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ask questions onlineDo you want quality responses to your questions online? Ask quality questions. What are quality questions? They’re friendly, relevant, to-the-point and provide enough information that the question can actually be answered.

Google’s amazing search function has changed all our lives for the better, but sometimes finding answers to a particular question works better if you can ask a fellow human being. That’s what communities like MakeUseOf Answers answers answers Read More are for.

If you want quality answers to your queries, however, there’s one principle you need to know – (almost) everything you see on the Internet is written by an actual human being. There aren’t magic robots out there solving your problems for you–there are only living, breathing people with lives and concerns of their own. If you remember this as you write your question you’ll probably get the response you’re looking for.

Do I know everything about asking quality questions? No. But I’ve been around the Internet a couple of times, and I’ve seen what gets results. Here’s a bit of humble advice along those lines.

Learn The Culture

If you’re at a dinnner party with a group of people you don’t know, it’s probably a bad idea to try dominating the conversation without listening. You need to figure out the pace, the tone and the kinds of topics your new friends enjoy.

The same thing applies on the Internet–”lurk moar”, as the old saying goes. It’s a good idea to hang around a particular website for a while before commenting, so you can learn the flow of the site along with any cultural pecularities.

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ask questions online

This is hard to outline concretely, because every online community is different. For example, if you’re asking a question at the Ubuntu Forums, don’t start by saying how Windows is way better than Ubuntu and that you will switch back unless someone solves your problem INSTANTLY. It isn’t helpful.

Learn what sorts of questions get answers on a given site before you start asking them. This isn’t just polite; it’s practical. Asking about user issues on a site dedicated to programmers rarely helps; learn about the site you’re using before you ask a question.

Another example – there are unwritten rules for posting on Reddit 6 Unwritten Rules For Posting Content On Reddit [Opinion] 6 Unwritten Rules For Posting Content On Reddit [Opinion] Every society and/or community has their own unwritten rules of proper etiquette, courtesy, and communication. Granted, I'm not going to say every set of rules is perfect, but I will say that they do exist.... Read More . Learn them before you even try, but even that won’t be enough. On certain sub-sections of Reddit, being hilarious is the most important thing; others are full of people who love answering questions about things they’re passionate about. Learn the difference if you want to ask for relevant information.

At MakeUseOf Answers answers answers Read More  we help people with computer problems. Ask about quantum physics, however, and you won’t get the results you’re looking for.

Search First; Repeat. If Necessary, Ask.

Some topics of conversation come up again and again. Don’t be the person who brings up a particular question for the umpteenth time. Always search a site for your question before asking it. It’s common courtesy online, because it shows you value the time of the people you’re requesting information from.

Do you not see a search function on a given site?  Use Google. Type your search, then follow it with “site:makeuseof.com“. This function will only show you results from “makeuseof.com”, but you can obviously use it for any website. Check out this PDF for more search engine tips.

ask questions online and get answers

Can’t find an answer to the question on the site where you’re asking? Try a general Google search as well. The information you’re looking for could well be easy to find, meaning questions about them can frustrate members of certain online communities.

Simply put – don’t waste people’s time with things you can easily find out yourself. If you do, they probably won’t bother to respond.

3. Provide Enough Information

Asking a question is useless if you don’t provide enough information for people to answer. For example:

My computer won’t start. What should I do?

No one will ever answer this question, and if they do the answers will only be requests for more information. Remember – the people you’re asking for help are actual human beings. They can’t read your mind, and they have no idea what your situation is, so provide information about that situation if you want a response.

In the example above, relevant information includes:

  • What kind of computer it is that won’t start, complete with specs if you have them.
  • Which operating system you’re trying to start. Windows? OS X? Some kind of Linux?
  • Whether anything unusual happened before the computer stopped booting. Did you install any weird software, or pour vodka on your keyboard?

You get the idea – provide context or people will be unable to answer your question.

ask questions online

Are you not sure what information is and isn’t relevant? Remember the above point – learn the culture of the community you’re interacting with. Check out previous threads and see which questions received answers. Aim to be equally informative.

4. Be Positive

Do you want to get a writer’s attention in the comment section of any blog? Thank him or her for a job well done. Comment sections across the net are typically filled with so much vitriol that a single positive statement below an article will stand out almost immediately, especially if the comment addresses the content of the article.

The same goes for online forums – being polite and complimenting a community before asking a question almost always helps, if the compliment comes across as sincere.

Of course, there’s one way you could screw this approach up – leaving a positive comment so generic people  assume you are a spambot. Comments that provide no context, just generic praise, rarely result in useful answers. For example:

This is a quality Internet site and/or community you have here. I will visit frequently. Hey, can you fix my computer for me? 

It all comes back to my first point – learn the ins and outs of a particular community before you start asking questions. An irrelevant compliment is practically an insult, because it reveals you never bothered to read any of the content on the site.

5. Don’t Just Take; Give

Finally – never simply use a community. Join a community. Don’t be that guy who always takes and never gives: contribute to the online communities that help you by answering other people’s questions.

After all – if everyone just asked questions without answering them, there would be no answers.

But, But…That’s All Too Much Work!

If you are thinking to yourself “this is too much work, and I’m not going to bother,” know this – people will feel the same way about the questions you ask. Like I keep saying, the people on the Internet are every bit as human as you, and will act accordingly.

Happily most people are fantastic if you treat them with respect. The above rules aren’t set in stone. They’re just my guidelines for being respectful online. Following them won’t guarantee you free tech support, but they will make it more likely that strangers put aside their valuable time and try to help you out.

Can you think of any other other etiquette rules for asking questions online? Leave them in the comments below, because I love learning from you.

  1. Mathew Whitchurch
    August 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    I think you guys should check out http://www.formvote.com - it's an awesome place to ask questions online.

  2. Galen Wright-Watson
    June 25, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    How about:

    3.1 Avoid low-information phrases.
    Some common phrases convey little to no information. Instead of "it doesn't work", explicitly state what you expect to happen and what actually happens. Instead of "best", state the priorities (alternatives usually involve trade-offs; what's best for some purposes isn't best for others). Questions such as "Does anyone have any ideas?", "Can anyone help me?" provide no information at all; leave them out. You may see others as you lurk, or think some up as you write your question.

    3.2 Keep it relevant
    Extraneous information can hurt a question's chance to get an appropriate answer almost as much as missing information. It can be tricky to figure out what's relevant, but the general guideline is provide what's necessary for someone to reproduce whatever you're asking about. If your question is about a larger problem you're trying to solve, include a brief description of the general issue; someone may have a better approach that makes your specific question moot.

    Only ask yes-or-no questions if you want a yes or a no answer.

    7. Pick a good title.
    A title specific to your question will attract those most likely to have the knowledge to answer it. If your question is succinct, use it as the title. Posts with generic titles (such as "Help") tend to get lost among all the other posts with generic titles.

    Also, post titles tend to get use for page titles, which is given higher weight by search engines than other page text. The upshot is posts with good titles are easier to find by others with a similar issue who are following point 2 ("Search First").

    8. Write as well as you can
    At a minimum, posts should make proper use of capitalization and punctuation. Without the variation provided by capitals and punctuation, a post is too uniform to read easily. Beyond that, make your grammar usage and spelling as correct as you are able, but don't worry too much about the formalities. In particular, leeway is given for non-native English writers.

    Perhaps penny arcade said it best when it introduced Mr. Period.

    9. Show the answer
    If you answer your own question, post it to help others with the same issue. If you use someone else's answer, thank them and let others know that it worked for you. This lets others know that your problem has been resolved.

    The site format (see point 1) may affect how you show the answer and thank whoever provided it. For forums, you usually take the obvious route: add a new post. Some forums also have ways of rewarding posters (e.g. "liking" posts or rewarding credits). Q&A sites, such as Quora and the StackExchange group, have their own ways of accepting an answer and rewarding posters; generally, you should use these methods rather than a post.

    10. Add to the discussion
    When replying, make sure you add something that hasn't been stated already, especially if you're looking for help and are tempted to post a reply to someone else's question. Otherwise, useful information becomes lost among the needless posts (engineers call this a low signal-to-noise ratio). Posts that merely state that you have the same issue, or posting thanks when you haven't previously been involved in the discussion should be avoided. If the site has a method of rewarding people (e.g. "liking" or upvoting), use it instead of thanks.

    On sites that are geared towards asking questions, if you're tempted to reply to someone else's question by describing your own situation and requesting help, it's usually better to post a new question, perhaps with a link to the previous one. Many times your particular problem will turn out to be different from the original poster's, and often you'll find old threads that are out of date. It's most appropriate to reply in an existing thread when you need more information about an answer rather than to ask your own questions.

    • Justin Pot
      June 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm

      Wow, you just wrote the second half of my article. Great points, all of them.

  3. James Bruce
    June 7, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Fantastic article as always Justin, but I'd add another point if I may. Don't be get angry because it isn't the answer you're looking for! We get this a lot, where people post a question without actually wanting to hear the truth. Perhaps they're just looking for approval, or want to hear their suspicions confirmed?

  4. Shehan Nirmal
    June 7, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Thank you, MakeUseOf...

  5. Dave Anderton
    June 7, 2012 at 8:01 am

    From personal experience I tend not to use forums as much as I used to. I search more, using metasearch engines.
    I eventually became fed up with getting the sort of reply which advised me to run a chkdsk or a memory test, or even some series of Windows checks, when the machine was only giving a series of blinking lights, or was dead in the water.
    So I only use forums now as a last resort. Shame really, 'cos there's some good people out there.

    • Justin Pot
      June 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm

      Sometimes people are the best resource you can find, but search is faster if your problem is at least relatively common.

  6. Laga Mahesa
    June 7, 2012 at 1:47 am

    Seriously. Pin this to the top of the homepage, or, at least, at the top of the Answers section.

  7. Scutterman
    June 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    I always find that ending a question with "thanks in advance" and my username will add a more personal touch and often results in a greater chance of a reply.

    • Galen Wright-Watson
      June 25, 2012 at 7:49 pm

      This depends on the site. Q&A sites (as opposed to forums) often discourage any sort of closing or signature.

      "Thanks in advance" is sometimes considered poor etiquette because it places a burden of answering on others (there's an implied expectation that they must earn the thanks), frees the questioner from giving further thanks or following up (after all, you've already thanked everyone) and doesn't really demonstrate gratitude (you don't yet have anything to be grateful for, so it can come across as disingenuous). It may seem a trivial point, almost nit-picking, but etiquette is often composed of such apparent trivialities (Miss Manners would probably rather that we'd say "subtleties"). Better are "please help if you can", "thanks for your attention", "thanks for your consideration" or "thanks for your time" (though the last is close to thanking someone in advance, as they've yet to spend time to develop an answer). Strictly speaking, phrases with "please" are more appropriate, as it's before the fact; "thanks" are for after someone has given you something.

    • Scutterman
      June 26, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Well, I never meant it like that, and I've never had anyone say they were offended by it. I also make sure to always reply to anyone who does help with thanks / gratitude. It annoys me when I see forum posts asking for help, and there's a valid answer but no reply from the OP. Not only is is rude, it's unhelpful to other people who have the same problem because there's nothing to show whether the solution works or not.
      The same goes for unanswered requests for more information - if someone takes the time to reply, you can at least reply back either saying you've solved the problem (and how) or giving the requested information.

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