What problems does your Website solve?

My little town of Warrenton, Virginia, started off life not as a destination, but rather as a convenient stopping point between other destinations. In the late 1700s, it had a road running through it between Falmouth, a port town on the Rappahanock River, and Winchester, an early European settlement and frontier town where once a 17 year-old George Washington was offical surveyor in the area. That road crossed paths at the place where Warrenton would grow with a road between Alexandria and Culpeper, Virginia.

At the crossroads, a trading post was set up, known as the Red Store (the original building has been incorporated into a larger building, and still exists on Main Street in Warrenton). A blacksmith shop and an inn or two also came into existence, and the commerce in the area originally existed primarily to serve those who were traveling down one of the roads or another.

Others started settling into the area, and a decision was made to set up a Courthouse at this crossroads, and a County to manage governance of the land. The town grew up around the crossroads until the late 1960s, when a bypass brought traffic around the center of town, as well as moving the focus of much of the commerce in the area. The Old Town section of Warrenton is still host to a number of stores, but many of those passing through the area no longer have to travel its hilly and narrow streets.

A new sporting goods store recently started moving into one of the shopping developments located along that bypass, and it’s the third shop in that collective of stores to sell sports-related merchandise. The local paper, published twice a week regardless of whether enough happened in town to fill it or not, reported on the new business and got the reactions of its competitors. Except, the other places selling sporting goods welcomed the new shop with open arms.

The new store is somewhat of a traditional sporting goods store, selling goods that involve sporting recreations such as tennis and golf and other sports activities. As such, it compliments rather than competes with the other stores. One of those focuses upon outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, fishing, and surviving in the woods around town and in nearby recreational destinations such as the Shenandoah National Park. The other store is a local hardware store that started supplying team sport equipment for the local schools such as baseball and football uniforms, because there was a need.

Another local store recently changed where they did business when a new location became available near the horse and pony fairgrounds. They specialize in equestrian equipment and wine, and the new location brought them to a place where horse riders in the area could see them from the popular competition fields. But they left an empty storefront that I’m hoping is filled by someone wanting to start a restaurant. There’s a restaurant next to the old store location, and if the right kind of eatery opens at that spot, the two wouldn’t necessarily be competitors, but might actually work to help draw people to the part of town they occupy.

The other restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and publishes one of the higher priced menus in the area. I’d love to see the empty location, which has a perfect interior for dining, offer a breakfast/lunch menu at somewhat more affordable prices. It would be a great location for a coffee house, and together with the other restaurant would attract dinners to the location. While there are a couple of great bakeries in the area that service pastries and coffee, they really don’t provide enough seating to offer a coffee house experience.

I visit a good number of websites every week, from single person operations to sites run by multi-national conglomerates. I always ask myself a few questions upon entering a new website. One is, “Who is this site for?” The other is, “What problems does this site solve?”

Those are questions I ask when I visit your website. The answers are going to determine how long I spend on your site.

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41 thoughts on “What problems does your Website solve?”

  1. A fascinating read as I thoroughly enjoy learning the history of interesting towns like yours. This made me wonder, if the entire internet were an actual town, what would it look like? I imagine a lot of the buildings would look the same but with just minor differences with hopes of not looking completely identical to the building right next to it. If this ‘internet town’ would read this article, maybe buildings would start being unique and useful. Thanks!

  2. Do you see the connection between the origin of your little town, as you encapsulated it, and how the Interstate highway system today spawns new business districts? Warrentown began as a store, a blacksmith, and a couple of inns. That sounds very much like a modern gas station/convenience store, auto repair shop, and hotels.

    Website communities seem to grow the same way. Someone creates a site that fulfills a need and soon another site springs up to deal with a complementary need, and then another, and eventually if there are enough needful people a large group of sites are servicing a lot of visitors.

    There’s a pattern worth studying in there.

  3. I hate to use the word but is niche where it is at now more than we make widgets come on down – you name your widget and we have it here. I am from Ireland for instance and just a few weeks I was in the US in one of those large sporting goods stores looking for tennis clothes for women (for my wife not for me) and they had one small rack amongst all the workout gear.

    Post resonates with me a bit as I am revamping my site at the moment as I think it is too generic and boring and people come and bounce…

  4. I love reading this blogs articles they are all very good; I am a daily visitor for life! This is a very good article on local sites. I actually help out my community by supplying people with local information on my blog. I love helping out the community and my local town!

  5. Great comparison Bill. In line with Corey’s comment, one truly does need to assess what need their site fulfills well before development takes place, so as to avoid simply providing the same service by another name. Sadly, the approach is often influenced by the founder’s skills/knowledge/insight rather than the market’s need for such a service/product/site.

  6. Good analogy Bill. Looking at my history of visited video game websites, I’ve always moved to another one that could provide better content and faster. It only took a few days on a new site for me to make the switch, so sites really need to watch their competitors like a hawk to ensure they stay relevant.

  7. Hi Corey,

    Thank you.

    I’m a big local history buff. I like learning about the history of individual buildings, who different streets might be named after, how the boundaries of a town developed over time, and more.

    I’m a big fan of the book “Cosmicomics” by Italo Calvino, which is a series of short stories which take scientific facts and builds stories around them, such as the moon being so close to the earth at one point in time that you could climb from one to the other with a ladder. The question you ask about imagining the web as a small town would fit in to Cosmicomics quite well, and is something that I’ve thought about.

    A lot of sites on the Web remind me of the Flea market happening every Sunday over at the parking lot of the antique shop, where people set up their wares at identical looking tables, and most of what they offer is strikingly similar with little to distinquish one table from another. If the vendors there want to standout in some way, they need to set up their own shops, become memorable, and find a way not only to get me to return, but also to tell others about what they offer. :)

  8. Hi Michael,

    The “interstate highway system,” and how it can impact communities and development is something I’m pretty aware of. I had a commute on Pennsylvania’s Blue Route for a good number of months. That highway was supposed to connect North Eastern and South Eastern Pennsylvania in a much needed way, and was years in the planning. What the developers of the road failed to realize was how much commerce would develop around the road itself, and they failed to plan for that. It was a terrible commute.

    I’ve also watched as a nearby town attracted many different businesses and shops because it was close to an exit on Route 66 (of the “get your kicks on Route 66″ fame). Its business district has grown almost faster than the residents and supervisors of the town could handle, while the people overseeing business development in my county have strived to protect agriculture and farmland by keeping big box stores as far away as possible.

    It probably attracted more business than it should have as a convenient stop along the highway because the road went from 4 lanes to 2 lanes right where the exit for the town appeared, and I’m convinced that the congestion caused many more people to exit at that point than would have otherwise. The highway was broadened a number of months ago, but not until after a fair amount of development over the past few years.

    Wesite communities do seem to grow the same way, and some good examples of that have been the many sites and businesses that have developed around Facebook and Twitter, such as social analytics sites, social ranking sites, social marketing sites, social design sites, etc.

  9. Hi Raymond,

    Thanks for your kind words. I don’t focus too much on my local community with this blog, but I think it’s something that you can’t get away from. It surrounds you, it helps shape your thoughts and your life, and I’ve been trying to get more active in things like local meetups and my Chamber of Commerce.

  10. Hi Kieran,

    There are as many opportunities on the Web as there are problems that drive people to it. I can find and buy things online from around the world that I would never see offered for sale in the shops down the street from me. But I can also find things in my local community that are unique and I couldn’t get online because they aren’t mass produced, or because they are unique in some manner.

    There’s definitely a lot of value to being special, to being different and offering things that there’s a need for that people have a hard time finding somewhere else.

  11. Hi Derek,

    Knowing at the start what to offer isn’t always easy, but it does really help. Having a good idea to start with is nice, but it is important to be able to step outside of your own assumptions and intuitions and learn from others.

    One of the first sites that I worked upon on the Web followed some steps that were essential to its growth and development, and yes a business online can grow into success. We kept notepads next to the phones, so that we could write down questions and observations and feedback that callers had, and used those to change the site and add new content when appropriate. That process was invaluable – listen to everything that people suggested, and weigh it carefully, and improve what you offer.

    We discovered a number of services that people wanted that we weren’t offering, and added those, and it made all the difference.

  12. Hi Mike,

    Thanks.

    It really does help to stay aware of what your competition might be doing at any one time. I definitely recommend that people do some competitive analysis on a regular basis.

    A few months ago, I stopped by a local store for some Chinese takeout in the early evening, and the restaurant was empty. In the same lot is a popular icecream place which had about 150 people in line waiting to get a Sundae or Shake or hotdogs or fries. We could see the line from inside of the restaurant, and I asked the owner of the restaurant if he ever considered selling icecream. :)

  13. Hi Bill,

    “Who is this site for”
    “What problems does this site solve”

    Really important things to remember when looking after a website. Although – sometimes i squirm when i think about these questions and my current site. Perhaps it’s just me…

    Thanks for the post on your town too – it’s nice to hear that things are working out in small towns and that people can compliment each others businesses. I was at a conference in Santa Barbara last year and we took a trip too a place called Solvang which is a little town where all the architecture is Danish themed. It’s great the way that communities can work in this way and complement each other.

    We try and do the same thing in our area – our customers manufacture a certain kind of product and we facilitate by providing them with the instruments to do this. If someone calls to ask us for a product we don’t provide then we’re happy to point them in the direction of a provider that compliments our business. I’m just not sure we’d do this on our site…

  14. Great read Bill, you know I’ve never conciously thought to myself “What problems does this site solve?” Perhaps it is more of a subconcious internal question. I make a good effort to purchase locally grown foods to try and support our community. But there is no doubt the sheer variety on offer from international stores open up a whole new (and tempting) world of products and goods. Your post really highlights some important points about our increasingly globalized marketplace.

  15. Good point, Bill

    Actually “what problems does you website solve?” is also the question search engines are interested in.

    As every search query represents a user need, if a search engine believes your site can satisfy that need determines your ranking for that query.

    Looking at search engines, rankings, or SEO from the perspective of the old economic game of demand and supply, everything is so simple, which I often use to explain SEO stuff to my clients that I am afraid the geeky parts of SEO may kill…

  16. Thanks for the good reminder about focusing on the site’s intended audience and what is in it for them. I also found the store owners perspective interesting sounds like they realize they are not true rivals and are more scared of Walmart..

  17. “what problems does this site solve”

    That question is an essential element in a crowded market and it’s this problem solving that gives a site credence and traffic within social networks. It’s relatively easy to do if you possess something unique but being able to present the ordinary in such a way that it solves problems succinctly is both a science and an art. Actually that phrase encapsulates the essence of good design and its something every website owner should ask him/herslf on a regular basis.

  18. This is a classic Bill post. Your analogies and great visual writing style makes these kinds of posts my favorites.

  19. Hi Tom,

    I think those are the kinds of questions that a webmaster can continually ask themselves no matter how long they’ve tried to answer them and make changes to their websites to address them. I know it challenges me as well.

    Thanks for the link to the Solvang website. It does look like an interesting community, united by a common vision.

    It can be risky to link to a site that offers some complimentary service that you might refer to someone in person. I remember providing links like those on one site on a order comfirmation page, because it seemed like that was the most useful place to provide such information. The page wasn’t one indexed in search engines, and it wasn’t one that people who hadn’t made a purchase would see, but the providers of those services were people whom we trusted referring other people to, and the services they provided were ones that people would seriously consider after making a purchase on the site in question.

  20. Hi Scott,

    It’s possible that you might have gone about a similar inquiry in a slightly different way. For instance, asking yourself things like, “who are the people who are going to visit our site, and what do we include on our pages that they might be interested in?”

    The globalized marketplace is an interesting one. One of the challenges that faces my community is that many people who live here commute into Washington DC or more heavily populated sections of Northern Virginia to work, and have access to a fairly rich and diverse set of products and services. I’m sure that local merchants would love it if more people would shop locally, but they aren’t just competing with other local merchants. Instead, they have to compete with merchants from near where people work as well, and stopping points along commutes.

    While the local merchants might like to capture some of those potential purchasers, many of them close at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, and on Sundays and don’t provide hours when it’s more likely that these commuters would shop locally. They aren’t acting to address a problem that they would like to solve.

  21. Hi Danielle

    I suspect that many do have a sense of the purpose behind their sites, but they don’t always make it easy for visitors to get an idea of that purpose.

  22. Hi Ryan,

    Search engines do seem to be increasingly interested in understanding the intent behind a search, and trying to help searchers fulfill their situational or informational needs.

    Sites can often fail to make it easier for search engines to do that. One example that I still see too often is when a site that is tied to a physical location like a storefront or an office that you can visit publishes their address information in a graphic image rather than as text. If the address information were in text, a search engine could index the address, and possibly show people interested in local services or goods that site when a relevant query calls for it.

  23. Hi MK,

    I’ve seen all too often that areas where there are a lot of restaurants tend to get a lot of people driving to those areas first and then deciding where to eat based not only upon what the restaurants look like, but also things like how long the lines might be to get in and be served.

    I’ve also seen antique shops in one area publish a guide to local antique shops, their locations, and the kinds of things that each specializes in, and that guide influences people to make a trip because they can visit more than one of the shops, and make a day of shopping. In that case, we have cooperation amongst competitors for their mutual benefit. That can sometimes be a successful strategy for the Web as well.

  24. Hi Tim,

    Good points. Good design, and a thoughtful approach to interacting with potential customers are both elements of presenting a business in a way that increases its ability to be successful

  25. Good article.

    My sites solve an obvious problem/need…helping folks identify and investigate educational opportunities.

    The problem I have is keeping fresh,relevant information on the site. In fact, deciding what information to add and how to make it easy to find and understand, is my biggest challenge.

  26. Hi Dan,

    It really helps in a situation like yours to have multiple streams of information coming in that you can use to find new information, and decide upon what to publish and how to present it. One of the challenges that I often face is in spending the time to try to present patents in as clear a manner as possible without simplifying what I’m writing about too much, so that people miss out on what the patents might be about.

  27. Hi John,

    Good points. People’s needs do change over time, and the products that many people come up with are often used in ways that might be different than intended. If you create and distribute and sell a product that people are using for a purpose other than you might have originally intended, that’s a good thing to know.

  28. Thanks, Pedro

    It sounds like you’re answering the question, what problems does your website face (which would be a great topic itself for a blog post), rather than what problems does it solve.

    As a tech-related ecommerce site, your pages might solve a number of problems.

    For example, a computer ecommerce site might include a lot of informational pages that explain what different parts of electronic device might be and how they differ. For instance, what is the difference between a dual processor computer and one with a single processor, and which one might be best for you.

    Or, you may be the site that makes certain new devices available to the public faster than other ecommerce sites.

    Or you may provide better customer service, faster shipping, or lower prices.

    I’ve shopped at one or two ecommerce sites where the businesses involved also had local stores that you could visit, and you could order and make a pickup the next day at your local store, and not have to pay for shipping at all. Not only might it be cheaper, but you also have access to stuff that most physical storefronts don’t usually carry on their shelves on a regular basis.

    If your store isn’t helping customers solve problems, that doesn’t mean that you can’t explore what problems your visitors might have and find solutions…

  29. Excellent post! I live in Brazil and I have an e-commerce. Besides the work of indexing in search engines, the use of SEO techniques and search quality of external links is an ongoing task.

  30. Interesting article Bill…we found that we suffered the age-old “what is this site about” problem a while back, where our bounce rate was through the roof as visitors weren’t presented with clear information about our services. We’ve since redesigned the site with clear messages to help explain our existence…bounce rate is much lower and it seems to be working!

  31. Hi Mike,

    It’s easy to fall into that trap, and it’s good to hear that you solved it. Sometimes it’s hard to come to that realization without an objective third party pointing it out to you.

  32. That was a great read, it’s most important to let people know what you can do for them, what is the purpose of your site that should bind your reader/ customer.

  33. Hi David,

    Thank you. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned in my school days was that you should try to make it as easy as possible for someone to be responsive to something that you might be asking for. The professor was a judge/vice chancellor in Delaware’s Chancery Court making decisions everyday that could involve millions of dollars and/or impact millions of lives. That applies equally to a web site where you offer something to your visitors – make it easy for them to understand what you offer and how to take advantage of what you offer.

  34. I think those two questions are very good ones to ask when assessing a site. When evaluating my own site, I take it a step further and think “How well does this solve a problem?” A site may solve a problem, but it should be easy for the reader to find the answer they’re looking for.

  35. Hi Jeffrey,

    Exactly. What problems does your site solve, and how well does it solve them. Do you understand who your audience is, and what they need? As my post attempted to point out, three different sporting goods stores can co-exist happily in the same shopping center if they solve different problems.

  36. The internet is a pool – a pool that the entire world swims in. Every blog and every site appeals to some demographic. When you understand how big of a pool the internet is, the probability of you not having material that is relevant to someone else in the world, is highly unlikely.

    The more likely question is are you reaching your target demographic? and if you are indeed reaching them, is your content appealing enough to keep them intrigued. I’m not sure if you have to solve a problem per say, but I am damn positive your content must be relative.

    Donatello Bae

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