Standalone knowledge base software guide with links to further reading

Catherine Heath | July 14, 2018

Knowledge base software is in a league of its own and shouldn’t be lumped together with help desk, service desk, or Knowledge Management software – although it often is. It can be confusing if you’re just looking for some knowledge base software, either for personal use or for an organisation.

There is a dizzying array of software categories out there, making it difficult to pin down this one specific type of software. This isn’t helped by the fact that popular software review sites don’t typically have a separate category for knowledge bases.

This is because knowledge bases often come bundled in with help desk ticketing software like Zendesk, Freshdesk or Help Scout (but not always).

There is also growing market of knowledge base software solutions out there sold on a low-touch, Software as a Service (SaaS) basis.

What is knowledge base software?

A knowledge base is defined as:

“Human readable knowledge bases enable people to access and use the knowledge. They store help documents, manuals, troubleshooting information and frequently answered questions. They can be interactive and lead users to solutions to problems they have, but rely on the user providing information to guide the process.”

Knowledge base software is essentially a Content Management System (CMS) for documentation.

It is primarily web-based, so that content is usually articles and videos on a website. This contrasts with Help Authoring Tools (HATs) aimed at companies who are publishing content on a variety of mediums such an printed manuals or PDFs.

Knowledge base software is different to your standard website CMS with specialized features available – like authoring permissions and version control.

Related software categories:

Unfortunately, knowledge base software doesn’t have it’s own category on software review sites like Capterra or G2 Crowd – it’s usually lumped in with Customer Self-Service Software or Knowledge Management Software that contain many other types of tools as well.

We published a whole post explaining standalone knowledge base software.

Knowledge base software purpose

Knowledge bases are often used for customer product documentation, API documentation, to help customers self-serve, or support internal staff.

You can use it to:

  • Scale your support strategy
  • Achieve consistency in your support
  • Answer questions before they’re asked
  • Support the buying process
  • Centralize your knowledge
  • Provide training for employees

Having a knowledge base is a no-brainer, but the type of software you ultimately choose will depend most heavily on why you want it.

We wrote on a post on who exactly uses knowledge base software.

Advantages of knowledge base software

The advantages are numerous. Having dedicated software for your needs is generally going to be better than some alternatives – plumping for WordPress, or hacking together a SharePoint site, for example!

But here are some concrete benefits that you can sell to Purchasing to allow you to commission your fancy new knowledge base.

  • Allows you to implement a self-service strategy – documentation allows your customers to self-serve their queries rather than relying on costly support interactions
  • Improve onboarding for your product or service – just direct your customers to the knowledge base
  • Improve customer satisfaction70% of customers (Steven Van Belleghem) expect companies to have a self-service knowledge base
  • Higher resolution rates at first contact – If customers are directed to a knowledge base they won’t have to explain their problem in further emails or over the phone
  • Lower support costs – a self-service customer cost is virtually “free” once you have established the knowledge base versus an average $6-12 for a support agent interaction (Forrester)
  • Improve support agent morale – they won’t be wasting time on repeat queries, which is demoralising and tedious. Their time is better spent handling more complex queries, strategic tasks, and professional development.
  • Retain more customers – saves costs as it’s between 5 and 25 times cheaper (Harvard Business Review) to keep a customer than acquire a new one. It’s related to onboarding but throughout the product life cycle. It can also be used to help upsell to your customers and educate them about unused features.
  • Looks more professional to have a knowledge base – a knowledge base forms part of your brand. Especially with more ‘technical’ products, potential customers will expect detailed documentation they can review to help with their purchasing decision.

Knowledge base software features

Whichever software you choose, there are some core features that knowledge base tools usually come with. We’ll go through the main features now and explain what they’re used for in your workflow.

Publishing process

  • WYSIWYG Content Management System – users can write and edit content in the browser and no developer skills are required
  • Article tagging – help customers easily find articles in the search through adding your own custom tags
  • Restricted content – some content may be for particular types of users such as premium customers or internal staff so that content can be gated
  • Redirects – you may want your knowledge base to link to certain pages on another website so this made possible with a redirect URL

Editing process

  • Author and editor user login – accounts with usernames and passwords allow multiple people to work on your content without requiring a lengthy approval process
  • Editing and approval process – articles in production can be given a different status depending on whether they have been approved
  • Bulk edit and bulk delete – change the settings on multiple pages at once or delete multiple pages

Back end features

  • Unlimited file storage – no limit to how much data you can store in your knowledge base so you can scale your documentation
  • Reporting and analytics – in-built anonymous user data collection and analysis available in your software or integration with Google Analytics
  • Search Engine Optimization – software is fully optimized for crawling and indexing by major search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo!
  • Domain forwarding – using a particular URL in your knowledge base that can forward to another page such as one on your website

Front end features

  • In-built templates – your software comes bundled with basic front-end knowledge base templates that have been user-tested
  • Custom branding – it’s possible to easily customize the front end of your knowledge base with company colours, fonts and imagery
  • Content architecture – unlimited levels within a hierarchy to organize content
  • Topic-based categories – the ability to structure your knowledge base with a hierarchy of content grouped into top-level categories and lower levels of subcategories

Usability features

  • User feedback capabilities – eg customers can submit comments, ratings or send a request
  • Search engine with auto suggest – when customers type in the search bar relevant articles are predicted for them which means they don’t have to type an exact query
  • Glossary – the ability to create a glossary of terms used in your knowledge base that is presented in a user-friendly way
  • Related articles widget – the ability to set a widget in the background of your Content Management System that automatically suggests related articles based on tags, to help with discoverability

(In case you were wondering, KnowledgeOwl's knowledge base software offers all these capabilities and more!)

You will get some of these features in other types of CMS software like WordPress, but they are not specialized for documentation teams.

Knowledge base software is developed to slot into your customer self-service workflow, optimizing results and helping customers to find the content they need to complete tasks.

Knowledge base vs help desk software

Another stumbling block for companies choosing knowledge base software is that knowledge bases are often sold together with help desk ticketing systems.

A help desk is defined as:

“A helpdesk software streamline conversations across channels into one place, keeps track of user requests, enables you to communicate with customers more easily, and helps you deal with other customer support related issues better.”

Examples of help desk software would be Zendesk , Freshdesk, Help Scout or Groove.

For example, Zendesk includes a knowledge base called Zendesk Guide that includes smart features to provide personalized and contextualized help. You can only use it if you are already a Zendesk customer, because it comes bundled with the help desk software. The same goes for Hubspot’s knowledge base solution.

This sucks, because you just wanted knowledge base functionality!

Having lots of extra features will increase the price of your software, and is unnecessary to your operations.

This specialization is a primary reason to invest in standalone knowledge base software – it keeps costs down, has better features, and makes the software easier for employees to use.

Knowledge base software vs Help Authoring Tools (HATs)

Help Authoring Tools (HATs) are specialist knowledge base software solutions that target technical writers and online help systems. These include options such as Madcap Flare, HelpnDoc, and Adobe RoboHelp.

You would traditionally find tools like these in the enterprise. Solutions like these are geared towards helping teams write their documentation collaboratively and on a variety of mediums – think web pages, PDFs, printed manuals, and printed booklets.

What distinguishes HATs from other types of software is that they allow data to be input tagged in markup language Markdown, allowing content to be easily reused across mediums.

This obviously requires some training and onboarding for team members – more than you would need to learn to use a standard knowledge base tool. Anyone who can use a web-based CMS will typically be able to learn to use knowledge base software quickly.

If all you want is a knowledge base, HATs won’t be appropriate.

Knowledge base software vs Static Site Generators

You may come across Static Site Generators in your search for knowledge base software. They could include Hugo, Sphinx or Jekyll and some of them are specialized for documentation.

These particular tools are usually used by technical writers who want to publish a very basic documentation site, that can possibly sit alongside their software source code. These are typically developer tools that usually require development skills to install and maintain.

Static Site Generators are frequently open source and might be used by software companies who want a lot of control over their documentation. Jekyll is the world’s most popular Static Site Generator.

There are reasons not to use a Static Site Generator so you’ll have to decide on a case-by-case basis.

Top 5 knowledge base solutions

There is a huge variety of solutions out there, but we will provide the ones that most accurately fit the definition of knowledge base software for the general customers.

There are more specialized knowledge bases including ones aimed at developers, or open source knowledge bases. But this article is intended to provide a general-purpose introduction to knowledge base solutions.

If you’re confident with developer tools like Git and GitHub, you can publish a knowledge base on GitBook or similar.

We wrote a post comparing some top knowledge base solutions.

How to choose standalone knowledge base software

There are many factors that come into play when choosing knowledge base software. With a little forethought, you will be able to pick the right solution for your company.

Think about:

  • What you want to use your knowledge base for (eg documentation, product marketing, APIs, onboarding)
  • The future development plans that may impact your choice (eg brand mergers, company acquisitions, technology stacks)
  • Who is going to be using the software (eg developers, technical writers, marketers, support folks)
  • How much you can afford to pay for a solution (eg anything ranging from around ($50 a month for one user up to thousands of dollars in the enterprise)

Open source knowledge base solutions

Image source: by Daniel Lombraña González under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some companies opt for open source knowledge base solutions which can represent a cheaper option, but will usually require development time to install and maintain.

Open source is good because sometimes it can be “free” as in no cost, and it is always “free” to manipulate the code and use it for your own purposes.

The drawbacks to open source are numerous. For example, it has similar obstacles to the Static Site Generator option. The flexibility is ideal for many development-focused teams who want to own their code.

The average company, however, just wants usability. This is sometimes lacking in open source software. Whichever open source software you choose, they are not going to pay to host your knowledge base, so that will have to be done on your own servers.

Unless you have the internal resources to commit to open source, we recommend opting for a SaaS knowledge base. Everything will be included in your license fee and you will never have to worry about hosting, maintenance or debugging.

Some SaaS knowledge bases have freemium options for single users, if price is an issue.

How to know when your company needs a knowledge base

If your company is in business, you will eventually need a knowledge base. Customers now expect every business to have a mobile-friendly online knowledge base, and will judge you harshly if you don’t provide it.

To find out if you need a knowledge base, consider these factors:

  • Are we getting so many support requests that a knowledge base would make our operations more efficient?
  • Do we need to find a way to reduce our telephone hold times or email response rates?
  • Do we need a way to improve customer satisfaction? (Customer Satisfaction Score)
  • Are support agents repeating the same kinds of responses on a regular basis?
  • Is our product sufficiently complex to warrant a knowledge base or will FAQs suffice?
  • Are we losing customers because we lack sufficient self-service documentation? (Churn)

You generally need a knowledge base if you think it would make your customers or your support team happier.

You can execute a self-service strategy to cut costs, but it isn’t a true cost-saver, as it will require budget and resources to implement. You will also need to make effort to maintain it.

A knowledge base is really an investment.

Final remarks

Knowledge base software is not really as complicated as it might first seem. The key is knowing what you want to achieve and choosing the right software for your purpose.

Knowledge bases are to help your customers self-serve and have many advantages. If you go for the classic low-touch, SaaS knowledge base solutions, the prices are all going to be in a similar range.

If you encounter an eye-watering price tag, it’s probably because the software is aimed at the enterprise and is perhaps a Help Authoring Tool or Knowledge Management solution. If you just want to build a knowledge base, these probably might not be suitable.

Happy software hunting!

Inspired to create a knowledge base armed with everything you’ve learned here? Take KnowledgeOwl's knowledge base software for a free spin today

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