Have we run out of questions?

By: Rob Corbidge, 10 November 2022

neon questions marks over a planet

An endlessly expanding world of questions that need answers is out there and that's good news for publishing

Has the internet answered every question humankind has to ask? Of course not, and as humans are in the business of manufacturing more questions every day, then that is a turn of events unlikely to ever occur.

Why do we add this question to the existing pile then? It may seem a bit presumptive to pose such a thing - that the capacity exists to answer all the questions we have, or more probably it's just a preposterous notion that such a situation could ever exist.

Both of these are good news for publishers.

Out there on the internet exists a whole labyrinth of niche sites answering questions. That is, sites owned and run by people who specialise in finding unanswered questions around a particular topic, and make it their business to provide the answers questions beg. As in, actually their business.

They monetise through advertising and increasingly affiliate links, and fill out the niche interest areas of the web. I've come across such sites while looking up more obscure stuff for my own hobby of bread making, for example.

Floury-handed, you're usually looking for a particular implement or method when and up rolls (!) breadbaking.com or somesuch site, and there's an attempt to answer your question. Sometimes it's good, sometimes not right - but mostly the advice given, wherever it was gleaned from, is attempting to be of value to the audience.

Google has attempted to seize even the simplest questions as its property of course - witness domination of song lyrics, attempts to occupy video game guides, and so on and so forth. That little answer panel at the top of many searches is pretty much the enemy of anyone trying to monetise knowledge. Google has all the answers, and there's no need to wander far from whatever nauseating worthiness is displayed on the search page theme that day. 

It was often supposed, and with some evidence, that Google spent a long time downranking by default Q&A sites such as Quora. Only recently has it found a way to include such discussion-heavy sites in results in a decent way.

Happily this attempt to take ownership of questions obviously can't work. The reason for my original research into the niche site community came from the realisation that those type of sites operate like stealthy information miners on the edge of a bigger operation. 

Even after Google has dragged its opencast claws across the web, there are all kinds of fragments that break off that can be lucrative for smaller operators: get the accuracy, presentation and SEO right around particular, less obvious topics, and people will find you.

There's nothing revolutionary there of course, but what is important to understand is the focus that niche providers have on the questions their prospective audience could be asking. All the rest flows from that position.

The beauty of questions is that they lead to more questions. The more you know, the more apparent the specific dimensions of your ignorance. Answering questions won't go obsolete.

Many larger publishers do follow this way of thinking and some have built a strong presence in areas such as guides, less mainstream pursuits, or celebrity. Identifying and answering the questions people ask is simply a good starting point for a great deal of content.

Forgive me if the obvious is being pointed out here. Yet, in the maelstrom that is contemporary publishing, having a simple starting point can have its uses. For example, our own Content Engineers here in the land of the Headless CMS will invariably ask "What are we trying to solve here?" before any other discussion is undertaken. 

Just as asking the right question is all-important in life, answering it can be very valuable too.