E-commerce has come a long way, baby, over the past 10 years or so, with prospective online business owners having more options than ever before when it comes to where and how to set up shop. In fact, there are so many choices — from where to register your domain name to who should host your site to how it looks to which shopping cart to use to how to optimize your site so the search engines and customers will find you — it's often hard know where to begin.
To help you, Ecommerce-Guide.com spoke with several e-commerce experts, as well as folks who have gone through the process of setting up shop online. We've also included a handy checklist for you to print out and use.
The Must-Haves When Setting Up an E-Commerce Site
Michelle Hutter, who runs 3 H Virtual Services, "solutions for everything on the Web," sums up the challenges facing many prospective e-commerce business owners in a letter she sends out to prospective and new customers: "Here's your dilemma… you are an idea person, not a techie. You have come up with a great product and you think the time is right to offer it to those who need it…. Now, you need a simple and seamless way for people to order it from your website. OR, maybe you don't even have a website yet because you don't know where to begin."
But where do you begin? Hutter and Carlos Manalo, a user experience and e-commerce consultant who runs reduxcreative and has worked with the likes of Crateandbarrel.com and Landsend.com developing their sites, suggest you first create a detailed e-commerce plan or checklist (see the checklist on page 2) then research different tools and options, to find the ones that are right for your e-commerce business.
Register Your Domain Name
After you've come up with a mission statement and an outline for your e-commerce business, you need to pick a name and register it with one of the online domain name registries, such as GoDaddy.com, Register.com, or NetworkSolutions.com. Even if you decide to open your store on eBay or Yahoo! or a similar hosted site, you should still have your own domain name. At around $10 a year, it's well worth the investment.
Find a Host or Hosting Solution
Once you've got your domain name, you need to figure out where to set up shop — or who will host your site. "If you just want to set it and forget it, go with a hosted solution like a Yahoo! or an eBay store," suggested Manalo. If you're a little bit more tech savvy, he said, and want to set up your own freestanding site (which will still need to be hosted by someone, typically a hosting provider), you may want to check out a Web design and development software solution like Adobe Dreamweaver or Microsoft Office FrontPage.
For business owners who don't necessarily want to go the Yahoo! or eBay route but don't want to muck around with HTML or shop à la carte for a shopping cart, merchant account and payment gateway (the elements that allow you to sell online), you can go with one of the e-commerce packages offered by hosting companies such as GoDaddy.com and LunarPages.com. Or, you can go with an e-commerce solution provider, such as Volusion or Magento, both of which typically provide you with a Web site, shopping cart, SSL certification, e-mail, templates, a content management system, list management, reporting and analytics tools, even a merchant account and credit car processing gateway, starting at around $20 a month.
Acquire a Shopping Cart…
If you decide not to go with one of the aforementioned options, then you will need to get a shopping cart (good ones for small businesses include PayPal and Google Checkout on the basic end, and 1ShoppingCart.com, e-junkie.com and ShopSite.com for business owners looking to accept a broad range of payment types, which Hutter and Manalo say is a better option over the long term as the more types of payment you accept, the more customers you will get). Just make sure the cart you choose allows you to calculate sales tax.
And a Merchant Account and Payment Gateway
You will also need to set up a merchant account (either through your hosting solution or a bank) and a payment gateway (a service that authorizes payments made to your business, and prevents fraud, such as VeriSign, Authorize.net, Charge.com, or PayPal.)
Content: Design, Photography, Copy, Search Optimization
Equally important, "you should have a well-designed Web site that enables users to find your products with ease," said Kendall Gjevre, the owner of All Digital Support
While most hosted solutions provide design templates, many e-commerce experts recommend hiring a designer to give at least your home page and brand — or logo — a unique look and feel.
Similarly, you need to think about how you are going to present your products, which Manalo stresses is very different from how you would do so in a print catalog or a store.
"When you're thinking about shooting photography for your e-commerce site, don't think about it in print format, which is what most people do, and only do one shot of the product," he cautioned. When people visit an online store, he said, they want to see different views of products, typically front, back and side (if applicable), and the ability to see a larger view. The quality of your images is also very important, particularly if you are selling apparel.
As for copy, "the more descriptive you are, the longer your copy and the more copy you have that's relevant to the product, the better your search engine results are going to be," said Manalo. That's why he highly recommends that e-commerce business owners spend time optimizing their copy so the search engines easily find their products.
A quick way to do that he says is to take a long, hard look at your site and write down "15 to 20 terms that apply specifically to broad aspects of your business." So if you're a florist, for example, you would want to include meta tags like flowers, roses, Mother's Day and 50 percent less for roses, especially on Valentine's Day (or similar), as well as detailed product descriptions on your product pages.
"The more specific you are in the meta tags and on your product pages, the better off you're going to be," he said. And, he added, search engine optimization (SEO) is "a great low-cost, low- effort way of really pushing your products online," and often makes more sense than paying for banner ads or buying words or terms on Google AdWords or AdSense. Though if you have the budget you can (and probably should) include those as part of your marketing/advertising strategy.
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