Should your help be moved to a server?

As broadband Internet access becomes increasingly available, software providers are minimizing the local installation of help topics and instead moving some or all help to Web servers.

While this approach may alienate users who have no Internet connection or lack broadband access, there are many advantages. Web servers offer features and options that aren't available with locally installed help.

For example...

Increased functionality

Help authors can use an Internet connection to provide server-side enhancements. Examples include providing content from a database, tracking topic visitation, gathering information about browser versions and other environment variables, and rendering dynamic content via AJAX. Community content can be included with the authoritative help topics to provide richer answers to user questions.

Broader search results

Moving help to a server allows you to populate search results with content from multiple help systems. This is a win-win situation. Users find a wider range of answers to questions about your products, and at the same time they become educated on related products they may not have purchased. The Microsoft Office help is a good example.

Fewer space restrictions

If CD space or user hard drive space limitations are holding you back, server based help could solve your problems. Web server space is easy to control and expand. You can pack in plenty of tutorials, video demos with sound, and bulky graphics that may not have been possible with a local installation from a CD.

On-the-fly updates

With server based help, you can make updates at any time and present them to users immediately. All changes are visible to users as soon as they are moved to your user-facing server. That way you don't have to cringe at a typo for the next few months while you wait for the next release to ship.

Free marketing

By putting your help on a public server, you offer free answers to anyone shopping around in your market. When users search Google for information on your industry and find helpful answers on your server, you make a favorable impression without spending a single advertising dollar.

These are just a few of the benefits of moving help to a server.

Of course, you'll need to consider any users who may not have an Internet connection. You can address this with specific system requirements, or offer "airplane help" that relies on a combination of server and local content.

If I've missed anything, please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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