are emailed to you. Lawyers that use it typically respond to the question and finish their answer with a “contact me for more help.” Presumably, if you give a good answer, the consumer may contact you and those contacts may turn into paying clients that you have you generated for free. Free, that is, if you don’t count the time it takes to answer the questions.

Q&A Sites at Their Best
Q&A sites have functioned as Message Boards 2.0 (you remember message boards?), and when compared to message boards and online forums, they are a lot more user friendly and feature rich.

  • When you have a very active community of users that actively answer the questions, a consumer benefits by getting their question answered (hopefully correctly) much more efficiently than spending hours surfing various websites looking for the right answer.
  • Active users that answer a lot of questions can develop an online reputation within the community that affords them a great deal of credibility. Often times, this reputation can be translated into the generation of new business or status.
  • In addition to developing a reputation, there is a lot of traffic on many Q&A sites. Many Q&A sites allow you to link to your website (worst case you can type in your domain name into the answer). Since the question database can be searched by new consumers, you can get traffic to your website without having to pay a cost per click. Often times, the traffic that you generate can exceed the traffic that you might get from an SEO effort.

Shortcomings of Q&A Sites
The biggest shortcoming of Q&A sites comes when the community is not active enough to self-regulate the quality of the answers.

  • Since the volume of questions can be quite high and the answers sometimes sparse, there is no way for the site to ensure that the answers that are given are actually correct. All lawyers understand what happens when someone receives bad legal advice.
  • The requirements to register as a lawyer and answer questions are not high. As a result, the consumers can receive answers from people that either are not real people, or not practicing attorneys. This can devalue the community and make the overall product ineffective.
  • Most Q&A sites put “no-follow” tags on links that are inserted in the answer. If a “no-follow” tag is placed on the link, you will not get any SEO benefit from posting an answer to the question.

Should You Do It? Will You Get Business?
In my opinion, getting value out of Q&A sites takes dedication and time. The expression, “you get out of it what you put into it” governs the ROI. It is fairly unlikely that you will get more than a 1-2% conversion rate of paying client to question answered. If it takes you 30 minutes to read the question and type a well written answer, then you are looking at anywhere from 25-50 hours of time for every paying client you receive. Sure, you can answer more quickly, but short “contact me” answers will only convert at a lower rate. So, the short answer to the question is, “yes, you will get business, but only if you put the necessary time into it.”