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.

Privacy Policy

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

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

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.

Contact Us

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…

FAQ

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!

Information Pages

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-Sells

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-Sells

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.

Product Videos

“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).

Product Filters

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!

On-Site SEO

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.

Titles

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”.

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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

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.

URLs

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/”.

Images/Photos

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.

Product Descriptions

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.

Homepage Content

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.

Product Photos

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!

Summing Up

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”.

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