Review: 1&1's eShop Robust, But Not for Newbies

There are two ways to build an e-commerce presence. One way is to pay for a hosted service that includes an online e-commerce application and the hosting. We take a look at one such service from 1&1, Inc.

There are two ways to build an e-commerce presence. One way is to use an application and figure out the hosting yourself; the other is to pay for a hosted service that includes an online e-commerce application and the hosting. Many of the major hosting companies have such a service, which is supposed to make it as easy as possible for users to setup, establish and host an e-commerce presence. This week we'll review one such offering from 1&1 Internet, Inc.

1&1 eShops is an integrated online e-commerce and hosting solution that is currently offered in three flavors: Business, Professional and Developer, which range in price from $9.99 to $49.99 a month. One of the principal differences between the three offerings is the included amount of web space and transfer bandwidth. For the purpose of this review we evaluated the mid-tier offering, Professional, that tops out at 300 MB of disk space and 30 GB of monthly transfer volume.

1&1 eShops offers integration with the web development tool NetObjects Fusion that promises easier web site development and integration. However, this is a review of the online e-commerce application provided by eShops and accessible via a standard web browser.

Setup

The setup of the eShop was a bit more painful than I would have liked and would likely be challenging to average newbies. There is no simple wizard process to help you set up your store, no simple step-by-step walkthrough to ensure that every setting that needs to be set is actually set. What eShops does offer is a series of what it refers to as "setup assistants/wizards" to set up individual items like payment and shipping methods. It's not a true total site wizard setup that holds your hand every step of the way.

What made the process even more annoying was the excessive use of new popup windows for each of the setup wizards with each click (Basic, Tax, Order, Shipping, Payment settings).


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1&1 eShop's administrator screen.
(Click for larger version)

The provided documentation is robust, if not challenging to wade through, coming in at a hefty 118 pages in PDF format. There is a FAQ, though it is poorly constructed, consisting of links that lead to more links before you finally get to the information that you think you are searching for in order to set up the eShop properly. An example of the final end click FAQ page can be found here. Note the poor English.

Features

1&1 eShops offers some 38 different design templates that encompass a wide range of useful styles for an e-commerce storefront. From a marketing point of view, there is an integrated eShop marketing newsletter feature that you can send to your customers. There is also a pair of interesting Google features that both help you to get your e-commerce site listed in search engines and track the performance of Google ad campaigns you may be running in support of the site.

Buried inside the "Advanced Settings" tab is the Google Tracking ID feature that works with Google AdWords to implement Google "Conversion Tracking." An eShop can also be more easily indexed by Google's e-commerce search project called Froogle thanks to a simple selection that submits the users eShop to Froogle for indexing.

The shipping configuration module was also a painful experience. Instead of integrating simple, direct USPS, FEDEX, UPS, etc. services as you'd hope (and expect in this day and age), eShop asks users to input a PHP script to accomplish shipping system integration. This is a serious and significant shortcoming of the program that I'd suspect significantly reduces the practicality of the application to novice users.

On the other hand, the ability to enhance the eShop with PHP scripts (and the related shopscript) is potentially a great strength and feature in that it allows those who are willing to get their hands dirty the opportunity to customize the site. The FAQ (and manual) include numerous examples of PHP at one point describes how to integrate cross search into the site using a script. Cross marketing and the ability to cross search an e-commerce site should be a standard feature. A simple perusal of the instructions on how to include cross search is an unfortunate example of the unneeded complexity that this program introduces at many points.


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1&1 eShop's design template screen.
(Click for larger version)

There is a lot of power and capability built into eShops, once you really dig deep through the application and the manual and see what the PHP/Shopscripts can potentially add. Though, considering the fact that there are so many excellent e-commerce applications currently in the marketplace that don't demand a user to input a single line of php or other such script to achieve similar (or greater level of functionality), it means it's just too complex to make it properly accessible.

1&1's hosting and domain registration services seem to offer a very competitive and compelling offer for users. Unfortunately, the same may not necessarily be said for eShops in its current state as tested. One of the main reasons a user would elect to use an online hosted service is for ease-of-use as well as functionality. Asking users to input PHP/shopscript, though well (and verbosely) documented, to implement functionality simply dose not bode well for overall usability from an average users point of view.

Power users may very well completely disagree with that assessment, as having the ability to input PHP has its advantages if you know what you're doing and/or have the patience to wade through the documentation (online or offline).

If you're not such a user and prefer clicking to add your functionality, you'd likely be better served by loading your own shopping cart application (maybe a free one like osCommerce or one of its disciples) onto a 1&1-hosted site yourself.

Sean Michael Kerner is a contributor to eCommerce-Guide.com.


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