You've decided which of the four eCommerce scenarios you want to use. You've chosen an eCommerce vendor, and picked someone to design your store. So, you're all set, right?
Not so fast! Having an online store is only the beginning. You still have a lot of work to do if you want a successful eCommerce business. In this installment of our series, we'll look at some other factors you need to consider.
1. Will they find you?
How will potential customers find your online store? If you generate most of your business from an associated website, newsletters, bulk email, affiliate links or some other source that you control, then you might not have to worry much about this aspect.
But many online stores get substantial traffic from search engines. If you'd like your store to be one of those, then you need to worry about Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
The key is to keep in mind how search engines work. Their goal is to provide a list of links that are the best possible match for the query a searcher enters. To do this, they scan websites (including yours), analyze the content they find for keywords and assign a page rank.
Suppose someone enters a search for "blue widgets". Then, from the perspective of a search engine, web pages that have the phrase "blue widgets" on them are candidates for the search listing, while pages that don't have that phrase are not.
So, when you're writing the product pages for your store, you need to make sure that search engines will find the keywords people are likely to use when searching for those products. And, it's not just page content. To a lesser extent, search engines also take into account the HTML <title> of the page and even the URL.
But don't go overboard on keywords. The main purpose of product pages is still to sell products, so the primary audience still needs to be your prospective customer.
Once a a search engine has identified all of the pages that might fit a particular query (and there can easily be hundreds of thousands or even millions of such pages), it needs to decide which of them to show on the first page of results, which to show on the second page and so forth. To do this, it assigns each page a Page Rank based on how likely it is that that page would be what the searcher is looking for.
As you might imagine, the process of assigning Page Rank is extremely complex, and the major search engines have teams of scientists constantly working to make their process better.
The exact calculation of Page Rank is a closely guarded secret, but we do know quite a few of the factors that are important. Based on what we know, we can suggest some general guidelines.
- You need content. Search engines try to look at your pages as a person would. If you have a page that simply has "Blue Widget - $25", then a search engine is not going to value that page nearly has highly as someone else's page that has a detailed description of the Blue Widget, instructions on using Blue Widgets, etc.
- Unique content is more valuable. If your content about Blue Widgets is the same as everyone else's, then a search engine has no reason to prefer your page. This happens frequently when a site simply copies the manufacturer's description of a product for their own product page. Don't do this—write your own product description and add value.
- Avoid duplicate content. When someone searches for "Widget", they want links to lots of different content, not links to a bunch of pages that are minor variations on one another. Not only are such pages not useful for searchers, they are a tactic used by unscrupulous websites that hope to artificially inflate their Page Rank. For this reason, search engines will downgrade sites with a lot of duplication. Take care to make each page unique. For example, if you have a "Blue Widget" page and a "Red Widget" page, try not to make them simply the same content with different titles.
- Watch out for less obvious duplication. For example, suppose that you use product category as part of product URLs. If you have a product in multiple categories, you now have multiple URLs pointing at the same page. Duplicate content! Try to avoid such situations. If you can't avoid duplication, use the canonical URL link tag in the page header.
Keep On Top of It
Optimizing your site for SEO is not a one-time effort. Over time, changes will inevitably introduce problems if you don't keep on top of them. When you add a new product, you need to apply the above techniques to the new product page. If you change a product name, you need to either keep the URL the same or take steps to make sure search engines know what's going on. If you delete a product, you need to make sure it's URL gets redirected to a valid landing page.
Beyond the Basics
SEO is a big topic, so we've only hit the high points here. Perhaps I'll expand on this subject in future posts if there's interest. If you want a more detailed list, this post by Everett Sizemore is a good place to start.
If you don't understand the above or don't know how to optimize for SEO, then I recommend that you hire someone who does.
2. Can they find what they're looking for?
Although SEO is important, people will not always link directly to your product page. It's important that visitors are able to quickly and easily find what they're looking for on your site. Otherwise, they'll give up and go somewhere else.
Some specific recommendations are:
- Simple, intuitive navigation. Your site navigation should be easy to find. It should be organized so that the visitor will know immediately what to do next. For example, on a site with a lot of different products, being able to drill down by category, then subcategory, can be a good navigation strategy.
- Design for your customer, not yourself. Don't use obscure internal or industry terms for products, categories or other aspects of a site. Design your store based on how customers think.
- Good site search. Unless you have only a handful of products, customers will want to be able to search for what they're interested in. Make sure they can.
- Consider putting bestsellers up front. It's likely that a small percentage of your products account for the bulk of your sales. Why not sort your product listing so that the most popular products display first, or add a "bestsellers" section to your home page or product category pages. That way, the customer might not need to navigate at all.
3. Effectively market your product
So, a prospective customer has found your store and navigated to a product they're interested in. You still need to convert them from a visitor to a buyer.
The product page is where your visitors will spend the most time, so that should be the focus of your efforts.
- Don't let design overwhelm the products. You might have a website design that makes your visitors say "wow", but if it distracts them or makes it harder for them to find the information they need, then it's a liability. Make sure that your product pages focus on what the customer is looking for.
- Sufficient detail, but organized. When shopping, most people want product details. If you don't provide those details, they may very well look elsewhere. On the other hand, visitors differ in the level of detail they want or can interpret. You need to be intelligent about how you organize that information so that every visitor gets what they need to make a buying decision.
- Pictures. People like to see what they're getting, so provide lots of pictures. Show the product from a number of different angles. Provide a way for them to get big, high resolution versions of the pictures so they can see details.
- Market related products. If there are obvious relationships between products, make sure that you bring this to the buyer's attention. Maybe they didn't think of the connection. Amazon is a master of this.
- Have a clear-cut "call-to-action". Make the "Add to Cart" button big and obvious. If appropriate, have more than one such button on the page. You don't want the visitor to have to hunt around in order to buy your product.
4. Minimize shopping cart abandonment
The visitor likes what you have to offer, and adds it to their cart. Be careful, because you haven't made a sale yet. The sad fact is that more shoppers will abandon their carts than will complete the buying process.
Some of the reasons for shopping cart abandonment have nothing to do with how good a job you do on your online store. For example, in most surveys the number one reason given for an abandoned cart is that shipping and handling costs are too high.
You may or may not be able to do something about these other factors, but you should at least optimize your online buying process to minimize abandonment.
- Show customers what's in their cart. Don't make the customer click a "Cart" button to see what they've already added. Instead, use a sidebar "mini-cart" or some other approach to make sure that they know what items they already have in their cart and to remind them that they still need to checkout.
- Show taxes and shipping early. Customers don't like surprises at the end of the checkout process.
- Allow guest checkout. Having to sign up for an account is more of a commitment than some buyers are prepared to make. Don't require it unless you absolutely have to.
- Have as few checkout steps as possible Customers get exasperated if they need to go through one screen after another in order to checkout.
- Ask for incremental commitment. Don't ask for a credit card too soon in the checkout process, as this is a substantial commitment by the buyer. Instead, ask for basic information like billing address, shipping address and shipping method first. By the time that the buyer reaches the point of providing credit card information, they are more likely to have become comfortable with the transaction.
- Show progress. If people can see the steps of the process and know what remains, they are more likely to go to completion.
- Eliminate distractions. When a buyer is checking out, you want them to finish the checkout process. Don't distract them. For example, letting them know about related products is a great thing to do before checkout or after checkout, but would be a dangerous distraction during checkout.
- Make sure they feel secure. You're asking people to give you sensitive personal and financial information. Reassure them at every step that you are safeguarding the information they give you.
- Follow-up on abandoned carts. Despite your best efforts, you will still have a lot of abandoned carts. If it becomes clear that the cart has been abandoned, and you have the email address of the buyer, send them a gentle reminder. Maybe they intended to buy and were interrupted. Maybe they went off to shop around a bit more and got distracted. There are any number of reasons why they might be willing to complete the transaction. Maximize the probability that they do so.
5. Social Media
The majority of adults who purchase online are also active in Social Media (e.g. Facebook). What implications does this have for you and your online store?
- You need to participate. Online buyers expect companies to have a Social Media presence and to interact with their customers via Social Media. Users feel more of a connection to companies that interact with them via Social Media.
- Let them promote you. Give your customers the means to "Like" your website or product pages on Facebook, to tweet about you on Twitter or to promote you on Digg, Delicious and other Social Media sites.
- Allow for product reviews. Buyers like to know what other buyers have experienced. If appropriate for the types of product you sell, let your customers review your products. Yes, it's a risk, but it can also be a big win.
Summary and Next Steps
I hope that this part of our series has convinced you that there's a lot to building a successful online store beyond the technical concerns that have been the focus of most of this series. I also hope that you've picked up some valuable tips to make your online store successful.
In Part 10, we'll summarize the key points that we've covered and make some recommendations on how to decide what kind of online store is best for you.
Note: When you're ready, I have the skills to help you implement your online store.Get a Quote