Quick Guide to Ecommerce Websites

Posted on: January 11th, 2012 - Written by: Day Dosch

Quick Guide to Ecommerce Websites

Ecommerce is not a decision to make quickly or without details. Unlike a static website, an ecommerce website must be able to interact with the visitor. Here’s a quick guide to ecommerce websites.

Seven major areas to consider when creating ecommerce websites:

  1. Traffic: Getting users to come to your ecommerce website.
  2. Marketing: The management and presentation of your products / services. Once you have a visitor to your site you need to do everything you can to make sure they actually make a purchase.
  3. Navigation: Ecommerce websites must be easy to navigate. If a user can’t find their way around the site the will be far less likely to make a purchase.
  4. Shopping cart: A process that collects the products / services, totals the order and provides a means for the user to enter their credit card information. If you sell more than one product a shopping cart is essential.
  5. Security: The means of encrypting the order and credit card information so it can’t be intercepted while traveling the open Internet.
  6. Merchant Account: The banking account that allows you to accept credit card payments.
  7. Payment gateway: An interface between your shopping cart and the credit card company that processes the credit card payment.
  8. Management: Tracking sales, orders and inventory.

Each of these areas plays a crucial role in your ecommerce website’s effectiveness. You should give each careful consideration before you start development.

In this guide, each topic is covered in turn – containing an overview of the topic, links to additional information and additional resources.

Traffic and SEO Optimization

Every ecommerce website depends on traffic. After all, if you have no traffic – you have no sales. Unlike the early days of the World Wide Web, generating traffic today requires a considerable amount of work and constant diligence – especially if you are depending on search engines for your visitors.

Top ways of generating traffic for your website:

Traditional Advertising Marketing

Newspaper, television, radio and publication advertising is a viable method of generating website traffic. One of your main considerations when using these traditional advertising media should be your website URL. If  your URL is long, uses a hyphen, or has a non-standard spelling you may have difficulty driving traffic to your site. One or two tries are all most surfers are likely to give you unless they REALLY want to see the site.

Banner Ads and Links

Running banner ads and links on other websites can be an excellent way to drive traffic to your site. There are a few things you should keep in mind when making your decision:

  1. Click through rates are generally very low on banners and other ads. You should never purchase any type of banner ad program without being able to track the clicks to your site AND understand how many of those clicks result in a positive response (sale, request for information, etc.).
  2. Pop-up and pop-under advertising is pretty much HATED by everyone. Don’t use them.
  3. Interactive banners and ads tend to result in a higher click through rate. Like any other banner or ad program you need to track the results.

Bulk Email

Do not use it! Hundreds of sites offer to send your broadcast email to thousands, even millions, of opt-in email addresses for almost no money. If you have your own list of people who have chosen to opt-in to your email list you can use that list to send your broadcast email. If it is NOT your list don’t send to it. Just one broadcast email to a few hundred email addresses can get your  site (and your email) blacklisted. Blacklisted means that many of the major providers (Hotmail, AOL, MSN, etc.) will not accept ANY email from your site. In fact, sending SPAM email can result in your hosting company dumping your website. So stay away from these activities.

Registering Your Site with Directories and Search Engines

A directory is a category listing of websites based on content. A search engine indexes web pages by keyword. Most of the important search engines use a process (called a spider) that follows links from page to page and website to website gathering information about the content (words) on all of the pages.

There are a number of services that offer to register your website with hundreds and even thousands of search engines and directories. Don’t use these services. These services are registering your site with “Free For All” directories. Your only response will be that your email address will end up on just about every SPAM email list out there.

There are only a few search engines and directories that you need to register with.

  1. www.dmoz.org - Open Directory Project: Free
  2. www.yahoo.com – The Yahoo Directory: There is a fee
  3. www.msn.com -  MSN
  4. www.google.com – Google

In most cases, all of the major search engines will find, spider and index your site without you having to “register” the site with the search engine. In fact, some sources suggest that the major search engines prefer sites their spiders find over sites that are registered.

Having lots of sites that link to your website is good. The “spiders” like it. So, in addition to the major directories (DMOZ and Yahoo) you should look for other content specific directories and content sites that will add a link to your site.

Optimizing Your Website for Search Engines

Optimizing your website for search engines is a complex topic that can’t be covered in detail in a Quick Guide. Here is an overview of how search engines work:

  1. Search engines are interested only in words. For instance, if the name of  your company is shown only in your logo and is never part of the text on your website, no search engine will index your website for your company name.
  2. Search engines don’t care about your website design, the images you have, how pretty it is or how sophisticated it looks. Search engines care only about words.
  3. Search engines also don’t care about things like fancy scripts (JavaScript) or Flash so they ignore it. That means that if you have a Flash site or a fancy JavaScript navigation system search engines will ignore all of it.
  4. If you want your site to do well with search engines it MUST be designed with that in mind. Make sure that your web designer knows that search engine placement is a priority before they start working.

If you want to learn more about search engine optimization visit Search Engine Watch.


Pay-per-click advertising is a fast (if somewhat expensive) way of increasing traffic immediately. The two major players are Yahoo and Google AdWords.

Basically, both plans allow you to purchase top listing based on a price for each time a user clicks on the link. In both cases, you choose a key phrase and set the highest price you are willing to pay for a visitor. If you are the highest bidder you are at the top of the list. Pay-per-click can be a huge money sucking machine so great care should be taken in how you set up the account. At a dollar or two per click you can easily spend a thousand dollars a day on a popular key phrase.

Both plans have a way to govern your budget by setting a maximum amount you want to spend each day.

The Importance of Keyword Research

This step is a necessity if you are optimizing for natural search engine results or pay-per-click keyword research.

With natural search engine optimization you have to know what key words and phrases you need to add to your web pages. Remember, if the words are not there you have absolutely no chance of being in the search results for those words.

With pay-per-click you will find that each key phrase has a different top bid. Secondary key phrases can be used in combination to bring in as much traffic as one of the top key phrases at half the price. A good keyword research tool for a fair price is WordTracker. It costs just $26.00 for a one week subscription and $265.00 for a one-year subscription.

Inbound Links

Inbound links are links to your site from other web sites. Most search engines give sites with a lot of inbound links more relevance than sites with fewer inbound links. In other words, the more popular the site the higher it should rank.
One of the best ways to get inbound links is to create content that other sites will link to.

There are several choices in generating traffic. Success with ecommerce websites require that most (if not all) of these methods are blended into a strategy.

Website Marketing and Promotion

Ecommerce marketing is all about enticing web surfers to your site and, once there, becoming a customer. While similar to marketing a physical business, ecommerce marketing has some unique ingredients. For instance, marketing a physical store requires substantial enticement to move a customer to make the effort to physically come by your store. It also means that the customer has an “investment” in the visit. They have expended time, energy and money to get to the location.

On the web, “visiting” your store requires far less effort. A single mouse click and there they are. Unfortunately, the minimal effort to get to your site also means that the customer has nothing invested in the visit. It took almost no time or effort to get to your site so there is no “client side” investment in the process. They can just as easily move to another site. In fact, they can visit a dozen sites in as many minutes.

Many ecommerce marketing companies look at this and use it to justify increased spending on getting new traffic to the web site. For the small and medium business the cost of increasing traffic to the site is substantial and will continue to increase. Just five years ago, it cost almost nothing to bring new visitors to your site. As the competition has increased, driving traffic has fast become the most costly aspect of having an ecommerce web site.

There is another view of ecommerce marketing. Look at Internet marketing success as the total cost of converting visitors into customers. This allows you to measure the effectiveness of your total marketing program including getting new visitors, web site design, customer service and after sales marketing.

Web site marketing has two primary divisions:

Converting visitors (non-customers) into customers

  • In-site promotions
  • Sales / Special Offers
  • In-store Coupons
  • Associated Products
  • Customer Recommendations
  • Opt-in Email Promotions

Site Effectiveness

  • Enticing appropriate visitor behavior
  • Establishing emotional context
  • Building relationships
  • Increasing per-customer purchases
  • After sale marketing
  • After sale relationship building

Enticing visitors and converting visitors work hand in hand. One without the other dramatically reduces the opportunities for creating new customers. You have to get the new visitor to the site and you have to provide sufficient incentive to turn that visitor into a buying customer.

In many cases the visitor has almost no investment in visiting your ecommerce web site. With no investment your site needs to provide sufficient and immediate enticement/reward to keep the visitor from clicking the back button and going to another site. This requires a very close relationship between the keywords they used in their search (or the information in the advertising) to the content on the web page they view. The closer that relationship the more chance you have of enticing the visitor to continue looking at your site.

It also means that in-site promotions may make a substantial difference in the ratio of visitors to customers. Adding that one-time, immediate offer (on sale today only) may create a new customer relationship.

Website Navigation Considerations

One of the most overlooked and basic problems with ecommerce websites is ineffective navigation. Websites are not physical stores. A visitor can’t glance around to get a feeling of where they are and where they want to go. They are completely dependent upon the navigation system to find their way around an ecommerce website. If the navigation system is not intuitive, it is unlikely that the user will spend time trying to figure it out. Instead, they hit the back button a couple of times and look for a new site.

Here are a few things you want to consider before you make a decision on how your ecommerce catalog navigation should work.

  • Navigation Location: The product navigation should be in the same place on every page of the site. The upper left portion of the page is generally considered to be the best location. This is where most visitors expect to see it.
  • Think like a customer: Your site visitors likely do not know everything you know about your products. This makes it essential that you think like a      customer when deciding how to organize your products and your product navigation. Minimize the potential for confusion.
  • Categories or Brands (or both): If you sell only name brand products you may want to consider using a product navigation based on brands. At the very minimum you may want to include it as a secondary navigation option.
  • Make buying easy: There are at least two pieces of information that should be prominent on every page of your site.
    The first is your telephone number. Even today, many people find the products they want on your site but use the telephone to actually place the order.
    The second is an obvious link to the shopping cart. If the user cannot find the shopping cart they can’t complete the purchase.
  • Consistency: All navigation in your site should be consistent from page to page. Website visitors like knowing how to find what they want quickly without having to go back to find the link they want.

Spend time on your navigation design. Poor navigation can render an otherwise effective site useless to the site visitor.

Shopping Cart Software

Your shopping cart is the part of your ecommerce website that shows the user details about the products they want to buy. If you are selling more than one product, it is an absolute necessity. You never want to force a user to check out and pay for several products one at a time.

Generally you will want to make sure that your shopping cart should be able to handle:

  • Multiple Products: The user should be able to add multiple products to the shopping cart. It should list the products (including the stock code) and the price they are being charged for each product and an extended price (the per item price multiplied by the quantity). A short description is also helpful.
  • Edit Products: The user should be able to edit quantity for each product and, if they choose, delete the product from the shopping cart.
  • Coupon Redemption: Percent off coupons for a product or an order is an excellent way to encourage the user to make a purchase NOW. Your shopping cart should have this capability.
  • Gift Certificate Redemption: Gift certificates are another marketing and promotional tool that helps create new customers and reward existing      customers. It is generally implemented by providing a code that gives the visitor a dollar off amount on any purchase.
  • Order Total: Your shopping cart should also give the total of all of the products currently in the shopping basket.

You should never consider an ecommerce site without a shopping cart unless you never intend to sell more than a single product that the user can only order in single quantities.

Website Security

It is true that you need to insure that your ecommerce website is secure, but it is just as important for your customers to have confidence that their personal information is just as secure as their transactions. With all of the news on identity theft and improper use of personal information this is more important today than ever.

Securing your ecommerce website: Your primary concern is insuring that your website is secure. This is not a simple process. Fortunately, most of the security for your site will be provided by your hosting company. Here are a few things that you must be aware of and guidelines you should follow:

  • Passwords: Regardless of your catalog software, your link into the information in the catalog will be a login and password. You should make sure that all logins and passwords will not be easily guessed. They should always include at least one number, one upper case and one lower case letter, be at least 8 characters long and do not include any common words. For instance JoAnne88 is not a good password if your name is JoAnne.
    You should also never write the login and password down and keep it anywhere near your computer. A Post-It Note stuck to your monitor is not a safe place. Put it in a safe, a safe deposit box or other secure place.
  • Security Certificate: A security certificate is a coded key that combined with your hosting software allows the encryption of all information passed      over the Internet. Encryption replaces characters and numbers with codes that can only be read if you have the proper key. You should never allow      your site users to pass sensitive information over the internet without a security certificate installed and in use. Encrypting information puts a large load on your web server so only pages that are passing sensitive information need to be secure. A secure site is any site that starts with HTTPS:// (if you have a security certificate installed) instead of the normal HTTP://. When secure, a locked “lock” is shown in the lower right corner of your browser.
  • Secured data: In addition to data passed over the net you should also encrypt any sensitive data (like credit card numbers) you save in a database or other file on the server. Your ecommerce catalog software should automatically include this capability.
  • What security means to your ecommerce user: The technical aspects of security mean little to your user. Their concern for security is far deeper than the lock at the bottom of the browser. It is true that they do want to know that their transactions are secure. You should make sure they are aware that your site is secure by hosting a security seal from the company that provided your security certificate.
    Your users also want to know that you are not going to use their personal information in ways that they don’t condone. A clear and concise privacy      statement with a prominently displayed link is the best approach to take. Make sure that the link is easy to find on every page of your site and make sure that the policy is concise and easy to understand.

The need for electronic security on ecommerce sites and customer data is obvious. What may not be so obvious is your customers’ expectation of security and privacy. Privacy is just as important to users as electronic security measures and encryption. Make sure customers know that their concern is also your concern.

Merchant Account

Most ecommerce websites accept payment by credit card. Most people new to ecommerce find this to be one of the most confusing aspects of setting up an ecommerce website. The confusion is understandable. Online credit card payment processing is big business and there are many vendors claiming shares of that business.

The chart below shows how a typical payment process works.

When a user makes a purchase on your ecommerce website the payment information is passed through a Payment Gateway. This gateway takes the credit card and order information and passes it to a Credit Card Processing company. The processor first checks to insure the credit card is valid and has the required credit limit. If so it passes a message back to the payment gateway which also informs your ecommerce software. The processor then makes the funds available to your company’s Merchant Account. After the required waiting period (2 to 5 days depending upon the merchant account) the money is transferred to your Bank Account. Everyone in the process takes a little bit of money from you.

The Payment Gateway and the Credit Card Processor take a transaction fee. The Credit Card Account and the Merchant Account take a portion of the discount rate (a percentage subtracted from the total sale) as their payment.

The merchant account is the biggest player in this group and defines several aspects of the process. The merchant account defines how large your discount rate is. This can vary from less than one percent to several percent of the total order. If you are processing hundreds of thousands of dollars per month this discount percentage can add up to a lot of money. The difference between two and a half percent and five percent can make a big difference. Make sure you check to see what the discount percent is for your merchant account.

Website Payment Gateway

While the merchant account you choose can make a big difference in your money, your payment gateway can make a big difference in the number of orders that you get.

Stay away from a payment gateway that is often down or is very slow when traffic is high. You probably have experienced a slow payment process while in the checkout line at a store, so you know how frustrating it can be to wait while your payment is slowly processed.

Consider what happens if that wait occurs on your ecommerce website. In most cases the user abandons the shopping cart and looks somewhere else.

Make sure you choose one of the premium payment gateways. It is well worth the extra $10.00 per month.

Ecommerce Website Management

One of the most important aspects of an ecommerce site is the day-to-day management of products, pricing, marketing and orders. While this may seem like common sense to most, it is important to realize that you must pay attention to more than just collecting orders on your ecommerce website.

Your ecommerce website is much like a retail location. You need to keep it fresh and clean. You want to promote specific items or lines, offer specials and provide fresh incentives for people visiting the site to become customers. But, unlike a retail location, the user can just hit the BACK BUTTON and they are gone on to another site. Your site has to immediately offer them a reason not to hit the BACK BUTTON.

This doesn’t require that you change the website every day, but it does mean that you must keep it fresh and interesting. Make changes in offers. Update a special promotion or incentive at least once a week. Put new items on sale regularly.

Ongoing change keeps people coming back to your site on a regular basis.

For most ecommerce website owners who don’t have a dedicated website staff, this consistent change can be the most trying aspect of their site. However, to be successful, it is something that is absolutely critical.

These are basic change recommendations:

  • Daily = Excellent
  • Every other day = OK
  • Once a week = Passable
  • Once a month = Unacceptable

Keep it fresh and visitors will come back often.


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