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The title of this article might be a little confusing, so please allow me to explain. When people come to us asking how to create a successful ecommerce store, what they really want to know is what are the steps. For example, they want to know how to choose a niche, how to source products, how to build a website etc. When we first wrote Retail Rebellion, this is also what we focused on giving people. Give them what they want right? The problem with this is that it feeds the school/uni/career (SUC) mentality that we all tend to bring when we first start out in business.
A SUC mentality is where you are fed everything. You might think that you did the research, that you came up with the creative, that you implemented that new system at your workplace, but in reality, it was all part of a system that told you what to go and do, and you went and did it. The great challenge of entrepreneurship is when you wake up, sit down in front of a computer screen, and have no idea what you should be doing next. That is typically when somebody might give us a call and want to meet for a coffee. The problem we’ve found is that although we are often happy to do this, and you may find it helpful for whatever your next step might be, you have to understand that at some point, you won’t be able to do this anymore. The reasons might be that we are no longer about to help for personal reasons, or simply that your specific niche starts to require ideas, thoughts and actions that ours don’t. Every product niche is different, and often serves different customers, who see value in a different way, or come into contact with your business in a different way. Some niches are Instagram plays for example, while others aren’t.
A mentor or a coach can help you speed up your journey for sure, but ultimately every one who wants to be a successful entrepreneur needs to be able to sit down in front of a computer, with no external input, and come up with new ideas and new experiments for their own business. If you are unable to ever progress to this level, you will eventually fail – guaranteed. Tess and I got into the mentoring/coaching game because we wanted to be to others what we could never find for ourselves – someone who has “been there done that”. We do realise now though, that we had the bonus of having to figure everything out for ourselves, and that has given us the benefit of self-reliance.
For many people, the idea of having to solve everything by yourself without a guide might be daunting (even after ten years it still is to us), but picture the bright side. If you can cross over to being a bonafide entrepreneur, then you will become someone who can always solve problems in the marketplace without being fed by anyone else. Jobs come and jobs go, money comes and money goes, businesses come and businesses go, but the confidence and ability to solve problems and provide value to the marketplace can never be taken from you, so long as you commit to taking responsibility for your own learning, experimenting and problem solving. So instead of watching another video or reading another article on whether or not Facebook Ads will work for your niche, go and launch a few ads and start testing for yourself, or hire someone to do it for you (with a pre-determined idea of what the tests will be and what outcomes will result in a pass/fail). Either way, get experimenting and learn for yourself what works and what doesn’t. This is the ultimate financial independence.
I used to try Google Adwords at least once per year to see if I could get it to work for us, but I just couldn’t get it to be cost effective. We even hired highly rated Adwords professionals to try to get it going with a decent return on investment, and even they failed to do so. The reason I kept coming back for more every year was for one reason. Our competitors’ ads never went away. Why would they keep advertising year after year if all they were doing was losing money?
In 2015 we hired yet another company to setup and test a variety of campaigns (search, display, dynamic retargeting and shopping ads), and once again, they were unable to make them profitable, despite all of the initial promises. So we canned the company, and put all of the campaigns on pause, and once again went back to working on other areas of our businesses.
In 2016 we concentrated primarily on improving our product ranges, setting up proper email campaigns (popups, abandoned cart sequences, after sales sequences) and improving on-site conversion elements (adding product videos etc.). The combined effect of which significantly improved our conversion rate and average order value. Out of curiosity, I unpaused all of our adwords campaigns, and lo and behold, the majority of them were now profitable.
It seems so obvious in hindsight, but we never had a cost-per-click problem, we had a sales funnel problem. From that point on, we look at PPC very differently. Now we do what it takes to get our ad to a top position in adwords, and then if it’s not profitable, instead of pausing the ad, we try to figure out how to make it profitable. Think about it. If your goal is to dominate your niche, you need to figure out how to be profitable at #1 everywhere you can be. If you sell headphones for example, and you are losing money when you bid for related keywords, instead of giving up on adwords, try to figure out why you aren’t converting enough (or making enough) to make it profitable. Are your profit margins too low? Do you have an adequately converting website or email sequence? Maybe you need to increase the lifetime value of your customers through a better post purchase email sequence? Maybe you don’t have retargeting setup properly and your adwords competitors do?
So here’s your challenge. Don’t wait for adwords to be profitable – make it profitable. Because if you don’t, your competitor will.
The following article is an excerpt from the book “Ecommerce Uncovered” by Nathan & Tessa Hartnett.
While it is estimated that Google uses over 200 different signals to determine where to rank your site, it would be fair to say that you will find over 2,000,000 different opinions about what those signals our, and how you should best use them to get ranked. The biggest problem we’ve ever had with trying to get rankings is trying to sort through those millions of different opinions to find out what would actually work.
It would be naive to believe that anybody truly knows exactly what to do, and I think the best place to start this chapter is to try to help you sort through the nonsense, and start developing your personal “SEO filter”.
Problem 1 – Correlation vs Causation
This is the single biggest issue we see in SEO today. This is where someone does an SEO experiment, by placing an egg on their head on a Tuesday (when there is a full moon), and noticed that their rankings went up the day that they did it. All of a sudden, they go write very well laid out and written articles about how they have proven that if you want better rankings in Google, all you have to do is place an egg on your head on a Tuesday when there is a full moon. All of a sudden, everyone is doing it.
But not you of course, because that would be silly. But what if they said it happened after they got a lot of Facebook likes? Or it happened because of writing articles on their site using Google Authorship? All of a sudden, it might sound quite plausible, when in fact in might be about as plausible as the egg-head scenario.
Problem 2 – “But Google Said…”
What if Google themselves said it through a spokesperson like Matt Cutts? Now it sounds really plausible!
This is where another problem starts to creep in. Always remember that Google doesn’t want you to know how to rank sites, because if you did, you would be able to manipulate the rankings, and that is the last thing they want. They also use public videos to help manipulate their audience just like a good politician will as well.
Problem 3 – What Are They Trying To Rank?
You have to be really careful when trying to rank an ecommerce site in Google, while using techniques given to you by someone who ranks information sites for a living. They are very different beasts.
Have you ever noticed that when you search for a product, you get a lot of ecommerce sites in the results, yet when you search for information topics, you get information sites? This is because Google knows the difference between an ecommerce site and an information site, and ranks them according to what the searcher is actually looking for. This is Google’s job!
Information site SEO’s will often talk about keeping your keyword density really low as to avoid spamming Google (eg. if the keyword you’re trying to rank for is “how to make a vase”, you want to avoid having this phrase too many times throughout your copy). Sometimes they’ll even say you should keep it as low as less than 1-2%. If you do a keyword density check on most ecommerce sites though, you’ll find that many ecommerce pages that rank have keyword densities of over 30%! Why is this? Because ecommerce sites list lots of products, and the product titles are often very similar (eg. if you’re trying to rank for “vase” there’s a good chance that the word “vase” will be in every single one of your titles), and Google knows this. This is just one example of why Google might penalise a particular type of site for one element, while not penalise another type of site for the same problem.
This is just one more example of why you have to be very careful of where you get your SEO information from.
Why Start The Chapter About SEO So Negatively?
The reason we started the chapter this way is because it doesn’t really matter what we say about how to rank your site, at some point you’re going to get impatient and start looking for ways to speed up the process. I can’t stop you from doing that, and I’m not sure I would want to. It’s important that you don’t just follow everything we say to the letter. Jim Rohn says, “be a student, not a follower”. What I would love for you is to help you filter out the nonsense, and start becoming someone who can recognise what is sound advice, and what isn’t. So let’s go ahead and give you some sound advice.
White Hat vs Black Hat
When it comes to trying to rank your site in Google, you can go down two paths. These are called White Hat and Black Hat. The idea being that Black Hat SEO is where you try to fool Google into giving you higher rankings, and White Hat SEO is where you try to work according to Google’s guidelines to rank your site.
The danger with Black Hat is that Google will figure out what you’re doing, and then penalise your site into oblivion. The benefit is that you might be able to rank your site quicker than using White Hat techniques, and perhaps even outrank for reasonably competitive keywords, where your competition is trying to use White Hat only.
The danger with White Hat is that you can spend weeks, months, and years trying to rank your site in the way Google wants you to, only to find out that the niche you entered just isn’t that profitable. The benefit is that you don’t risk Google penalties, which can wipe out your business overnight.
We’ve used both Black Hat and White Hat techniques over the years, and have seen the benefits and drawbacks of both. My impatience led us to use a lot of Black Hat ideas early on (and so did some of the SEO companies that we hired – although we didn’t know the difference at that time), and that resulted in several Google “spankings”.
These days we are totally focused on White Hat, but I don’t regret learning a lot of Black Hat techniques, as they allowed us to find out exactly what Google is looking for in a backlink, which means we don’t waste time and money trying to get links that are of little to no value.
What’s A Backlink?
Whenever another site links to your site, it’s known as a backlink. It’s one of the main ways Google can tell whether or not to trust your site, and what your site might be about. If a spammy adult site links to your ecommerce site, Google might think twice about whether it can trust your site to rank it for “vases”, and even whether or not your site is about “vases” at all.
We look specifically for two kinds of links, based on what we believe are the only two factors that Google really cares about. Authority (trust) and relevance. In other words, can Google trust your site, and what is your site actually about.
Just because a website might not be totally relevant to our ecommerce niche, doesn’t mean we’ll ignore it completely. Some sites (like major newspaper websites) are very trusted by Google, but aren’t related to vases or even home décor. If we get a link on a site like this, it may not increase our relevancy, but it will definitely tell Google that we are a real, trustworthy site, because a major news site is unlikely to link to a site that can’t be trusted.
With a site like this, we would want it to have a Domain Authority of at least 35-40.
These are the ones that matter most. If you can get home décor blogs to link to your site in one of their articles about “Choosing the right vase for your entryway” or something similar, and it has a Domain Authority of at least 20, then that is really good. Obviously, if you can get a link that is both relevant and highly authoritative (eg. A home décor blog with a DA of 40+), then one or two great links like that in a low competition niche can be all you need. The other factor though, and the one that just might drive you insane, is time or age, which will discuss later in this chapter.
How To Approach Sites To Get A Backlink
Many of us who start online businesses do so because we don’t want to have to deal with people. Unfortunately, businesses are all about people, and this is also true for getting great backlinks for your sites. Looking back, I have to admit that I probably leaned more towards Black Hat link building techniques because I didn’t have to deal with other website owners. Once I started doing so however, and started getting results, then I kicked myself for not doing it sooner.
Let’s say (using our “vase” example) you find a great home décor niche. You find out that the site has a DA of 25, so it’s meets our relevant site criteria. Your next step is to look at their site, and see if you might be able to get a permanent, in-content link to your site (etch those words into your brain – permanent, in-content link). We immediately look for a blog or news feed, as these are almost always permanent articles that will get archived, which means you will always have a link to your site from this one. Have a look at their articles and see if they ever link to other sites, and what kind of articles they seem to prefer. Do they like helpful “how to” or “tips”? Do they like doing gift guides or product reviews? Knowing a bit about what they like to provide to their audience will give you the best idea of how to approach the site owner.
When you ask the site owner if you are able to offer your product for review/how-to/tips/gift guide, it’s often best to not discuss a link right away. Just open the conversation and ask them if there is any way that you can provide value to their audience. If there is, they’ll often come back with what they can offer you. Sometimes there is a cost involved (eg. Sponsored posts), or they may just want you to send them a product to look at. Sometimes you can offer a product as a prize that they can give away to their audience, or a discount for their readers. For the most part, you rarely actually ever need to ask for a link, although once a “deal” is close to being struck, it’s always best to confirm in an email that you will get a link to your site.
A quick word on sponsored posts. Paying for an article is not really what Google wants you to do to get a link. We are still okay with doing this though, so long as the article doesn’t have “Sponsored Post” plastered all over the article. If a site wants you to pay for the post, always ask for a sample sponsored post that they have done previously. If it just looks like every other article, then that’s fine, but if it mentions “Sponsored Post” or something similar, we’ll avoid it like the plague.
Getting More “Backlink For Your Buck”
If you have found a great backlink opportunity, that has high authority, or a great relevant backlink opportunity and you have multiple niche sites in the same broad category, it makes sense to try to get more than one link from the same site. Instead of scaring away the site owner with a barrage of sites, we prefer to negotiate for the one site first, and then once that is confirmed, we’ll let them know about the other sites we have, and try to negotiate a cheaper price per link (if there is money involved). This has worked quite well in the past for us, and has reduced the cost of link building.
Guest posting is where you find a site that will let you write an article and submit it, with a link back to your site. We’re not a big fan of this, and Google has publicly stated that they aren’t either (although I’m not sure we can always trust what Google says). We don’t guest post, and whenever we secure a post on someone else’s blog, it’s always written by them, in their voice, for their audience.
Time / Age
This factor seems to have changed and then changed again over all of the years that we have been ranking ecommerce websites, but over the last year or two, it seems to be back with a vengeance. It basically means that no matter what amazing links you get to your site early on, you may find it difficult to rank your site to a high position quickly, or it may rank quickly, but then drop again just as quickly.
We’ve had test sites that we have left with just one or two backlinks, and have been amazed when a year or two later they are ranking really well, with no content added or anything else changed. Some people call it the “Sandbox”, where a brand new site might start with some kind of “low trust” penalty, which Google gradually scales back over time, but it’s really hard to know the truth of the matter. I know some of you may be thinking that news articles and other forms of information can rank very quickly, but we are talking specifically about niche ecommerce stores here.
Where’s The Secret Sauce?
Whenever someone has trouble ranking in Google for something, there is a tendency to look for the secret magic pill that will help them rank above their competition. Partially because in the past there really were some fairly simple and easy strategies to do so. Even now, there are still a few black hat ways to get your site moving, but compared to even just a couple of years ago, those ways are few and far between. Even for those that actually do still work, many will ultimately result in your site getting spanked.
Before you accuse me of being a Google “shill”, please understand that I used and had no problem using black hat techniques in the past, but you end up constantly chasing the new “strategy”, and it just gets tiring after a while. We now take a much longer view of our businesses, and there’s no place for black hat. We still have a couple of old black hat links to some of our earlier sites, but as we get more and more white hat links, we take down the old black hat links. If you must go down the black hat path, then at least make sure you control every black hat link, so that you can remove them easily in future.
More and more, SEO is becoming more about Public Relations (PR) than trying to game Google. I still occasionally look for SEO companies that might be able to help us, but it’s very rare to find one that actually knows what they’re doing (particularly when it comes to offsite SEO like getting useful backlinks), and we’ve found it’s best that you take control of it yourself. Learn how to get those white hat links (keeping DA, relevance and permanence in mind), and then systemise and outsource it to someone that you’ve trained. It’s cheaper, and you’ll be far more successful.
Remember too that getting great rankings and traffic from Google is a combination of a great many factors, right down to your choice of product. If a new marketing company wants to be successful, they don’t try to start taking on Coca Cola. They want instead to find small companies in niche markets that don’t have ridiculous competition that they can help. In many ways, you are that new marketing company, and much of your success will be determined by where you start. If you start with a medium or high competition keyword to rank for, you will almost certainly fail to rank, and potentially burn out along the way. By starting with a low competition niche, and learning and honing your skills along the way, you will start gaining not only the skills to take on harder projects, but also the confidence, and the ability to work on a project for a long time before needing to see any results.
Tess and I always plan about two years in advance for our businesses. Even if we are busy with current niches, we’ll occasionally try to picture where we might be in a couple of years, and if we think we’ll have the “brain space” free in two years time, then we’ll start a few niches now, get one or two backlinks, and then essentially forget about them for eighteen months. Then, when we’re ready, we’ll focus on those sites, and they tend to be a lot easier to start ranking. SEO is about the long term, which is why so many people give up on it, and why there is still so much opportunity.
The following article is an excerpt from the book “Ecommerce Uncovered” by Nathan & Tessa Hartnett.
So now that you have received your initial product range, and you are happy with it, it’s time to start building your store and getting your products online. While “showing” you how to build an ecommerce store is beyond the scope of this book, we will discuss the best platforms to use, and the benefits and drawbacks of each option. The first issue we have to tackle is whether or not you think you can actually do this.
Building an ecommerce store when we first started was a bit of a nightmare for those of us with no coding experience. So much has changed since then though, that you just don’t need to worry so much any more. Any fear you might have about being able to launch an online store is simply fear of the unknown. I simply haven’t met anybody who isn’t capable of doing it these days. Platforms are cheap and mature, outsourcing opportunities are plentiful, and getting your basic store up and running can be done quite quickly. Let’s discuss your best options for getting started.
A Hosted Solution
Hosted solutions like Shopify and Bigcommerce (the two best options in this space) pretty much take care of just about everything for you, and are quite inexpensive. They are an excellent option, and are probably the most common platforms in use today. You can sign up on their website, and they will help guide you through the process of selecting a theme and getting your basic store going. Your initial store will be far from perfect, but these solutions do a good job of taking care of basic on-site search engine optimisation principles, as well as making your site work on a variety of platforms like PCs, Macs, smartphones, and tablets.
Some of the drawbacks to these solutions are the ongoing costs (they often take a percentage of your sales as well as a fixed cost), and their lack of flexibility if you want to make some specific customisations down the road.
WordPress + Woocommerce
WordPress is the world’s most popular content management system. It was never designed for ecommerce as such, but a plugin for it called Woocommerce turns it into a fully fledged option for ecommerce. WordPress is free, and so is Woocommerce. This is the solution that we use, but it does require a bit more learning than a hosted solution.
I will clarify that neither Tess nor I know any coding or html, and that has not been a problem at all. Learning how to build a Woocommerce store is more about learning which plugins you need to do the job, and installing them and setting them up. It is a bit of the “wild west” however, so it can take time and effort to learn how best to setup your store. Other drawbacks include the fact that sometimes when you upgrade one plugin, it will “break” another, or if you upgrade your WordPress installation, it can “break” everything! Once you have your “setup” though, you can run your store without too many hassles.
The benefits of using this setup are quite numerous. Firstly, there are no ongoing costs other than your hosting, which can be very cheap (much cheaper than hosted solutions), and you can even start multiple sites on one shared hosting setup. As you find your niches that are going to be the “winners”, you can then split them off onto their own hosting if you like, but initially you could start in ten different niches with a monthly cost of $5-10, whereas if you tried this with a hosted solution this might cost you close to $300 per month! For us, the hosted solution was simply too expensive, and the temptation would be too great to start in only one niche. This was the main reason we tried Woocommerce to start with, and once we learned what we needed to, have found no reason to move away from it.
Warning: Most hosted solutions like Shopify and Bigcommerce have excellent affiliate programs. What this means is that if we did a Shopify review on our site EcommerceUncovered.com, and you clicked on our Shopify link, we would actually get a kick back. As at the time of writing, this could be up to $2400 for a single click depending on what plan you sign up for!
While there is nothing inherently wrong with this as a form of marketing, please remember that Woocommerce is free, and therefore there are no kickbacks for recommending it. When you hear so many people online recommending Shopify over Woocommerce, it’s important to remember that they might not be doing it because they believe it’s true, but because they can make a lot of money making you believe that it’s true.
What Should Your Site Look Like?
So you’re not a web designer and your not a graphic designer. That’ no problem. In fact, those with a creative, graphic design or web design background can actually have more problems than the rest of us, as they tend to care more about the technical or “prettiness” of the site instead of the customer experience.
Figuring out what your site should look like is as simple as finding the best sites in your niche (or similar niches – you can go broad here) and following what they do. While we don’t sell shoes, we love monitoring what sites like Zappos.com do for the following reasons.
Firstly, these guys spend millions of dollars doing tests and split tests to determine where best to put images, photos and reviews. We don’t have that kind of budget, so we’re happy to piggyback off theirs.
Secondly, these big guys are “training” your customers. They are training customers where to look for a search bar, where to find categories, or where to find a contact link or reviews. You’ll probably never have the traffic that a site like Zappos gets, but when their customers shop at your store – make it easy for them.
If you do outsource some graphic design or your store setup, point your designers to the big traffic sites that you like and remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! This might sound like a simplistic approach to designing your set, but it has worked for us and many others. Go with what works, and try not to be clever.
Simple though it may be to get ideas from highly converting niche ecommerce sites, it’s not always easy to accomplish. You need to find a theme that will allow you to get as close as you can to the layout you like, and often further manipulation may be required to get it 100% right. At this point, 80% is what we’re aiming for, and once the site is converting, you’ll feel better about outsourcing and investing a bit more in getting your site perfect. Having said that, there are certain elements and pages you will definitely want from the get-go.
About Us Page
You might be surprised at just how many people will go to your About Us page. That’s why it’s important to use it as a conversion tool. Make sure you tell people about your business, why it exists, and how you can help them in a way that your competition can’t.
People do worry about how their information will be used. While there are plenty of “canned” Privacy Policies out there, make sure that they are accurate to your site. Let your customers know that their email addresses won’t be shared or sold, and that you use adequate security practises to ensure that their personal information and payment details are also secure.
Shipping & Payment
Another key page, this is where you simply and clearly explain shipping costs and times, as well as payment options. There’s nothing worse for a customer than not being able to quickly figure out what their shipping costs will be.
Exchanges & Returns
“What will happen if the product I buy isn’t what I wanted, or is defective?”
This is a question often asked by online shoppers in particular, as they are not able to see and touch the item before they buy it. Having a clear exchanges and returns policy can save both you and your customers a lot of headaches in future.
Sitemaps are a way for search engines to easily find every page on your site that you want them to. There are two types:
XML Sitemap – an XML sitemap is a file on your webhost that tells search engines everything they need to know about how to crawl your site. Most ecommerce platforms will generate this for you, and as an extra precaution, you can submit it to Google through Webmaster Tools.
HTML Sitemap – A little more “old-school”, the HTML Sitemap is just a page on your site that lists every other page on your site. It’s debatable whether or not you need this page an addition to an XML Sitemap, but we do anyway, as it can also be useful to your customers.
Breadcrumbs are the links that are normally found near the top of a webpage, that show where you are on the site. For example, on an ecommerce site, you might see something like this:
Home > Blue Vases > Gorgeous Blue Antique Vase
In this example, it shows that the user is on the product page for “Gorgeous Blue Antique Vase”, which is in the category “Blue Vases”. These are clickable as well, so the user can not only see where they are on the site, but can also easily return to the category page or the home page. Breadcrumbs are not only necessary for a great user experience, but also help the search engines find their way around easily as well.
Customers clearly need a way to contact you if necessary, although this should be as a last resort. You have multiple options here, from toll free phone numbers, email contact forms, live chat and more. At the very least you need an email address that they can contact you on, and we like to have a phone number here as well (although we find ways to reduce the number of people who use the number by labelling it “Head Office”).
The reality is, most people probably don’t want to call you, which is why we try to answer all of their questions through the use of a…
Frequently asked questions are the best way to reduce the amount of customer contact you need to be involved with (which becomes even more important once you are hiring someone to do your customer support). In the early days of a niche, Tess always does customer support for a while before handing the niche over to our customer support team. She does this so that she can find out and answer the most common questions, and then formulate a comprehensive FAQ page. This reduces the number of questions (and therefore hours worked and mistakes made), and provides a better customer experience, as customers no longer have to wait to find out the answers to their questions. This can also then improve your conversion rate, as customers don’t have as much time to go “cold” in the sales funnel.
Important? You bet!
Educating your customers about your product is one of the best ways to establish yourself as an authority on the subject. Writing great, long, in-depth articles about a variety of aspects (how to use your product, “things you should know” articles, what customers should be careful with regarding your product etc.) of your products is great for your customers, great for Google, and great for social media. It’s also a fantastic way to differentiate yourself from large online malls like eBay and Amazon.
Up-selling a customer is where they came to buy a $100 product, but walk away with a $200 product instead. For an ecommerce store, there are a few places to do this, but we like advertising similar products on each product page.
Cross-selling on the other hand is where you are trying to convince your customers to buy additional products – not just what they came to buy. For example, if you’re at the supermarket checkout, you might see a range of chocolates on your way out. The supermarket wants you to add a chocolate to your cart, even though that might not be what you came for.
For us, we do this on the add-to-cart page in particular. We like having additional cheaper ancillary products that users can easily add to their cart tat complements our primary product range.
“Video is the new black”, and one way you can instantly gain an advantage over your competition is to include a video for your products. By getting a turntable, you can use most cameras these days to get a 360 degree view of your product. Upload this to youtube with a link back to the product on your site, and also embed the video on the product page for your customers to view.
Additionally, if you want to go one step further, add a sales video. This is where you have someone in the video with each product, explaining the benefits of that specific product.
Sign-up in Checkout
Getting your customers’ email addresses is always a good idea. Using emails to bring customers back is better in some niches than others, but building a list is a good idea for every niche. Adding an option in checkout to add to an email list (we use Mail Chimp) is a no-brainer.
Review Email Reminder
Not everyone will tick the sign up box, so it’s important to make sure that every customer receives an automated email a week or so after they should have received the product. This follow up email shows that you care, allows you to pro-actively address any problems, and most importantly, ask for a review. This has been our number one way of getting product reviews.
Abandoned Cart Emails
Many customers will add an item to their cart, but for a variety of reasons will never go through with the purchase. Most ecommerce platforms will allow you to set them up so that when a customer does this, so long as they entered their email in checkout (even if they don’t complete anything else in checkout), they will receive an email from you a short time later. We normally include an automatically generated 5% discount to entice them to complete their order, but you could also experiment with each of your niches to see what might work best.
Trusted Brand Icons
You might have noticed that on other ecommerce sites they have seals. Norton, Verisign, Trustguard and others are “confidence building” icons that really don’t do much other inspire confidence in your visitors. They can also be quite expensive. We haven’t really found them to be that useful. When you add SSL security to your site, it will often be with a company (like Comodo SSL) who can provide you with a seal that you can use that will usually have the same effect.
We also like to use other trusted brand icons like PayPal, VISA, Mastercard, shipping company logos (Fedex, DHL etc.) and any other brand logo that will inspire confidence and trust.
Multiple Payment Options
Not everyone wants to use PayPal, and with easy options like Stripe now available, there’s no reason not to offer other options.
Multiple Shipping Options
Fast shipping, slow shipping, international shipping, free shipping. While it’s important to not overwhelm customers, giving them options also helps them achieve what they are looking for. We recommend flat rate options where possible, and a free shipping option (eg. free shipping for orders over $100).
Depending on what niche your in, your products might have a wide variety of options. Colour, size, length, width, weight etc.
When a customer is looking through all of your products, it’s great to give them an easy way to filter out all of the options that are clearly unsuitable. If they are only looking for your product in “Large”, then using filtering, they can click on the large size option, and remove every product from your catalogue that is not available in large.
Why is this important? In traditional offline retail, it has been proven that when faced with too much choice, customers will often make no choice at all. Being online, we are able to provide a huge range of choices, but through filtering, prevent customer overwhelm.
Bonuses/USPs Above/Below Add-to-cart Button
The “Add To Cart” button on a product page is often where a customer’s eye is drawn to when looking at a product. Because of this, it’s good to remind them of why they should go through with the purchase from your store. Free shipping? Easy Exchanges? Best Quality? Let them know!
If you want Google to rank your site, it needs to know exactly what your site is about, and exactly what each page is about. The guys at Google are very clever, but ultimately they still need some help from us to help them give their customers the most relevant results. SEO is often played up to be some form of magic that only expensive SEO companies have the power to wield, but we can give you some great pointers. That have worked very well for us over the long term.
When you visit a webpage, you’ll notice the title of the page in the title bar of your browser. Titles are the single most important on page SEO factor in our opinion, and you want to get them right. With your home page, the title needs to focus on your primary and secondary keywords. If your primary keyword was “Vase”, and your secondary keyword was “Vases”, you might consider the homepage title, “Vases by Vase Kingdom”.
Your category page titles are also extremely important, as you want your category pages to rank well. This is why we break down our categories into colours where possible. This allows us to rank categories for “Blue Vases” and other colours. Some websites allow the user to choose their colour on the product information page, but we recommend making sure that you have colour categories.
As for your products, the website solution you use will usually take the name you give each product and use it as the title. There’s no problem with this, so long as you write your product titles with this in mind. We have a system of using at least three words in each title, including an appropriate keyword. For example, “Stunning Blue Vase”. Whenever possible use colours or sizes, as this will help your products show up in Google for these “long tail” keywords.
Meta descriptions are bits of code that go into each page of your site that Google can use as the snippet you see in the search results for each page. While not necessarily super important from an SEO perspective, they are vital to help get searchers to actually click through to your site. Again, most website solutions will take the products’ descriptions and use them as the meta description. This is fine, but make sure that you carefully craft your homepage and category descriptions, as this will be where most of your traffic comes through.
Using one of the platforms we’ve suggested will normally take care of this issue, but some ecommerce platforms in the past would give you a product URL that looked something like this: “http://www.vasekingdom.com/=?34”. This doesn’t help tell Google what this page is about. If your URLs look like this, then you definitely need to change it so that they look more like this: “http://www.vasekingdom.com/stunning-blue-vase/”.
Ecommerce sites are usually pretty image heavy, and you can use these images to help Google. Make sure that the image files you use tell a story about the image itself. For example, use stunning-blue-vase.jpg for the aforementioned product photo instead of a random filename. Also, use a similar phrase in the photo’s “alt” tag. Look for this option when uploading the photo into your product description.
This is the “meat and potatoes” of your product pages, and needs to be written for your customer first, and Google second. It should include your product’s keywords once throughout the copy. Don’t use it more than once, as it isn’t necessary, and could cause you problems in future.
Your homepage is extremely important from an SEO perspective, as well as from a customer perspective. You need to find a balance between the two. Our vote is to make sure that the customer can easily find their way to the products that they are looking for using big, clear banner images that attract the eye, and help guide customers quickly to their desired category and product. Further down the page, we do a few things that help Google.
Firstly, we like to have a strong, bold title that says something like “Latest Vases”, with usually a scrolling display of your latest products underneath. This text should be using header tags like H1, H2, or H3 tages. This is a strong signal to Google what the page is about. Underneath this product display, we always include a paragraph welcoming the customer to your site that goes a little like this:
“Welcome To Vase Kingdom!
We know it’s not always easy to find the perfect vase for your home, which is why we have dedicated ourselves to finding the largest range of quality vases in the U.S. With fast, free shipping within the Continental U.S., you can be assured of getting a great quality vase that suits your needs perfectly.”
After this, we like to include our latest customer reviews. Of course, you can’t actually do this until you have some, but once you do, it’s a way of customers continually updating your homepage for you, with fresh, new content. Google also happens to love reviews as well, as do your customers, so this one is a no-brainer.
Taking your product photos isn’t always easy, depending on your particular niches. While most recent cameras can do a pretty good job, the problem is getting the right lighting. We used our own light boxes initially (we followed product photography tutorials online), but then found a photographer who would do our photos for about $2 each, which was a bargain, and we’ve never looked back. Look for student photographers who are looking to build a portfolio, as they often have the skill, and the equipment, and can save you a lot of headaches!
As you can see, on-site SEO takes a bit of organising, and is vitally important, but can be done by anybody with a little bit of guidance (that’s what we’re here for!). As soon as someone hears the term SEO they sometimes shut down a bit, but SEO is a core part of our model, so you must take the time to be a “student of the craft”.
This is an excerpt from the book “Ecommerce Uncovered” by Nathan and Tessa Hartnett.
Your First Order
So you’ve found a niche, and are ready to get started with your first range of products. This is where “the rubber meets the road”, and we start moving from theory to practice. You might be getting excited, or you might start to feel the nerves start to kick in as you have to pull your wallet out and start handing over your hard earned money to complete strangers who may or may not be on the other side of the world. What if they rip you off? What if they send you poor quality products? While we can’t guarantee you a perfectly smooth experience, we can certainly help grease the wheels a little.
How Many Products?
As mentioned, it’s really important to spend as little as you can to get your initial range. You might have heard the term “minimum viable product” before, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for here. Just enough products to compete, in as small a quantity per unit as possible. We call this going as wide as you need to and as shallow as you can.
We’ve always found it helpful to have at least a few more product listings on your site than your competitors. If your top competitor on page one for your primary keyword has 30 product listings on their site, then you should have 40. If they have 3, you should have 6. If they have 100, you should have 120 and so on.
Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ)
If you determine that you need 120 different product listings, you should try to get 120 products in only one piece per stock keeping unit (SKU). For example, if you’re selling t-shirts, and you need 120 different designs (or SKUs), try to get just one t-shirt in each different design. This will help you achieve the number of products you need to, while spending as little as possible.
This sounds easy (even if you don’t quite understand it all just yet), but it can be quite difficult in practice. Suppliers hate “one piece per design” orders, and will fight tooth and nail to make you order more. When we first started, we had suppliers tell us that they couldn’t possibly go lower than 50 pieces per design, per size! We thought we were awesome negotiators when we got them down to 30 pieces per design per size. We now get the same products as low as 1 piece per design per size. So how did we do it?
First of all, you have to ask. For many suppliers (particularly those in Asia), negotiating is a game. If they convince you to buy more than you need, it’s not seen as ripping you off, they just played the game better than you did. It’s really important to see it in a similar way – never get upset or angry.
One of the first ways to get started is to ask for a sample range. Suppliers are used to new customers asking for a sample, and they will react to your question in a variety of ways. First, if you can prove some credibility (through already having established businesses or references), they may be happy to send you a free sample, although this is getting much rarer (and doesn’t help if you’re just getting started).
They might ask you to pay a sample fee. This is where they ask you to add an amount (eg $150) to the sample order, which they will credit you when you do your first order. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. How do you know you’re going to make a first order? That’s the point of the sample! Needless to say, we always politely explain this to the supplier, and never pay a sample fee.
Sometimes they might ask you to pay more for each item, as they have to produce the samples in small quantities, which increases their costs. This is a legitimate concern for them (usually they are a small business just like you), and we are happy to pay this (within reason). In fact, if they tell us that they don’t offer samples, we often will offer to pay them extra per item if they’ll lower the quantity and do the sample. This has worked a lot for us, and came from our first trip to China.
When we first visited our suppliers in China, I was trying to negotiate our quantities down with our very polite sales girl (who was the only one that spoke English). She went to great lengths to explain why they just couldn’t lower the quantities down as far as we wanted them to. At the time, we were paying them $10 per item, and selling the same item in Australia for $100. Out of desperation, I asked them if they couldn’t lower the quantities if we paid them 30% more per item ($13 instead of $10). She looked at me like I was crazy, and then said that of course they would. To them, that 30% was such a big price increase, that they never would have offered it. To us, it barely made a dent in our profit margins, yet the amount of capital we would need to expand our range dropped by a huge amount.
Another way to try to reduce the quantity is to ask if they have any overstock items. Often suppliers will produce more than they need to for other customers, and end up with “left overs” that sit on their floor, taking up space. Why not relieve them of it?
You can also ask them if they have other customers’ orders in production, and see if you can add to their run. That way they are still producing the large quantities that they want to, but you can “skim off the top”.
While all of these tools can help, the single most successful method is simply to offer them more money per item. It’s always tempting to pay $5 per widget because it feels like you’re getting a bargain, even if it means you have to spend $20,000 to get the quantity needed to get that low price. The truth is though, there are times where paying $20 per widget makes a lot more sense (if it means you only have to spend $1000 in total) – especially when you still haven’t “proven the niche” yet. There are garages out there that are full of products that people couldn’t sell, because they didn’t take their time and prove the model first. This is not only costly from a monetary perspective, but these people often get “trapped” by this product, and don’t want to start another venture until they sell off the old mistakes that are sitting there gathering dust. This can result in the old, “I tried starting a business once, but it just didn’t work out” speech. Don’t be that person! You are still in the test phase, so don’t mortgage the house just to get it started.
Where to Buy
If you’ve found a local supplier that can give you what you need, all the better. Depending on the product and where you live though, this might be easier said than done. Much has been said about China becoming the factory of the world, but regardless of your opinion on whether or not this is a good or bad thing, it is reality. We now have suppliers all over the world (Australia, China, U.S., Albania, Cambodia), but all of our initial ranges have come from China. It’s just easier to find and source anything you could possibly think of at a good price, so that you can test your niche and test the market. Once you have proven your niche with a few sales, you then have more room to move and find a local supplier should you so desire.
Buying from China might seem daunting to someone just getting started, and it’s not a bad idea to be cautious. There are many suppliers who are more than happy to rip you off in every way imaginable, and we’ve seen it time and time again. What we’re going to show you now is how we protect ourselves 100% from being ripped off.
When it comes to sourcing our initial ranges, Aliexpress.com is our first port-of-call. A part of the Alibaba group, Aliexpress is where many Chinese suppliers go to sell their overruns. It’s a great way to find suppliers who are already open to the idea of lower quantities, and also has a great added bonus.
Whenever you buy something through Alixpress, your payment goes into an escrow account, which means that Aliexpress holds onto the payment until you receive the goods. This means that you can receive and inspect the goods before the supplier receives your money. If you’re happy with what you’ve received, then you can release the payment to the supplier, and if not, you can open a dispute.
As I’m sure you can see, this means that suppliers have a great incentive to make sure that they provide you with the right goods, with a great level of quality. I would love to say that all suppliers will do this, but unfortunately that’s still not the case. At least with the escrow as a fallback, this method gives you the opportunity to either get your money back, or force the supplier to resend goods. We’ll talk a bit more about opening disputes and how to win them a bit later.
One of the drawbacks to Aliexpress is that you won’t always find exactly what you’re looking for, as the range is a lot more limited than its big brother Alibaba.com. We’d always recommend starting here first though, and then moving to Alibaba if you just can’t find what you’re looking for.
Back when we started, this was one of the only options for finding an enormous range of overseas suppliers, and sometimes it’s still the only option (depending on your niche). While you can find pretty much every product in existence there, you will have to work a bit harder to find someone who will give you the quantities you need. It’s simply a matter of searching for your product and then starting to contact suppliers one by one until you find someone you can work with. Be very careful with how you pay them though, as there is no built in protection here, and how you pay them will determine whether or not you get ripped off. We’ll discuss payment options a bit later in this chapter.
Etsy, eBay, Amazon, local markets… there are almost endless places to find your initial range. The main reason we prefer going straight to the manufacturer (or a distributor) is because you can start building a relationship with them that will grow well into the future. Having said that, if you have negotiated your butt off with every supplier you can, and they just will not give you the super low quantities you need just to test the niche, then buying “retail” from a marketplace is perfectly fine. We’ve certainly done this before just to get the niche started.
Once you then know that the niche will work for you, and which products are going to be your best sellers, it’s then easier to go and order (slightly) larger quantities (never stop negotiating though!). You might not even make any money off your initial range, but you’ll know what your manufacturer’s price is, and be able to calculate your gross profit based on those figures as opposed to the retail price you paid for your initial stock.
How you pay is often the determining factor as to what protection you may or may not have. Our favourite method of payment is through Aliexpress, because of the escrow service they provide. Alibaba.com also provides an escrow service, but you’ll have to pay for it. We’ve been able to occasionally convince Alibaba suppliers to list the product that we are buying on Aliexpress so that we can still get the benefits of the escrow service. Sometimes they ask us to pay for the escrow fee (which we’ll do), and sometimes we “get away with it”.
You would think that with the escrow system suppliers would make sure that they give you the right product every time, but unfortunately that’s not the way it works initially. Many suppliers will often test you on the first couple of orders to see whether or not they can get away with giving you 10-20% crap. Try not to take it personally. They might even send you some of the goods that they are having trouble moving instead of what you actually ordered, and then try to convince you that “it’s okay, you’ll be able to sell it”. This is where you need to smile, but carry a big stick. Either they’ll train you, and you’ll train them. However you handle this at the start will determine how your relationship will continue.
It doesn’t matter what reason they give, we only accept 100% of what we ordered, both with the items we receive and their quality. Even if it’s a small quality issue, if you think your customers would be unhappy with paying full price because of the quality issue, then you need to raise the problem. Always contact the supplier and give them a chance to fix the issue before opening a dispute. They could still be a great supplier for your business over the long term, so don’t wreck the relationship just yet, but don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.
Explain to the supplier that they did not send you what you ordered and send them photos of all the problem items. You ordered and paid for these particular items with the clear understanding that they would be of saleable quality. Explain that you cannot sell what they have sent, and they need to refund you for those items, or send replacements, at their own cost. It was their mistake, and you should not have to pay a penny more for them to fix it. At this point they might apologise and start trying to make excuses, or try to negotiate a solution that involves you accepting less than what you ordered, or paying to fix the problem. Just remember, you did your negotiating before the sale, this is not the time to negotiate.
Another tactic they might try is to delay you. They know that after 45 days you can no longer open a dispute. If they can delay the issue for that long, they will. Make sure you set a reminder a few days before your dispute window closes so that you don’t get caught out, and if you get within a few days out from that day, warn them that you will open a dispute within 24 hours if they don’t fix the problem to your satisfaction, and then make sure you do so if required.
Once you’ve opened a dispute, you’ll find that suppliers will now do anything they can to convince you to close it. Once you close it though, you can’t reopen it, so never close a dispute until you have the 100% correct product in your hands, at the right level of quality.
So why go through this process? What’s wrong with only 10% of the goods being unsaleable? What you are doing here is training your supplier, and it will go one of two ways. Picture the following.
It’s the packing and shipping part of your supplier’s warehouse, and they are packing your order. The boss walks over to check on his employees, and says, “Hey, we’ve got a few products that didn’t quite pass quality assurance. Whose order are you packing?” To which the employee responds, “This order is for (insert your name here).”
“Great!” says the boss, “Those guys never complain too hard when we send them 10% crap, so let’s send them these dregs.”
The boss walks over to check on his employees and says, “Hey, we’ve got a few products that didn’t quite pass quality assurance. Whose order are you packing?” To which the employee responds, “This order is for (insert your name here).”
“Hmmmm.” says the boss, “that’s a shame. If we send them the dregs, they will be a pain in the butt until they get their money back. Alright, don’t send the bad product to them – whose next on the shipping list?”
So which scenario do you want to be a part of? Some might be tempted to read this and decide that they just don’t want to deal with a supplier that treats them this way, and that might be fair enough – if you have lots of alternatives. For us, we’ve done this enough times to realise that once the supplier learns what you will and won’t accept, then you can actually have a great relationship for many years to come. Play the game, don’t settle, and keep smiling. We have never lost a dispute on Aliexpress, because we have a process, and expect it to happen when using a new supplier for the first time.
So what do you do if you can’t use Aliexpress?
Our next favourite payment option is PayPal. If you’ve ever been an eBay seller before you’ll know only too well how it feels to be on the seller’s end of a PayPal dispute. PayPal always favour the buyer, not the seller, and the seller is usually guilty until proven innocent. So why not use this to your advantage?
If we can’t use Aliexpress, then we’ll use PayPal for this very reason. The dispute process isn’t as easy to win as with Aliexpress, but we still have won every dispute so far. The key in any dispute is to make sure that you contact the supplier quickly with photo proof, and then open the dispute in a timely manner. Like Aliexpress disputes, sellers hate it when you open a dispute, and will generally do whatever they can to get it closed. Stick to your guns, and don’t settle for less than what you ordered.
Other Payment Options
Other payment options include credit cards (you can open a dispute through your credit card company – but normally this is for unauthorised charges, and technically you did authorise the charge). Telegraphic Transfer (T/T) is good for larger payments, but you have very little in the way of options should they send you bad product. Generally we’d say only use this once you have an established relationship with a good supplier.
Finally there’s western union, which is extremely risky. You would only ever use this option if you had no other choice, and you are happy to kiss the money goodbye should the supplier not come through.