There is no "one best solution". There are many options to consider before you choose the solution best for you. To avoid going down a long and expensive road, only to find you have chosen the wrong path, you need to answer a few questions that will help guide your way.
Like most technology, E Commerce websites have evolved. The 1st E Commerce websites offered a complete "one stop" solution. The problem was these Shopping Carts became so complex, it became difficult for the average Owner to manage their own business. Also, as the need to be found in Search Engine Results became critically important, many of original shopping carts did not adhere to Web Standards and Google Standards. Hence, the evolution of new, improved, and more flexible shopping cart solutions. Because of the many different types of solutions now available, it is more important than ever, you do your research up front to ensure you have the solution right for you.
What Does it Take to Have a Successful E Commerce Website?
The #1 biggest assumption people make is believing "If I build it they will come". Not true, not true, not true! If you are not prepared to run your E Commerce website, with as much time and resources as you would a normal business, you should STOP now and save your money. If you are starting a new business online, I highly recommend you read this short article "How to Start a Successful Business".
Having a successful Ecommerce website will require you actively engage the following activities:
1. Know who your customer is and prove to yourself, if you were standing in front of a potential with your product in hand, is your product or service so compelling they would buy from you, or want to wait and continue shopping? If you answer "yes" then you only need to get them to your website, and make them believe you are trustworthy to do business with. Who is your competition? What makes them want to stop shopping once they find you? Are your products, pricing or service better? You will need to clearly express your competitive advantage on your new website.
2. Research your competition before you build your website. To do this you may need to hire a Search Engine Optimization professional. This person can research your business category and products, and will be able to tell you how competitive your market is and how much effort and cost it will take to be successful in your market. "Successful in your market" means the ability to get traffic to your website. A free way to quickly see who your competition is, go to Google.com and search the keywords you want people to use to find you. Go to the top listed websites. That's your competition. Google also offers a free Keyword Tool you can use to see what keyword phrase are the most popular. View the short video on this site so learn how to research the popular Keywords, "How to Increase Traffic to Your Website".
3. Choose the correct shopping cart solutions, based on the review below
4. Hire a Search Engine Optimization professional to make sure you are optimizing your content correctly. For a summary of the parts of your web pages that can be optimized, please see this short article, "How to increase traffic to your website". Promote your website in the "Top 10 Internet Directories". Here are some "Top 10 SEO Tips to help attract traffic to your website". Once you have optimized the pages of your website then you will want to start marketing your site.
NOTE: websites that have a NEW domain name can take up to 6 months to gain maturity in the search engines. Don't budget or expect immediate sales from your SEO efforts.
5. Market your websites - Promote your website by using standard Search Engine Marketing "SEM" techniques, social networking, Affiliate Marketing and Pay per Click Advertising are currently the most online traditional methods of marketing. The marketing of your website is the most important activity you will do to become successful. If you don't do these activities, no one will know about your website, and therefore no sales.
6. Work with Professionals. The Internet is a very competitive marketplace. Like most industries, 20% of the people are doing 80% of the business. If you want to be in the top 20%, you need to work with people that know the ropes and can get you there. I do it in my business and I recommend you do the same. I wish you all the best in finding the right professionals. Make sure they have a track record of success, with testimonials from their clients. Another phrase that rings true for me is "Not all people finished at the top of their class". This means, just because these professionals charge for their service, doesn't mean they have a strong track record of making their clients successful.
- Webmaster - The person responsible for setting up and maintaining your shopping cart. Your Webmaster is NOT responsible for the creation of your content or running your business.
- Web Developer - Same as Webmaster
- Web Programmer - Creates the functionality for your website. Usually does NOT have graphic design skills. This person would need to work with a Web Designer to produce an attractive website. This person is seldom good with Search Engine Optimization.
- Web Designer - Person with graphic design skills. Usually this person has little or no programming skills. This person can sometimes have Front End Development skills.
- Front End Developer - This person is responsible for adding the design to the site and the "User Interface" - This is what you see on the page of your shopping cart. It includes how and where content is laid out on the page, and how you move through the cart and pages of your website. It's your "experience" on the cart. This person will work closely with both the Programmer and the Designer to produce a good experience for your website visitors. If you have ever been to a website where it was graphically stunning, but your experience on the site was not rewarding, it was because they used a poor Front End Developer or no Front End Developer. How you experience a website is critical to the success of the website
- Search Engine Optimization Professional - You must be VERY careful when choosing this person or company. I have seen many companies offer the world for $100's and $1,000 per month, with long term commitments form you, and deliver very little results. One company, that I can personally recommend, based on many satisfied clients I have sent their way, is http://www.thesearchenginepros.com. Search Engine Optimization and Marketing is a campaign that happens over a period of weeks and months. I STRONGLY recommend you verify the work your SEO company claims to be doing. DO NOT just accept a monthly visitor statistics report showing increased traffic as proof they are doing their work. If your SEO company claims to be writing articles and posting them on the Internet, then insist you receive a copy of the articles and do a spot check to verify where they have been posted. If they claim to be listing you in Internet Directories, then do a spot visit to some of those directories and verify you are listed. Depending on your business, you do not need to pay for SEO services every month, but you should include SEO as part of your annual budget, just like you would Marketing and Advertising, if you had a physical storefront.
- Affiliate Marketing - Some shopping carts have an Affiliate Marketing module built into the cart. Affiliate Marketing allows you to register people that are interested in promoting your products on their websites or through their Social Networks, like facebook and twitter. The links they use to point traffic back to your website have their unique Username built into the link. This allows your cart software to track where the visitor came from and what Affiliate you need to pay if the visitor makes a purchase. I heard a recent statistic that said 30% of all online sales were a result of someone clicking an Affiliate link. This is a HUGE number. If you offer common consumer products, marketing your products though affiliate links can be very financially rewarding.
- Html - Html is the programming text behind every page of a website. Regardless of what programming language was used to create many websites, they must publish the public viewed pages in Html. Many shopping carts do not publish Html pages that meet current web standards. You can test the Html of any shopping cart you are considering, by taking the URL of a website built with that shopping cart and entering the address into the field on this page, http://validator.w3.org. Press the review button to see how many errors are on the page Too many errors can hurt your Search Engine Results, because:
- Some Html errors will prevent the Search Engines from reading the text on your page. The search engines will skip over the bad Html and text nearby.
- Many Html errors are related to the Optimization of your page for search engines
- Html errors can cause browser capability errors. This means people see the page differently based on the browser they are using.
- Style Sheet - This is the programming text that works with Html to format the location and look of your content in your website. Style Sheets control the fonts, size, color of text and how graphic design elements are positioned on the page. Most shopping carts allow you to modify the Style Sheet for the cart to apply your own branding and website design elements. If you decide to use a "hosted" shopping cart, you will need to hire someone with design skills and Style sheet skills.
- Blog - The original Blog was a personal journal for individuals. Today's Blog has become the place to publish public articles about your products, your industry, your clients and topics of general interest. Blog are extremely important for good Search Engine Optimization of your website. If you are considering a shopping cart that does not offer a blog, you may want to consider a different cart. If you don't think you will take advantage of the benefits of a Blog, then choose a cart that offers the best features for you.
- Merchant Account - to accept money online, you need a Merchant Account. You can either get your own Merchant Account or use one from a 3rd party provider, like PayPal or Google. 3rd party providers normally charge a flat rate of about 3% of the purchase, with no monthly fees. If you have your own Merchant Account, you will most likely pay an application fee + a monthly fee of around $25. You will often pay an annual fee of about $40. If you have your own Merchant Account, this means you are responsible for the security of the personal information you collect from your customers, therefore you will also need to install an SSL certificate on your website, which can cost about $100 per year to maintain. New and smaller companies tend to use the 3rd party merchant accounts, to keep their costs low. More well established companies will use their Own Merchant Account, and will often still offer, to their customers, the 3rd party Merchant Providers, usually PayPal or Google. You will see an example of multiple payment options if you have ever purchased from http://www.amazon.com
- Pay Per Click - Over 90% of Google's income comes from Pay Per Click Advertising through their Google Adwords program. Sign up is free to you. You only pay Google if you advertise a keyword phrase and someone clicks on your Ad. You can limit the dollars you spend per day on any Keyword Phrase ad campaign. The minimum cost per click is $.05 cents. More popular phrases can cost you several dollars per click. As a basis for understanding how much you can afford to pay per click, you need to know how much profit you make on an average sale. You should expect that 1% of your visitors will make an average purchase. Monitor this closely so you are not spending more in advertising that you could possible recover from sales. Pay per click advertising is a great way for you to kick start traffic to your website. You can find out more at http://www.google.com/adwords. Many SEO companies offer to maintain your Google Adwords campaign, as part of their service offerings.
Open Source Shopping Carts - FREE?
There are many Open Source shopping carts available for free download. There is no company behind these carts that stand behind the performance of the cart, instead the cart is supported by a community of programmers that gather at the Cart's website. Every programmer in the world has the opportunity to submit enhancements to the cart. There is usually a smaller group of programmers that have agreed to review these submissions and decide if they will become part of the core shopping cart. Enhancements that are not added to the core are called Modules. Your Website Developer will have access to download additional Modules to add more functionality to your shopping cart.
1. Free download of shopping cart
2. Free modules to enhance the functionality of your cart
3. Base Cart usually has tons of features
1. Even though the cart is free, you will need to hire a Website Developer to set up your cart.
2. Because there is no Company that created the cart, there is no free support offered. This means for all technical or User support issues; you will be paying your Webmaster every time you need support.
3. You will need to provide your own hosting service to run the cart.
4. You will need to rely on your Website Developer for all your Support, because there is no Company that supports your shopping cart. This is a BIG problem that could cost you $1,000's of dollars, and your success online, if you choose the wrong Developer. I have seen Developers get off to a good start with their Clients then their levels of service rapidly decrease after the initial payment for the cart has been made.
5. Because Open Source carts tend to have so many features, the features clutter the Administrative section of the site, making it difficult for you to focus on the basic features you need to run your cart.
6. Because Open Source carts allow programmers to manage all programming configurations from the Administrative area of the cart, the many of the menus you see in the Admin area are only for the programmers, so you, as the Site Owner, may be confused about what areas you should go to edit the content of the site. This clutter of menus and options increases your learning curve.
Hosted .vs Non-hosted Shopping Carts
Hosted shopping carts are provided by website companies, where you create an account with their company and instantly you have access to your shopping cart. They provide the hosting with your subscription to the cart. The shopping cart company is responsible to maintain all technical and programming issues for the cart, at no cost to you. As they release new features you will automatically see those features available to you. Hosted shopping carts charge a monthly fee, and will often give a free trial period.
1. Instant access to your shopping cart. No need to hire a programmer or website developer to get started.
2. Many Hosted carts come with a few Design Templates to choose from. This keeps your graphic design costs down.
3. Usually comes with a free trial period.
4. Usually offers multiple cart Plans to choose from. Plans usually range from $20 to $100 per month, with the most popular Plans less than $50/month. If you need every feature known to man and unlimited storage and bandwidth, you can pay as high as $250/month. The benefit of Plans is you can reduce your monthly cost by choosing the minimum plan that meets your needs.
5. You can easily upgrade your Plan if your future needs increase.
6. Comes with a Company that backs the software and offers levels of Support for their product.
1. Because you don't own the shopping cart, if you ever want to move to another hosting company, it will be very costly, especially if you have 100's of products
2. Some Hosting Shopping Carts, like www.yahoo.com/store, charge you a monthly fee + a transaction fee. Be VERY careful if you choose a cart that has this method of charges. I set my dear mother up with a Yahoo Shopping Cart. She was selling about $5,000 per day. Her annual fee to Yahoo was over $10,000. That VERY expensive hosting. She wanted to move to a different shopping cart but the cost of moving 100's of products and potential loss of her traffic discourage her.
3. Usually does not offer 3rd party integration of other software. For example, if you wanted to add a Blog to your shopping cart, your blog could not have the same domain as your shopping cart, because you do not have access to put other software on the same server as your shopping cart
4. If you are not satisfied with their Customer Support, you can't fire them and hire someone else to support the cart. You would need to change shopping cart companies. Getting set up with any new shopping cart will cost you many hours of work and can be very expensive and disruptive.
Product Catalog and 3rd Party Checkout
Many shopping carts allow you to manage and purchase your products within the same cart using your primary domain. In more recent times this model has become more open. Now you have the ability to manage products, under your primary domain, and can choose a different 3rd party to manage the checkout or purchase of products, using the 3rd party domain. Common 3rd party checkout companies are PayPal and Google Checkout. Depending on the number of products you offer, you may not need a full shopping cart or product catalog. You may just need a good checkout system.
What is a Product Catalog?
1. You can add Categories and Sub-categories
2. Add unlimited products
3. Assign products to any level of categories
4. Usually includes a left column menu to display your product categories and sub categories
5. Link products - on the bottom of a Product page you will see other recommended products
6. Will usually allow you to have the option to make the product for sale, by placing a Buy Now button on the product page, but not always. For many companies their products require some consulting by sales staff. In this case you don't need or want to offer Buy Now buttons.
7. Product Catalogs tend to be easier for managing your content, because they don't have all the options in a full shopping cart
8. Here is a sample Online Product Catalog offered by SiteNinja CMS.
What is a 3rd Party Checkout System?
1. The largest 3rd Party Checkout Systems are PayPal and Google Checkout. There are many others that you may want to consider.
2. They do not offer product inventory. In fact, they don't even keep product records, so if you need to track inventory levels then a 3rd party checkout, without a Product Catalog, is not the option for you.
3. You will be able to create Buy Now buttons to place on your website. When your site visitor clicks the Buy Now button on your website, it will place the product in a shopping cart list, provided by either PayPal or Google. The visitor can continue to shop or pay for their products.
4. 3rd party checkout is ideal if you want to keep your up-front costs low
5. Both PayPal and Google Checkout will notify you and your new customer when a transaction is complete. They will calculate the shipping for you. You can log into your Checkout account and see all your transactions, and export for use in other programs.
6. There are generally no application fees or start up fees associated with creating an account for a 3rd party checkout system.
7. The 3rd party provider usually provides the Merchant Account, so you don't incur the expense of owning a Merchant Account
What is the Best Shopping Cart?
The best shopping cart is the one that meets your minimum current needs, with the ability to expand as your grow. You need to know your minimum current needs and understand your growth potential to be able to select the best solution for you. It's possible you start with a small cart that is inexpensive and limited in features, and after you have proven you are on the path to success, you can upgrade your cart to an entirely new, and more expensive cart.
Here are a few Google searches you may want to view to help you understand what shopping carts are currently available for your consideration.