In 2019, Amanda Winer was curled up on her couch in her Manhattan apartment, searching for ideas about where she and her fiancé, Nathan Friedman, could have their wedding. They were aiming for something outdoors. While surfing online, Winer landed on whatshalfway.com, a low-frills website that connects people halfway between two locations in over 45 countries. Plug in two locations, or more, and it spits out a town that’s almost precisely between them, along with potential venues for whatever your purpose might be: a wedding, a dinner date, an excursion with kids.
Winer, 31, a social psychology researcher, was intrigued. “My job is to think about how people navigate the world and create theories and tools to understand that,” she says. So she tested the site on herself, first entering her and Friedman’s hometown addresses (she’s from Westborough, Massachusetts, and he’s from Livingston, New Jersey) and then, when the results proved disappointing, fiddling with the “venue” portion of the search. Among the handful of suggestions was Lighthouse Point Park, a beachfront park overlooking Long Island Sound that is owned by the city of New Haven, Connecticut. It had pavilions, a splash pad, an antique carousel, and plenty of space for their 65 guests.
“This was so specific to exactly what we wanted, to what we were searching for and to who we are,” Winer says. “In less than an eighth of a second, we connected to something that will be a significant piece of our life.” And it was all thanks to a narrowly focused, not-especially-slick website, run by a lone 43-year-old man in the U.K.
“I’m never surprised at the power of a creative person and tiny technology,” Winer says.
The tech industry categorizes whatshalfway.com as a niche website: an online resource that caters to a narrow group of people interested in an equally narrow interest, topic, or theme. Some niche sites are created for a truly specific function — such as downforeveryoneorjustme.com, which tells you whether a particular website is working or not. Some pop up to capture a cultural moment — like istheshipstillstuck.com, the site created in March 2021 to inform people whether a massive cargo ship was still stuck in the Suez Canal. Either way, they are often the work of a single person or tiny group, says Spencer Haws, founder of nichepursuits.com, a blog that teaches people how to build them. (Haws’ own site, owntheyard.com, is focused on backyard enjoyment, covering matters like, “How to find gemstones in your backyard” and, “Can you eat a backyard squirrel?”)
Large companies that publish massive amounts of content every day “are more interested in volume then helping an individual user,” Haws says. Niche sites, instead, are throwbacks to an earlier, free-for-all era of the internet, when quirky, individual websites flourished. “These sites are usually built because the creators were looking for something specific and couldn’t find it, or they have a cool idea and decided to see what happens if they build it,” Haws says. “Some are hoping for extra cash; others are doing it for fun. It’s an interesting market because these can start small and can quickly expand.”
Whatshalfway.com was born in early 2013, when Oli Anderson, a former corporate IT sales worker in Beaconsfield, England, decided he wanted to earn some extra income. He had quit the rat race to work on his wife’s property investment company and was looking for ways to avoid returning to the London daily commute. He looked for online businesses for sale, but nothing jumped out at him.
“I could not have done this without the internet. To have something that feels so specific also makes the experience very human.”Amanda Winer, who found a location for her wedding on whatshalfway.com
Anderson was chatting in a pub one day with friends who told him they’d had an idea for a website to help meet people halfway between two locations. When Anderson broached the idea of turning that into a business, they gave him their blessing. Anderson originally wanted to call the site Meetmehalfway.com, but the domain was taken. “I spent ages trying to find a catchy name that had the same ring,” he recalls. He settled on whatshalfway.com, which was registered to a woman in the U.S. who offered to transfer ownership for free. (He paid her anyway.)
Using most of his savings, Anderson hired a web design company to build the site. Four months later it went live. Whatshalfway.com climbed on Google organically. Advertisements followed. More than 3,000 visitors searched monthly. A small income was generated. Traffic grew.
But the site’s modest success eventually caused an unexpected problem. Anderson had been using Google’s data to create maps, routes, and directions. In 2018, he got a call from Google: The company was changing its billing model and wanted to charge him $25,000 per month for data he’d been using for free. “I was looking at two options,” he says: “Close the site in two months’ time when the charges come into place, or stop using Google.”
He decided to give up on Google’s maps and learn how to code the site himself. “I rolled up my sleeves and locked myself away for two months, working day and night, studying how the website code worked.” The new site lost a few features, he says, but was useful enough to draw more-than-respectable traffic: about 250,000 visitors now use it every month, most of them from the U.S. and the U.K. The site generates its revenue from ads, Anderson says. (He used to charge venues for upgraded listings, but that function got lost in the recoding.)
“I saw a massive drop during the pandemic, but every time the lockdowns ease, it shoots back up instantly,” he says.
Once lockdowns receded in mid-2020 and Winer and Friedman could travel again, they decided to put their whatshalfway.com search to the test by driving from New York to Lighthouse Point Park for an in-person first look. Could it really be as magical as they imagined?
“We loved the place at first sight. I was surprised this even existed,” says Friedman, 31, an equity research associate.
Winer also used other small sites to plan the wedding, including a site that helps people purchase donated wedding dresses. “I could not have done this without the internet,” she says. “To have something that feels so specific also makes the experience very human.”
Anderson, meanwhile, has turned another personal interest into a web operation. Three years ago, he launched thepizzabubble.com, built off his love for making authentic Neapolitan pizzas using the best Italian ingredients he can find. He shares tips and recipes with some 15,000 users per month, and even started selling pizzas during the pandemic lockdown.
Haws notes that the way people use search engines has made niche sites like Anderson’s easier to find. “The more specific we get, the greater the opportunity to home in on exactly what we want,” he says. Instead of just searching for Nike sneakers, “Now it’s about, ‘What’s the best running sneaker Nike makes for people who pronate?’ And you find it.”
For a narrow group of users, niche websites can quickly feel essential, says Alex Reid, a professor of media studies at the University at Buffalo. “It’s absolutely necessary to have sites like these to live the way we want to live,” he says. “Because there’s so much data in the world, we rely upon tools like this to find information we would never find without people who are willing to create it.”
Indeed, Friedman and Winer, whose wedding took place in May, say they’re grateful for Anderson’s role in their landmark day. “It’s the place where I will kiss my wife for the first time,” Friedman said a few weeks before the event. “The wedding should be one of the best days of your life. Someone far away who we didn’t know, and will probably never meet in person, was able to make that happen for us.”