When Online Tutorials Hurt Rather Than Help

With blogs on every conceivable topic, countless online forums and major “how-to” websites, we now have great ways to share free tutorials that can teach people practically anything. Technology-related information is especially helpful: with a simple Google search you can learn how to use any software program, learn about mobile reading or how to start your own website.

Outdated Information

But the fact that this type of information quickly gets outdated leads to some big problems. Software programs are constantly releasing new versions, websites unveil new interfaces, new products are released and businesses make radical changes. And when they do, all the tutorials that referred to a previous version of something are suddenly unreliable and misleading.

This issue isn’t specific to the internet, as outdated books in libraries has long been a problem. But online tutorials seem to be the worst, despite the relative ease of updating a webpage.

I’ve come face-to-face with this problem in a variety of situations in recent weeks.

First, I was using a cool free WordPress theme for one of my blogs and I wanted to read up on how to customize it. I came across numerous blog posts from webmasters and coders who walked you step-by-step through all sorts of useful things. But a new version of the theme had been released since the posts were written, so all of its options were now different and the files I needed to edit were not at all set up the way the tutorials described. Their advice, although well-written, was essentially useless.

Next, I wanted to learn a few things about YouTube’s functionality, but the site has made so many changes in recent years that practically nothing on the site was now quite the same as the tutorials explained. The same thing happened with iTunes.

So why can’t publishers of online content just have some accountability and sense of obligation to keep their tutorials up to date? The truth is there’s no easy way to do so. Individual webmasters and writers can certainly make edits, write new versions or at least put up a disclaimer on old posts alerting readers that they are now out of date; I’ve seen this on many blogs and forums. But there’s no way to require this from them or ensure that it will be implemented on a large scale.

In some of the posts I read, the blogs had actually been completely abandoned, but still had enough backlinks to remain high in the search results. Other authors might be too lazy to edit, too occupied with other projects, or simply not aware how many of these old posts are sitting in their archives.

It’s certainly valuable to create these tutorials, but what’s the best way to deal with their inevitable fall from grace and decline in usefulness?

One simple solution is to just pay attention to when the articles were written when searching for information and avoid ones that appear to be too old. It’s even a popular practice to include a year in with the search terms (ex. itunes tutorials 2010). Both of these can help, but neither is an exact science and they can often leave out many results that would actually help you.

I would also think that with all of Google’s advancements, having users manually scan first-page results for currency shouldn’t be necessary. I wonder if they are taking steps to combat this type of problem algorithmically…

Problems for Organizations

Outdated information isn’t just a problem for the individual information seeker, but also for major organizations.

Last summer at the University of Illinois Library where I work, a couple of the graduate assistants created a series of video tutorials to teach people how to use the online library catalog. They were great for a little while, but the library promptly released a new catalog interface and the old videos were suddenly out of date.

There’s no guarantee that new videos will ever be created, as they take up a ton of hours and labor to film and edit and the library now has a many other jobs of more immediate need.

So should the old videos just be deleted and discarded? Was it a waste to invest in creating the old videos if they only got a few months of use? And the next time a colleague suggests creating a new video tutorial, should we be wary simply because it has a chance of becoming outdated tomorrow? Even if it would be very useful today?

Quality of Information

Finally, there is also a big problem with the quality of many online tutorials brought up by Google searches. From individuals hoping to make a quick buck off of their blog’s Google ads to big companies such as Demand Media, owner of eHow, these quick and dirty how-to tutorials are often search-engine driven, low quality content. These people don’t mind if people are getting misleading information from their articles, their main concern is pageviews and clicks.

Some have tried to fight back, as Wikipedia has blacklisted eHow articles and some emerging search engines have tried to remove this type of content from their indexes, but the battle will certainly continue.

Do you think outdated online tutorials are a problem? Do you know of any possible solutions?

9 Responses to When Online Tutorials Hurt Rather Than Help
  1. Andrew Walsh
    February 15, 2011 | 12:20 pm

    Very interesting. At the exact same time I was publishing this post, I saw an article addressing the quality aspect:

    Help Google Fight Against Content Farms, eHow http://www.fastcompany.com/1727593/help-google-fight-against-content-farms-spam-ehow

    It describes a new Chrome extension lets you block sites from your own search results that you deem to be spammy. It will send the information to Google who will monitor overall trends and act accordingly.

    Even more interesting? If you Google that article’s title or even the entire first paragraph, the exact same story shows up on dozens of different low-quality sites. Maybe we still have a ways to go…

  2. j
    February 24, 2011 | 9:28 pm

    I can’t think of anything better that looking for a tutorial of the latest version.

    For example, if you want to learn Java after the sixth version has been released, google “Java 6” tutorial.

    Doing this however wouldn’t be possible with youtube. I don’t they declare a new version after certain modifications.

    • Andrew Walsh
      February 26, 2011 | 11:19 am

      Yeah, that’s a good strategy. But for plenty of things, the tutorials aren’t guaranteed to actually use a version name, as you suggest for Youtube. I’ve run into that problem with things like WordPress theme tutorials and a lot of software programs.

  3. j
    February 24, 2011 | 9:33 pm

    Another thing I guess some web entrepreneur could do is create a wikipedia-like site for tutorials. Tutorials can be organized and updated by any volunteer with the time and knowledge. They could also alert when a lesson is deprecated.

    • Andrew Walsh
      February 26, 2011 | 11:20 am

      I think a wiki for this type of thing would be a great idea! I wonder if any entrepreneurs out there are already working on anything like that…

  4. […] as I mentioned in my post about the problem with online tutorials, Google just unveiled a new Chrome extension that lets surfers block sites from your own search […]

  5. Tim
    March 4, 2011 | 2:09 am

    When looking for help online, I often do the search watching out for the date. Man, time passes very quickly online! If you see something only a few months old it may already be outdated! When blogs retain the date in the permalinks so it’s easier to tell how old the post is.

    Not too sure about penalizing those who don’t update old articles. Maybe a search engine could incorporate the age of the information in the algorithm, although some information is timeless.

    • Andrew Walsh
      March 6, 2011 | 1:11 pm

      Yeah, that’s a good point about checking for the date in the permalinks.

      It is interesting to think how search engines could penalize/reward based on timeliness. It would be a very complicated process because, as you bring up, currency is important with only some types of information.

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