When you have a problem (I mean any problem, be it a fear of heights, a broken heart, public speaking anxiety, yellowish teeth, health problems etc.), what is the first step you take to solve it?
If you’re an internet addict like me, you probably look for answers online. For me, the web has proved to be an invaluable source of solutions to problems of any kind. I don’t understand how people managed to live without it.
However, I have realized that despite all the advantages the internet brings to us, it is still far from a perfect solution provider. This article aims to identify the internet’s inefficiencies in solving problems, explaining the underlying reasons and presenting potential solutions.
Understanding the Issue
I started to understand the issue at hand when a friend told me about a useful technique for preventing procrastination. His advice was to ask myself four questions every time I found myself on the verge of procrastination:
- What are the advantages of starting this right now?
- What are the disadvantages of leaving this until later?
- What excuses am I using to avoid doing this right now?
- What reward can I give myself for starting this?
Asking these four questions really helps me, and I am very happy I have learned to use this technique.
What really surprises me is that I never came across this technique before. I had done extensive research on procrastination, without finding any solution that proved to be as helpful as this one. (The research I conducted provided the basis for my own article on procrastination.)
How can that be? We’re living in the age of the internet, with abundant information and perfect transparency, right? I’m sure this technique has helped many people before me, so why didn’t I come across it in the course of my research?
If this oversight occurred only in this one instance, I wouldn’t mind. Having had similar experiences with other problems, however, I became interested in really understanding the issue.
When searching for solutions on the net, most people would start with Google. Unfortunately, Google has several shortcomings for finding solutions to a specific problem, as described below.
The Right Keywords
First of all, it is not clear which key words we should use to find solutions to our problem. For example, we could type:
- “Fear of heights” (which returns a lot of information about the problem, and not only solutions) or
- “Fear of height solutions” or
- “Techniques against fear of heights” or
- “Methods preventing fear of heights” or
- “Vertigo remedies”
These entries all mean the same thing, but we get different search results by using different keywords – and we risk missing out on other solutions for the word combinations we didn’t come up with.
“Patchwork” of Solutions
Google does not return a well-structured overview of all possible solutions, but rather a list of links to many different sites, each containing a couple of solutions. Due to this patchwork, we re-read information about the same solutions many times, which wastes time that could be better spent looking for alternative solutions.
No Indication of Quality
When finding a description of a solution on a website, we usually don’t have any indication of (a) how many people this solution has actually helped, or (b) how reliable the source is. We therefore have to assess “how good it sounds” and try it out ourselves.
Wouldn’t it be useful to have an overview of all the possible solutions to any specific problem, ranked in accordance with the number of people that specific solution has helped?
Good New Solutions Not Found
Google rewards sites that have been around for a long time. New sites, even when containing good content, don’t show up in Google’s search results because not enough sites are linking to them (which is the core of Google’s ranking mechanism).
No Further Development of Solutions
The solutions we find through a Google search are mostly on static sites which are not designed for further development. A future “solution website” would need to have Wikipedia-like features, where users can further develop the content.
Only Website Owners Have Incentives to Provide Solutions
Let’s say you come up with a great solution for a problem. What is your incentive for sharing it, or your method for doing so? Unless you are a website owner interested in getting more traffic to your site, most likely you will not actively share information about your solution. Or, if you are nice, you will mention it in a forum or as a comment on a blog post (but probably only upon request).
Google is Subject to Manipulation
The top Google results are not always the best websites. For example, type “migraine solutions” into Google’s search engine and look at the results. Which of those sites is ranked highly because other people found them truly useful and chose to link to them? Without a doubt, SEO and other practices are more heavily responsible for what you see in those search results.
Conclusion: Google is an important tool for finding solutions on the web, but it is not perfect.
An alternative to using Google is turning to “specialist sites,” such as forums or communities that deal with specific issues. However, these specialist sites do not always have the answer:
- Need to find the specialist site (takes time)
- Limited number of specialist sites (there is not a specialist site on every problem, and especially those that are uncomfortable, but not life-threatening such as a fear of public speaking, a fear of heights, hiccups, etc.)
No indication of how many people each stated solution has helped
- No unified structure (no long list of solutions, so it takes longer to find solutions)
- Not always an open platform (where users can edit existing solutions and/or contribute new solutions)
Question & Answer Sites
Shouldn’t Q&A sites, like Yahoo! Answers, be the answer?
Surprisingly, although they frequently rank high in Google, Q&A sites rarely provide what solution-seekers are looking for. For example, sites under the Yahoo! Answers domain appear on the first page of Google’s search results for each of the following problems:
Unfortunately, none of them provides a comprehensive, high-quality set of solutions. The reason for this may be:
- Questions are closed once they have been “answered” (users cannot add new solutions).
- There is no ranking mechanism of solutions (only one answer gets voted to be the “best”).
- Only users of this specific community can add solutions (e.g., Yahoo! members).
- The incentive to add solutions are relevant only for members of a small community (e.g., Yahoo! Members can collect “points,” but this is irrelevant for many other people who may know about good solutions).
How-to sites with wiki-like elements (with users contributing and editing content), such as Wikihow and eHow, may come closest to an ideal solution site. However, although they are quite popular, they don’t provide the quality and depth which would make them the one-stop-shop to find solutions. Why?
Restrictive Guidelines on What Can be Posted
Wiki-like sites provide clear guidelines on what can and cannot be posted. For example:
- The provided solution has to fit into the structure of the site (e.g., not one very long answer if all others are short).
- It may not include links to other sites.
- The solution has to be formulated in an objective, or impersonal, fact-based way.
- Commercial products cannot be mentioned / advertised.
Why should users not get the opportunity to freely talk about how they solved the problem, mentioning everything which is necessary? If it includes information other users find inadequate, it will get enough “thumbs down” so that it will not move to the top anyway.
Unclear How Many People the Stated Solutions Have Helped / No Ranking Mechanism
Users Can Overwrite Other Users’ Solutions
What prevents me from contributing my solutions to these sites is that I know other users may delete what I have written. Yet if this solution really worked for me (and therefore may also work for others), why should it be deleted just because it sounds a little strange?
This may be a key difference from fact-based sites like Wikipedia: Wikipedia provides facts which are either true or untrue, allowing the community to work collaboratively towards a single output, the completed Wikipedia article. In contrast, solutions are different: what works for some may be inadequate for others. Solutions are very subjective.
Therefore, it may make more sense to adapt a Yahoo! Answers-site approach, where users contribute solutions and other users can comment on them, but cannot change them. Allowing a user to remain the “owner” of a solution has another advantage: he or she can get credit for it by knowing how many people he or she has helped with the provided solution.
Most of the well-known Q&A sites (e.g., Wikihow and eHow) are for-profit sites. For-profit sites are not bad per se, but these sites depend on volunteers contributing their solutions and ideas for free. Making a profit on their goodwill must leave a foul taste in the mouth of some of the contributors, and it inhibits the creation of a really enthusiastic user community. The solution should be a truly Wikipedia-like site, focused on sharing solutions with others in order to help them solve their problems and building up an engaged community contributing for the greater good.
Initial Ideas for a New Solutions Website
Based on all the points noted above, a possible solution website would have the following features:
- Non-profit – its sole target is to find solutions and provide them to help others
- Providers “own” solutions – others cannot edit the solution, but can only comment to it
- Ranking mechanism – users should be able to vote on which solutions have helped them, which results in a long list of solutions with the most helpful solution shown on top; users can also give a negative rating (“thumbs down”), which weighs heavier than a “thumbs up” (e.g., three “thumbs up” are required to compensate for one “thumbs down”)
- Users are allowed to post (almost) everything – for example, they can cite specific products or link to external websites if they were helpful in solving the problem
- Users can comment on solutions and thereby suggest potential improvements; other users can rate these comments again, so that the most useful comment/ improvement for the solution gets to the top
- Display how many people solutions have helped – this provides an incentive for solution providers to help the community, because they get rewarded by knowing how many people they have helped; this information could be shown on other sites, such as Facebook or MySpace
- Simple, but good-looking design (a la Facebook)
Good structure – duplications are avoided and problems/solutions can be found easily
I am looking for volunteers to further develop this idea and to build the site. I’ve given it a first (amateur) shot at www.solutionbay.org. However, the site needs substantial improvement, such as a better design, better structure, and a way for users to log in and edit their solutions. But I thought it would be a good idea to get this rolling.
Please provide feedback!