How To Work With Web Designers

In a previous article (7 Keys to Getting the Website You Need), we discussed the value of planning your website before you begin development.

So you’ve done your planning and chosen your Web Designer. You’re all set, right?

Well, maybe not. In this article we’ll cover some approaches you can adopt that will help ensure a smooth development and successful implementation.

Use Milestones To Track Progress

For any sizable development, you should ask your Web Designer to provide a set of milestones. For many designers, providing milestones is standard practice.

Use the milestones to track how the development is going. But remember:

  • Milestones are just estimates. The schedule can change for a number of valid reasons.
  • Some milestones will depend on input from you, so you can affect whether they are met (see below).

Keep Momentum High

If you’d like your website design to move as quickly as possible, then you need to keep up the project momentum.

In most design projects, you’ll need to make a number of decision. Respond as quickly as possible. Nothing bogs down a design project faster than a client who takes forever to respond. One good approach is to clearly identify the decision makers in advance, with agree on turnaround times for decisions.

You may also need to provide materials for use on the site (content, images, videos, etc.). If so, make sure you designate who’s responsible to provide these and when they will be provided.

Know When You’re Going Out of Scope

The scope of a project refers to the set of activities required to complete the project and the deliverables that designer has agreed to provide.

The estimate that you got from the designer assumed a certain project scope. For large project, the designer should have defined the project scope in the Project Proposal.

As the project progresses, you may think of additional items that need to be included. The designer will normally be flexible, but if the change in scope is significant enough it might result in a change in the project schedule and cost.

You need to realize when you’re going out of scope and decide whether the additions are worth it.

Don’t Be a “Back Seat Driver”

You’re hiring the designer for their expertise. Let them do what they’re good at.

You may think that you know just what the site should look like. This is seldom actually the case. There are a host of factors that go into a good website design, and the designer knows what they are.

That’s not to say that your input will be ignored. A good designer will take your preferences into account.

But remember that many of the world’s worst websites were developed by their owners, and look just the way they intended.

Pay On Time

This not only good ethics and a good business practice, but has important practical implications.

The initial website design is seldom the last thing that you’ll want your designer to do. There will be updates, enhancements and other modifications.

If your designer knows that getting paid is a long, drawn-out process, they’re not going to be anxious to take on follow-up projects.

Summary

To a great extent, a successful website design project depends on the same kinds of factors as a successful project of any kind. Have a plan, maintain momentum, avoid scope changes, let your experts do their job and pay them when they’re done.

I hope that this has been useful. What do you think?

Choosing an eCommerce Vendor

Business person confused about ecommerce

In a previous article (Hosted vs. Custom eCommerce: Your First Big Decision), I discussed factors to take into account when deciding whether to have your own eCommerce host or to use a hosted service.

To recap, if you choose a hosted service then your online store runs on their host. One big advantage is that they take care of the hardware and software. One potential disadvantage is that you’re limited to the features they provide.

This article provides some additional factors you should consider if you decide to use such a hosted service.

Evaluate Reference Sites

The hosted service provider should be able to provide a list of sites that use their service. Make sure that you’re looking at real production sites, not just “demo” sites.

Look at the visual design. Do they all look the same? If so, then that provider’s software may not allow much customization. Whether that matters or not is, of course, up to you.

Explore the reference sites. Do they provide the kinds of features we’ve discussed in previous articles? Is the way the software operates sufficient for your needs?

Evaluate Features and Costs

Once you’ve found a few providers who seem to be able to support suitable online stores, it’s time to start digging into their documentation.

  • What’s included and what’s extra-cost? Different services have different philosophies about how to charge for features. Check the list carefully, so you know what it’s really going to cost you if you decide to use them.
  • What are the setup costs? Do they charge for setup? If so, what is included? If they claim “free setup”, make sure you understand whether it covers everything you’ll need.
  • What marketing features are included? It’s quite likely that you’ll want to have featured products on your home page. Do they support that? What about sale items, and other promotions like free shipping? Social features such as reviews and “Email this page to a friend” buttons are becoming more and more important.
  • How easy are the admin tools to use? Try them out. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with the admin interface, so you want to be sure you’re going to be able to work with it.
  • Can you easily create static pages? Although most of the pages in your online store are going to be product pages of one sort or another, you’re almost certainly going to want some other types of content. At a minimum, you’ll want an About page and a Contact page. You may want additional pages for shipping policies, return policies, etc.

Evaluate Customer Service

Although you can’t get a complete picture of the provider’s customer service, you can get an idea.

First you should search online to see what people are saying about them. Evaluate the reviews carefully. For most providers, you’ll find both glowing reviews (which might be “sponsored”) and very negative views from people who might or might not have a justified complaint. By reading the reviews carefully, you can usually decide for yourself how much stock to put in them.

On good additional step is to call the provider and evaluate who you get. Do they seem professional?

Wrap Up

Although we covered the most critical factors in earlier articles, I hope that this has given you a few more pointers to help you make the best choice for your needs. Let me know your experiences.

How To Choose a Web Designer

Confused man

You’ve decided that you need a website or website make-over (if you’re in doubt, see Do You Really Need a Website?).

You’ve also decided that you need a web designer to help you (if you’re unsure, see Do You Really Need a Web Designer?).

Maybe it’s not clear to you how to go about picking a good web designer.

It’s really not all that much different than picking any other contractor. You might not know a lot about the Web, but you know enough to make a good decision.

Let’s go through some factors you should consider in making your pick.

Where Do You Find Them?

But before we get to the selection considerations, how do you get a list of candidates?

Some good approaches are:

  • Get recommendations. You probably know other business people in your area who’ve had websites built for them. Ask who they used, and what they thought of them.
  • Do a Web Search. Because of the nature of the business, a web designer had better have a good Web presence. Searching for designers in your area should yield quite a few names.
  • Contact Your Chamber of Commerce. Your local Chamber of Commerce probably has a list of local web designers who are members.

Types of Web Designers

There are many skills needed to build a good website. Some of the more important are:

  • Graphic design: Creating the “look” of your website.
  • Website coding: Coding the underpinnings of your website so that it works as desired in all major browsers.
  • Web development: Developing any behind-the-scene applications or scripts for special features.
  • Internet marketing: Determining how best to market your product through digital media (websites, email, banner ads, etc.).
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM)/Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Maximizing how well your website performs with respect to online search.

Not everyone is expert in every area. Some common “packages” are:

  • Website Designer. The generalist. Can design and code a website with reasonable regard for SEO.
  • Website developer. Specialist in the development of custom web applications or modifications to standard packages.
  • Graphic designer. Specialist in the way that the website looks (photos, drawings, design details. etc.)
  • Internet marketing consultant. Expert in marketing products online.
  • SEO consultant. Specialist in optimizing how well the website pages place for relevant search engine queries.

Think about which aspects of web design are most important for your business, then talk with prospective designers to see what their strengths and weaknesses are.

If you have a strong need for all of the specialties and have a lot of money to spend on your website, you might consider an agency that can provide multiple specialists.

Factors to Consider

Let’s take a look at some of the more important factors that you should take into consideration when making your choice.

Can You Work With Them?

Building a website requires a lot of cooperation between you and your designer. The process is going to be a lot smoother if the two of you get along.

I recommend an in-person interview of anyone that you are considering having develop your website. This should give you an idea of whether the chemistry is there.

Should They Be Local?

Because of the nature of today’s interconnected world, your web designer does not necessarily need to be located nearby. They could be hundreds (or thousands) of miles away and still get the job done.

Two aspects to think about when making this decision are:

  • Determining the “fit”: If the web designer is not local, you will need to determine whether you can work with them via a phone conversion or other means.
  • Buying local: You need to decide how important it is to support your local designers. After all, don’t you want locals to support you?

How Does Their Portfolio Look?

Take a look at the designer’s portfolio (if they don’t have one, that’s a real danger sign). Actually click through to the sites. As you’re doing so, think about the following:

  • Do they look good? Not all of the sites will necessarily be to your taste (clients differ), but they should all look professional and well-designed.
  • Do they all look the same? If the sites looks similar to one another, the designer may be modifying a “template” rather than designing each from scratch. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the service should be priced accordingly.
  • Do they load quickly? What’s the performance of the sites? Sites that a sluggish can drive off prospective visitors and hurt your search engine rankings.
  • Do they work with popular browsers? If you have access to multiple browsers, try them out on the sites. You want your site to work well regardless of what browser the visitor is using. Web sites that only work for one browser can be a real problem.

Find Out What Parts They Did Themselves

The fact that the designer has a site in their portfolio doesn’t necessarily mean that they did everything. Make sure you know which aspects of the site the designer did themselves, then take that into consideration when evaluating the designer’s skills.

Ask What They Know About Internet Marketing and SEO

At a minimum, your site needs to be designed with SEO in mind. Depending on how important search is to your business, Internet Marketing skills may also be important.

Time To Decide

As I said in the introduction, picking a web designer is not really that much different than picking any other consultant. I hope that the pointers I’ve provided here help you clarify exactly what you need to think about when choosing the designer for your project.

Let me know your experiences, and any other areas that you think are especially important.

Mobile Is Closer Than You Think

Smartphone user

In the post “What’s Your Mobile Strategy“, we went through a high-level overview of why having your website well-adapted for mobile is important.

This message was reinforced by a recent post by Harold Dediu, an analyst who follows the mobile market and keeps track of mobile trends.

In “When will smartphones become phones?“, Harold reports that about 30% of US cellphone users (above age of 13) use smartphones, up from 21% at the same time last year.

If this trend continues (and there’s no sign that it won’t), we will soon find that the majority of our customers are using smartphones.

This adds an exclamation point to our earlier point that you really need to have a sensible strategy for supporting mobile users.

What’s your strategy?

Back to Blogging

Moving van

Photo via Flickr by James Fee

Sorry for the gap in posts. We’ve been moving our website from one hosting service to another, and didn’t want to change anything while the move was underway.

The move is complete, so look for a new item soon.

What’s Your Mobile Strategy?

Smartphone user

It seems that, everywhere you look, you see people on cellphones, iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, Blackberries and so forth.

Does it make you wonder: “Should my business be doing something in mobile”?

Good question. The short answer is: “Yes”. But behind that simple answer is a host of complexities.

It will take a series of articles to explore the subject in depth. Let’s start by seeing if we can answer the question: “How important is mobile for my business?”.

Is It My Imagination, Or Is Mobile Popping Up Everywhere?

It’s not your imagination. People have been using cellphones for a very long time, but the market has shifted dramatically.

The introduction of large-screen smartphones like the iPhone and the many Android models have fundamentally changed how people use their mobile devices. Experts who’ve studied the market say that on any one day 20% of Americans use the mobile web.

The iPad and similar Android-based tablets are taking mobile web access to an entirely new level, essentially providing the capabilities of a laptop PC in mobile form.

Many predict that mobile web access will overtake desktop web access within 5 years. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to decide how to deal with it.

Cellphones. iPads. They’re a Lot Different

You’re right, they are a lot different. But from the standpoint of how to deal with them, we can identify two broad categories—tablets and smartphones.

Although there are still a lot of “feature phones” and “dumb phones”, for the most part they are not going to be accessing your website (at least not in the U.S market).

Tablets

Perhaps the easiest category to deal with are tablets like the iPad. These have displays that are similar to low-end PC displays. For example, the iPad screen is 1024×768, while the Motorola Xoom screen is 1280×800.

These devices can handle standard websites, although planning for such devices can improve the user experience significantly.

Clean, uncluttered website design has always been a good idea. These types of devices make that approach even more important. Because the user’s “window” is limited, cluttered web pages tend to be confusing and are apt to drive visitors away.

Smartphones

What is a smartphone? There is no standard industry definition. For our purposes, we’ll define smartphones as cellphones with reasonable displays and general-purpose web browsers.

From the standpoint of the mobile web, the main difference between smartphones and tablets is the size of the screen. Smartphones screens typically fall in the range of 480×320 to 320×240, although there are outliers at each end of the spectrum.

Smartphones require more web customization than tablets. It’s not enough to simply have a clean website design. For smartphones, you need to strip your web pages down to the essentials, both to make them usable in the smaller screen format as well as to minimize download time.

What About My Website?

There are several factors to look at when deciding how mobile will affect you.

What Business Are You In?

Certain types of businesses are likely to see a high volume of mobile users:

  • Local businesses. People use their mobile devices to decide which businesses to patronize, for example which restaurant to eat at.
  • On-demand services. Mobile devices are the logical choice for spur-of-the-moment activities, such as arranging for taxis.
  • Emergency services. In an emergency, a regular telephone is often not available. Emergency services (e.g. towing) will see a high number of mobile visitors.
  • Content driven sites. Users are increasingly getting their news and other content online (rather than printed form). As people become accustomed to accessing content throughout the day, doing so while on-the-go is increasingly common.

One area in particular that is projected to be important is online eCommerce. For example, the respected consulting firm Forrester predicts that the mobile eCommerce market will be $11 billion in 2015.

Again, the type of business you’re in will determine how important this market is to you. For example, mobile eCommerce will be very important for impulse purchases, such as buying a tune being played in a public place.

Businesses selling larger, higher-priced items might not see a significant increase in mobile visitors, except…

The “Downtime” Factor

Although the type-of-business analysis in the previous section provides a good general guideline, there is one wildcard.

Suppose you’re somewhere where you have “downtime” but don’t have access to a desktop computer. Maybe you’re at the airport, or waiting for your car to be serviced, or standing in line at the DMV.

Increasingly in such situations people will pull out their smartphone and try to get something done. In these situations, the sites they go to may be quite different than in the general mobile web scenarios.

For example, if you’re in the market for a new refrigerator, your smartphone would probably not normally be the tool you would use to do your research. But if you’re stuck at the airport, you may decide that you might as well use it for that purpose.

What Next?

As I said at the beginning, this article is only scratching the surface. We will have additional articles in the future to elaborate on many of the points summarized here.

You can help guide the direction of our articles. Let us know what areas interest you most.

Hosted vs. Custom eCommerce: Your First Big Decision

Custom car

In our series on eCommerce Demystified, we went through your eCommerce options in detail.

If you read that series, you might be wondering “Where do I start?”. I’m glad you asked.

The first major decision you’ll need to make is whether you’re going to have a hosted store or a custom store.

Hosted? Custom? What Does That Mean?

A hosted online store is a service that you subscribe to for a monthly or annual fee. Your store runs on the service provider’s hosts, and your options depend on the features of their software.

You’ve almost certainly run across hosted stores provided by Google and PayPal. There are other vendors who provide much more sophisticated hosted stores. You’ve probably purchased products from hosted stores, not realizing that those stores were not custom-made.

A custom online store is one that you have built for you by a web designer. The underlying software is usually based on a standard eCommerce package (for example Magento), but can then be customized to your heart’s (and pocketbook’s) desire. The store runs on your host or hosting service.

What’s the Practical Difference?

The main areas of difference between the two options are:

  • Custom eCommerce Features: With a hosted store, you choose from the features offered by your provider. With a custom store, you can have just about any feature you want. Some hosted store providers have lots of features, so this may not be relevant for you. But you need to think very carefully about your needs. If you set up a store with a hosted store vendor and find out later than they’re missing a critical feature, then you’ll need to start again from scratch.
  • Subscription vs. One-Time Costs: If you hire a designer to develop a custom store, most of your costs are up-front (there may be a retainer fee for software updates). With a hosted service, you’ll be paying a monthly (or annual) fee for as long as you have your store.
  • Ownership: With a custom store, you own the design and data, and can move them wherever you want. For example, if you decide to change hosting services you can take your store with you. With a hosted service, you will probably be able to dump out your accumulated data, but otherwise you’ll be starting from zero.

Other Things To Think About

Some important factors can’t be as neatly summarized:

  • DIY or not?: You’ll need to decide whether you want to make the decisions on your own and do the work yourself, or whether you want to get an eCommerce expert to help you.
  • Store design: With most hosted services, your store design is based on a standard template. Services differ as to how much customization they allow. Many eCommerce platforms also support templates. In either case, if you want a lot of customization you’re going to need a designer. You have to make the tradeoff between design costs and the advantages of a unique design.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO): For many online stores, doing well in search engine rankings is an important success factor. Hosted services and eCommerce platforms differ widely in the SEO options they offer. Check carefully before deciding.
  • Internet marketing: Depending on what you’re selling, it may be important to have your products submitted to the product comparison engines like Google Base, Yahoo! Shopping, etc. Some services and eCommerce platforms do this for you; some don’t.

Now It’s Up To You

There’s no single right answer for everyone. You need to think through the advantages and disadvantages of each approach and decide what’s best for you.

If you’d like help, contact us for a quote.

Photo Beaulieu_Hants via Flickr

Magento: Feature-Rich, Extensible eCommerce

Magento logo

The most effective approach to developing a great online store is to start with a feature-rich, extensible software platform and then add any enhancements you need.

The best platform for custom eCommerce available today is called Magento. Magento is Wine Country Web Design’s preferred platform for custom eCommerce installations. I thought that it would be useful to explain exactly why we made that choice.

By the end of this article, you should have a good idea of whether a Magento-based online store is right for you.

Feature-Rich

It helps if your eCommerce platform already has most of the features you need. Magento fits the bill with a strong set of standard features. Here are some of the most important.

Product Catalog Features

Faceted Navigation menu

The first thing that your visitors are going to want to do is find the product(s) they’re looking for.

Magento offers lots of help.

  • Flexible product display: Magento handles everything from stores with just a few products to those with tens of thousands. The basic organization is by product category. There can be multiple levels; for example, the top level could be the major categories, with subsequent levels going into more detail.
  • Product search: customers can use product search to find a specific product or a set of products matching keywords.
  • Faceted navigation: For even finer-grained product selection, Magento provides what is often called “faceted navigation” (see example above right). Customers can specify criteria and see only products that fit those criteria.
  • Reviews: Product listings can show how reviewers have rated the product. Customers can read reviews by previous purchasers, as well as submit their own.
  • Wishlists: Customers can add products to their wishlist, and then share the wishlist with others.
  • Product comparisons: Customers can pick multiple products and have their features and prices show on a comparison grid.
  • RSS feeds: Customers who are a little more tech-savvy might appreciate Magento’s ability to provide RSS feeds. RSS is the same protocol used by blogs, and allows new information to be “pushed” out to the user rather than forcing the user to come look to see if something has changed. Examples of how RSS can be used in Magento are to get updates on order status (e.g. order has shipped), new products and promotions.

Marketing Features

Cross-selling panel

Of course, as the owner of the store, you’ll want to have lots of marketing options.

Magento has you covered there also.

  • Custom landing pages: If you prefer, clicking on a category can display a custom landing page instead of a product listing (or along with a product listing). This allows you to fine-tune the marketing message for each product category.
  • Coupons: You can create almost any type of promotion that you like (see “Fine-grained promotion management” below) and assign each a coupon code. Customers can then enter these coupons at checkout to take advantage of the promotion. For example, you might offer free shipping on the first order for customers who sign up for your mailing list.
  • Upsells: Magento allows you to display “upsells” on the product page. These are items that you suggest your customers buy instead of the product they’re viewing. You might choose these based on your own considerations (for example, higher profit margin) as well as considerations like product quality or popularity.
  • Related products: Related products also show up on the product page. They are often accessories purchased in conjunction with the product the customer is viewing. For example, if the customer is looking at a mobile phone, the related products might be a belt-clip, a hands-free earphone, etc.
  • Cross-sells: Cross-sells show up when the customer looks at their shopping cart. They are based on the products the customer has in their cart, and give you one final chance to suggest additional purchases.
  • Newsletters: Magento has a built-in email newsletter module. Customers can signup for your newsletter via a signup block on your store display. The Magento admin interface lets you manage your mailing list and send emails to them. Customers can manage their subscriptions, including unsubscribing.
  • Polls: Similarly, Magento has a built-in module for simple polls. This module lets you create polls, display them on your store and compile the results.

Checkout Features

Magento one-page checkout

Checkout is the most critical stage of the online purchase, as it’s the stage at which shopping cart abandonment is highest.

Magento has two features that are important for a successful online store:

  • One-page and multi-page checkout: People seem to have strong feelings about whether a one-page checkout or multi-page checkout flow is better. I think that a one-page checkout is less cumbersome and increases conversions, but Magento lets you make your own choice.
  • Guest checkout: Having to register before checkout scares off some customers. This may not be entirely rational, as they will need to provide most of the same information either way, but for some people registering is a commitment that they’re reluctant to make. I think that it’s best to allow shoppers to check out as a guest if they want, but again Magento lets you choose whether to allow guest checkout or not.

Admin Features

  • Multiple websites and stores: A single Magento installation can support many websites or stores. For example, a business with multiple brands might choose to have a separate website for each brand. Or a business with a very large product catalog might divide up their product categories among several stores to simplify product administration.
  • Fine-grained promotion management: Magento lets you define almost any type of promotion you want. Furthermore, it doesn’t take a developer to define one. Promotions can be specific to a product (for example, sale prices) as shown below or based on the contents of the buyer’s shopping cart (for example, “buy two sweaters, get one free” or “free shipping with $100 purchase”).
    Promotion management
  • Data loading from spreadsheet: For situations where you need to load a lot of information, Magento’s ability to load from a spreadsheet is very handy. Examples of typical uses are loading large product catalogs and loading zip-code-specific sales tax rates.
  • RSS feeds: Store administrators can also take advantage of Magento’s RSS “push” capability. For example, an administrator can use an RSS feed to be notified of new orders.
  • Reports: Magento comes with a large number of pre-defined reports covering sales, products, customers, shopping carts (for example, abandoned carts), reviews and what shoppers have searched for.

Platform features

A few of Magento’s useful features are visible primarily to those managing the operation of the store(s):

  • Support for most common payment methods: Magento comes with built-in support for the most common payment methods used in the U.S. and U.K. These include credit card, check/money order, PayPal, Google Checkout and Authorize.net. In addition, extensions (see below) are readily available for just about any other payment method you might imagine.
  • Design flexibility: Magento has a very flexible approach to specifying which features the customer sees, what pages those features appear on and where on the page they are placed. In addition, the look and feel of the site are defined in “themes” that are independent of the Magento software. This means that your designer can easily create or modify the design of your online store.
  • SEO built-in: Complete treatment of eCommerce SEO would require a full article (or a book). Let’s summarize by saying that Magento gives you a lot of control over the SEO parameters of your store’s webpages. For example, you can specify the page “meta” information (title, description, keywords) for each product individually. You can also set up your store to use “Pretty URLs” that are more search-engine-friendly (and people-friendly). For example, instead of having the URL for a page be some meaningless string like:

    www.mystore.com/index.php?store=3&cat=7&subcat=42&id=126

    you could have a human-readable URL like:

    www.mystore.com/electronics/digital-cameras/8-megapixel/canon123

  • Google Website Optimizer support: One of the keys to successful online marketing is testing to see which marketing messages, content, images, design, etc., are most effective. The preferred approach is “A/B testing”, where you create two version of what you’re testing (A and B) and randomly present them to site visitors. Once you have a statistically significant sample, you can get real data about which works better. Magento has built-in support for Google Website Optimizer, one of the most popular tools for A/B testing.

Extensibility

I hope that the previous section has convinced you that Magento has a lot of useful standard features. But no matter how extensive the standard features set, there will always be additional features people wish it had.

Magento has an excellent approach to adding features. The software architecture allows any number of “Extensions”. An Extension can add functionality or modify standard functionality in almost any way you can imagine. Furthermore, the Magento software can usually be upgraded without affecting the installed extensions.

Magento has a “marketplace” for Magento Extensions called Magento Connect. Magento Connect has hundreds of free and commercial (not-free) Extensions.

In addition, web developers like Wine Country Web Design can develop custom extensions in cases where no appropriate Extension already exists.

Pricing

Magento has both a “Community Edition”, which is free, and several commercial versions. You might think that the Community Edition, being free, would have limited functionality. In fact, all of the functionality I describe above is available in the Community Edition.

The commercial versions do have some additional functionality (primarily suitable for very large retailers), but the biggest difference is support. The company Magento provides no support for the Community Edition; all support needs to come from your developer or the online forum of Magento users and developers.

Common Objections

If you do an online search for Magento, you’ll find articles faulting certain aspects of Magento. While Magento isn’t perfect, I think it’s the best option available right now, so I’ll give my perspective on some of the most common objections:

  • “Magento’s admin interface is complex.” It’s certainly true that there’s a lot to Magento’s admin interface. The reason is fairly obvious: Magento has lots of features. The admin interface can be intimidating at first, but it’s pretty well laid out and most administrators seem to learn their way around fairly quickly.
  • “Magento’s software architecture is too complicated.” First, this is relevant only for web developers, since the administrators running the store and the customers never see the software architecture. Second, this is simply a matter of opinion. Magento is built using techniques that many developers consider current “best practices” for software architecture. Developers who are not up-to-speed on those techniques can find the learning curve steep.
  • “Magento is slow (or requires premium hosting).” It may be true that a dirt-cheap hosting plan, designed to allow people to bring up their personal or home business websites, is not be the best hosting plan for a Magento online store. After all, Magento is a substantial, feature-rich platform, and does take a certain amount of computer power and memory to run. But Magento has a number of features designed to increase performance, and is not slow when properly set up.

Wrap-Up

I hope that you have found this overview of Magento useful.

As I said at the beginning, Magento is the preferred eCommerce platform for Wine Country Web Design. We have experience developing Magento stores and have developed a number of custom Magento Extensions.

Contact Us for your eCommerce needs.

Creating Compelling Web Content

Dart in bullseye

Your website is beautiful. Your products/services are great. Your site has lots of useful information. And yet, no one is reading it. Visitors come to your site and leave almost immediately. What could the problem be?

Probably your content. Maybe you’re boring. Maybe you talk too much about yourself. Maybe you aren’t very convincing. Maybe your pages are too intimidating.

The good news is that you can quickly fix all that. Let’s take a look as some of the key things you should keep in mind when you’re creating web content.

Focus On the Customer

Visitors come to your website for a reason. They decide quickly whether you have what they need. If not, they’re gone.

Your content needs to be built around what they want. If you’re the equivalent of that party bore who only wants to talk about themselves, well…it’s a lot easier to get away online.

A good way to plan your content is to come up with “target personas”. A target persona is a fairly detailed description of a representative customer. For example:

A small independent contractor looking for a new supplier of widgets. Wants to be kept up-to-date on new widgets and requires fast turn-around on orders. Likes to be treated as a professional and not like a consumer.

Create as many target personas as you need. As you’re developing your content, ask yourself “Which persona(s) am I writing this for?” and “Is what I’m saying appropriate for them?”.

Be Compelling

When a potential customer lands on your website, you’d like them to take some specific action. Of course, ultimately you’d like them to buy something, but early in the sales cycle simple steps toward purchase can be just as significant (download a product datasheet, ask for a quote, etc.).

They aren’t going to take the action you want without a compelling reason. One good approach is:

  1. Grab their attention—this is usually done with a good page title.
  2. Identify a need—Point out what they need and why it’s important. This could be your product/service or simply information. Remember, they want to know “what’s in it for me”.
  3. Solve the need—Show that the benefits your products or services provide satisfy their need.
  4. Tell them what to do next—Don’t assume that they will automatically know what to do. Have a clear “call to action” that asks them to do what you want.

Make Your Content Snack-sized

People have become used to content that is easily consumable. Faced with big blocks of text, they’ll go somewhere else to find what they need.

Web visitors scan first, and only read if they see something that sounds interesting. Make your content scannable.

Break content up into chunks. Give each chunk a meaningful, interesting heading. Headings tell the scanning visitor what your content is about, and encourages them to read further.

Once you have their attention, don’t waste it. Long, rambling introductions cause them to lose interest. Get to the point.

Finally, get rid of unnecessary text. Make your case concisely. Your visitors will be more likely to read the whole thing.

Be Believable

You know you’re credible, but your visitors may not. You’re trying to sell them something. Why should they believe you?

Provide reassurances. Explain why you’re experts at what you do. Give reasons why they should trust you.

Don’t make unsubstantiated statements. If you say you make “the world’s best articulated widgets”, then you’d better back that up with facts, reviews, testimonials and other material that substantiates your claim. If you come across as making a slick sales pitch, you’ll probably lose the sale.

Edit Carefully

Poorly written content can destroy your credibility in an instant. Proofread what you write thoroughly before publishing.

Is the reading level appropriate? Your target personas can help here. Content you write for building contractors is probably going to be different from that for research scientists.

Watch out for industry jargon. The fact that you know what you’re talking about doesn’t necessarily mean your audience will also. Eliminate jargon if you can. If you can’t, at least explain it.

Finally, you’re not going to look professional if your content contains typos, spelling mistakes or grammatical errors.

Don’t Forget About SEO

Although your content should be written for people, you should also keep Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in mind. After all, it’s likely that many of your visitors will have used a search engine to find you.

Although you’re not likely to become an SEO expert, keep a few simple concepts in mind as you write:

  • Think about keywords—Where appropriate, include in your content keywords and key phrases that searchers will likely use to find businesses in your category. Just remember that you should use them only if they make sense in context. Don’t try to simply stuff your content with keywords.
  • Include internal contextual links—there’s probably a lot of interrelated content on your site. Link between related pages. Make sure the text of the link (what the visitor sees) contains keywords for the target page. For example, a link that says something like “articulated blue widgets” is much better than “click here”.
  • Link out to authoritative sources—providing links to high-quality, relevant content elsewhere on the Web can actually help your SEO. Don’t be afraid of having your visitors follow a link to another site. They’ll be back.

Wrap Up and Next Steps

I hope that this article has given you ideas about how you could improve your web content.

If you don’t think that you or your employees can adequately create and proof your content, consider hiring a professional copywriter. You might find that doing so has a great payback.

If this has helped you, let me know. If I forgot something important, let me know that too.

Photo Gare and Kitty via Flickr

7 Keys To Getting the Website You Need

Understanding vs. reality

You’ve decided that you need a new website. Great.

Would you like to do what you can to see that it meets your needs? Gets delivered on schedule and on budget? Doesn’t waste a lot of your time?

Building a website is like most projects—up-front planning can pay huge dividends.

But you probably don’t buy new websites very often, so you might not know how to approach it.

A good web designer will spend the time to understand your needs before starting the project. But you can help the process along by doing some thinking before you ever talk to a designer.

In this article we’ll cover some of the most important areas you should think about. If you’d like more detail, see my Web Design Client Questionnaire.

1. Understand Why You’re Doing It

Why do you want a website (or a website redesign)? Good reasons might be:

  • Provide a way for people to get information about my products and services, my location, my business hours, etc.
  • Sell online
  • Generate calls/contacts
  • Help customers have a better experience with my products and services.

The following are examples of not-so-good reasons:

  • Everyone else has one (not helpful in deciding what kind of website you need)
  • I expect it to double my sales (not necessarily realistic)
  • XYZ Corp. has a great (whatever) on their website, and I want one just like it (focuses on a feature, rather than what will make the website successful)

Thinking this through carefully will not only guide your web designer, but will also help you clarify your own needs.

2. Focus On Your Customers

A key to website success is keeping your visitors’ needs in mind:

  • Who is your audience? What can you say about their demographics (age, gender, education, interests, etc.)? Are they likely to be located in a specific region? If you are selling to businesses, do your customers come from a specific industry or a specific company size?
  • How are they going to find you? If someone who isn’t familiar with your company does an online search in your space what words are they likely to search on?
  • Why do they come to your site? For example, if most visitors are interested in your line of widgets, your website should make it really easy to get information about widgets.
  • What do they want to do? The actions your visitors will take can have a big influence on how the site is organized.

3. Know What You Like (and Don’t Like)

Style is a tricky aspect of web design. If your designer has no idea what styles appeal to you, then it may take lots of trial and error to come up with something acceptable. On the other hand, it’s almost always a bad idea to say “I want a website just like XYZ Corp.” Your website will be more successful if it reflects your own style.

Think of a some websites that you like, and why you like them. If it’s easier, think of some websites that you don’t like. Either (or both) will give your designer some guidance.

Also, remember that your website will be more successful if its style fits the audience. For example, a website for middle-aged accountants would probably be a lot different than one oriented towards teenage girls.

4. Match Your Budget To the Project

This can be a tough, as you might not have a good idea of how much websites cost.

The short answer is that even a small, professionally-designed website is going to cost several thousand dollars. Big sites or sites with online stores cost more. Relatively minor changes to an existing website can cost less.

Can you get a website for less? Yes, if you’re willing to make compromises. There are design outfits that will do a quick generic-looking website for a modest fee. For a review of the options, see “Do Your Really Need a Web Designer?“.

5. Be Realistic About Schedule

For most website projects, the exact completion date is not critical. On the other hand, if there is some time constraint (for example, a product launch or grand opening), you need to make sure the designer knows this.

It doesn’t usually pay to demand quick turnaround if you don’t really need it. A good designer is often working on projects for multiple clients and won’t want to take on new work if they aren’t sure they can complete it on time. If you demand an unnecessarily short development time frame, they may simply tell you that they can’t take the job.

If you’re anxious to get your new website up and running, consider whether you need everything immediately. If you’ve got a tight schedule and can identify some features that are only “nice to have”, consider splitting the website development project so you get what you really need sooner.

6. Think About Who’s Going to Keep the Site Up-to-Date

How often is the content on your site going to change? When your site needs changes, do you want to call in the designer, or do you want to be able to make the changes yourself?

For certain types of content, it’s almost mandatory that you be able to make the changes yourself. For example, if you have a blog, you or your staff are going to have to be able to publish new blog posts. The software used for your website (for example, WordPress) should be set up to allow this.

Another example is an online store. You’re going to need to be able to update the products, handle orders, etc., yourself. Again, the software used for your online store should make it easy to do this.

What about general site content (home page, about page, descriptions of products and services, etc.)? It’s possible to set up your website so that someone with little or no technical expertise can make basic changes to the content. If you think that this is what you want, make sure your designer knows in advance.

If you expect your site will require ongoing changes and you don’t want to do them yourself, then you should probably arrange a maintenance arrangement with your designer.

7. Be Realistic

I’ve mentioned it already, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to be realistic. Everyone would love to have a beautiful professional-looking website, loaded with features and available by the end of the week. For $100.

If you’re realistic, you can get what you need, when you need it, for a fair price.

If you’re unrealistic, you’ll probably have a hard time getting a good designer to waste time on you.

What Next?

Let me know what you think. Did I help you evaluate your web design project?

Image from www.projectcartoon.com

Your Website Can Build Sales

Store sign

You know you need a website (if not, see “Do You Really Need a Website?”). But if you think of your website as just the digital “sign” for your place of business, then you’re not using it to full advantage.

Of course people expect your website to tell them who you are, what you do, where you’re located and how to contact you. But when someone visits your website, why not take that opportunity to present your key marketing messages?

Your website can be a powerful means of generating sales. Can you afford not to take advantage of this?

Your Website Is Your Storefront

The Web has fundamentally changed the way people shop. Now, when someone is looking for a product or service, their typical approach is:

  1. Do a search on Google
  2. Look at the websites showing up in the first page or so of results
  3. Use the information they find there to come up with a short list of possible vendors (maybe just one)

You might be thinking “But I’m just a small local business”. It doesn’t matter; the same rules apply. Local search (search results specific to where the searcher is located) are one of the hottest areas of search right now.

Knowing this, the requirements for your website are pretty clear:

  1. Show up in the results when people search on key phrases that apply to you
  2. Show up as high in the results as possible
  3. Convince visitors that you should be on their short list

If all you have is a bare bones website (address, contact information, etc.), then you’re not going to be successful in this new world of shopping.

While we can’t do justice to such a large topic in one article, we can take a look at one of the most important factors for online marketing success.

Content Is King

Relevant, high quality content is the key to online marketing. Good content can satisfy all of the requirements listed above. Without good content, your chances of marketing online successfully are slim.

Showing Up In Search Engine Results

Google and other search engines analyze the content of your website and, from that, decide when to display your links in their search results. So if you sell widgets, the keyword “widgets” had better show up on your website.

But simply having a home page with the title “Susan’s World of Widgets” is not likely to have much effect. Lots of sites will mention of widgets.

What the search engines are looking for are sites that seem to have a lot of useful information on the searched-for topic.

For example, a website that has descriptions of various widgets, tips on how to buy widgets, articles on the care of widgets, etc., is going to be seen by search engines as much more authoritative than the bare bones site.

Maximizing Your Search Ranking

Let’s suppose that you have enough content to convince the search engines that you deserve to be listed. How do they decide where in the list to position you? They try to figure out how much authority you have for the keyword(s) entered.

Their view of your authority is based partly on the depth and quality of your content, so the effort you’ve put into your content will help here. But their assessment is also based on what other people think of your content.

How do they tell? They look at how many other websites have links to yours, and how authoritative those websites are. For example, the New York Times website quoting you as the world’s foremost expert on widgets and linking to your website is probably going to be good for your ranking for “widgets”. Having your brother’s personal website do the same is not likely to make any difference.

The good news is that having lots of high quality content is one of the best ways to attract links to your site.

Write For People First

Once visitors reach your site, your content needs to convince them that your products or services are worth considering. That you’re worthy of being on the short list.

Without compelling content, getting links from search engines is a waste of time. People may come, but they’ll immediately go elsewhere.

On the other hand, if visitors find your content compelling, then there’s a good chance that search engines will also.

Optimize Your Landing Pages

Website owners often focus too much on their Home Page (the front page of their site). The Home Page is important, but not nearly as important as it once was.

If people already know your business, then they might type your name into Google or some other search engine. In that case, they’ll get your Home Page.

But more often they’ll type in a phrase for the product or service they’re interested in. In that case, they may start at a page deep into your website.

The page where people first enter your website (usually from a search engine list) is called a landing page. Almost any page on your website can be a landing page.

You need to know which pages are your landing pages, and make sure that the messages they contain are right for the kind of traffic you’re getting to that page. Tools such as Google Analytics can provide the information you need to understand your landing pages.

You may even want to encourage visitors to enter at some page other than your Home Page. For example, if you use Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising such as Google AdWords or Facebook ads, it’s a good practice to have a dedicated landing page with a marketing message that exactly matches the promise implied by your ad.

What Do You Think?

I’ve listed some of the most important steps you can take to make your website a key component of your marketing plan.

What has your experience been? Are there other important points that I’ve overlooked? Let me know what you think.

Photo by bookchen via Flickr

12 Keys To Successful eCommerce Websites

In 2010, roughly 6% of all U.S. retail purchases were made online. That may not sound like much, but it amounted to some $175 billion in revenue. And the percentage of purchases made online is increasing every year.

On the other hand, many eCommerce sites aren’t as successful as they could be. How many online stores did those purchasers visit before they decided to buy? And the sad fact is that more shoppers abandon their carts than complete the purchase.

I’m sure that you’d like your eCommerce website to show up in the first set of statistics, and not the second.

In this article, I’ll point out some of the key factors to keep in mind to make your online store as successful as possible.

Basics

1. Easy to Use

While you might think that this would be obvious, it’s surprising how often online stores violate this basic principle.

Do you have thoughts of using fancy navigation, complex schemes for showing product information, etc? Don’t. If you must, use it somewhere else on your website.

Your online store should be dead simple to use. You want people to find what they want, get the information they need and buy it. Don’t get in their way.

2. No Distractions

Some online stores seem to want to fill every open space on their pages with special offers, marketing promotions, ads and so forth. While this might not be too bad on your home page, once the prospective purchaser has started looking at products don’t distract them.

Narrow the focus on your product pages to just the information that the purchaser is likely to want.

Shoppers already have enough reasons not to complete the purchase. Don’t give them any more.

3. Don’t Let Them Get Lost

Confused shopper

For a sizable online store, navigation can be a challenge. Once a shopper has clicked down multiple levels in your product hierarchy, and perhaps navigated through several pages of product information, they won’t remember how they got there.

Maybe one of your product categories is “widgets”, and you sell a variety of different kinds. The shopper may want to look through all the widgets before buying. And they don’t want to have to go back to your Home page and follow the navigation down to widgets each time.

Use headings and “breadcrumbs” to show shoppers where they are. Let the levels in the breadcrumbs be links, so that the shopper can quickly pick a place in the hierarchy to go back to (for example, “widgets”).

4. Make Contact Information Easily Available

Sometimes shoppers have questions or problems. If they’re willing to take the effort to contact you, make it easy for them to do so.

Have your contact information on every page. At a minimum, provide an email address (or a link to an email form). If you’re willing to take phone calls, put your phone number there too.

Selling

5. Answer Shoppers’ Questions About Products In the Page Copy

Have you ever come across a product page that didn’t give you the information you needed to make a decision? I’m sure you have. The Web is littered with them. You probably didn’t purchase that product (at least from that site).

You should already have a good idea of what shoppers want to know before they buy. Make sure that you answer all of those questions. If you find that you’re frequently getting asked the same question, add the answer on the product page.

If you’ve already answered all of their questions, you’ve removed one reason not to buy.

Note that we’re talking about what shoppers want to know. This is not necessarily what you might be interested in. Don’t clutter the product description with unnecessary technical details.

If you feel that you really must have a lot of detail, use a two-level strategy. Start with a summary that answers the most common questions, then have a “Details” section for shoppers who really want that level of information.

6. Have Great Product Photos

If this isn’t obvious to you, think about how you might go about buying something in a store. Once you’d found an interesting item, you’d probably pick it up, look at it from the front, the back and maybe other perspectives.

Visitors to your online store can’t pick up the products. If you can provide almost the same experience with your photos, then you’ve made it that much easier for them to buy.

Have plenty of product photos. Show the product from different perspectives. Provide larger, higher resolution versions of photos so they can see the details if they want.

If you’d like more information on this subject, this article is a good place to start.

7. Have Site Search

If you have lots of products, then you’ll almost certainly have some type of multi-level navigation. For example, you might have broad product categories that are then further broken down with one or more levels of more detailed categories.

Some shoppers will appreciate the ability to “drill down” through your categories. Others will want to skip all that and go directly to the product they want. That’s the purpose of site search.

Unless you have a very small product line, you should have site search. It should be easy to find and available on every page.

8. Make It Clear How To Add To Cart

This is another “rule” that should be obvious but isn’t always followed.

Every product page should have a prominent “call-to-action” button (“Add to Cart” or whatever is appropriate for your situation). Shoppers who are so inclined will find it easy to buy, and the simple fact that it’s clear what you want them to do increases the chances that they’ll do it.

9. Make Sure Shoppers Can Easily See What’s In Their Cart And Make Adjustments

Shoppers don’t always get it right the first time. Maybe they decide they don’t want something they added earlier. Maybe in looking around they find something more appropriate that what they already added to their cart.

If it’s easy for them to look at the contents of their cart and make adjustments, they’re much more likely to follow through with the purchase. If they get frustrated, they’ll probably just go somewhere else.

An excellent approach is to have a “mini-cart” on every page that shows what’s currently in their cart and allows them to make changes.

Checkout

10. Show Related Products And Cross Sales Before Checkout

Showing shoppers other products related to what they just put in their cart is a great marketing approach. Examples include accessories, special promotions you might be offering and “shoppers who bought this also bought…” suggestions.

Just do it before they start checkout. Once a shopper clicks on the “Checkout Now” button, your goal is to have them complete that process. Don’t distract them.

11. Allow Guest Checkout

I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of finding something you were interested in buying online, only to find that the seller required registration or insisted that you answer a series of questions before allowing you to start checkout. Maybe you were motivated enough to complete the process. Many people are not.

Registration implies a commitment more serious than a simple purchase. Unless there’s some special reason why you need to have shoppers register, don’t force the issue. Let them checkout as a “guest”.

The difference is more psychological than real. You’re going to get much of the same information either way. The difference is that, as a guest, they enter information incrementally and with a clear purpose. Email address, billing address, shipping address and credit card or other payment information. It all makes sense in context.

As long as you’re not too pushy about it, they may accept an offer to save their information at the end of the process.

12. Show Shipping Costs As Early As Possible

The most common reason why online shoppers abandon their carts is that they are shocked by the cost of shipping. Let them know what it is going to cost to ship their order as early in the process as possible.

They might still decide not to purchase, but they will appreciate that they didn’t have to go through the whole purchase process only to abandon their cart.

Now It’s Your Turn

There are lots of other things to do and not do when creating an online store. This list is simply my thoughts on what’s most important.

What do you think? Did I miss anything really important?

Do You Really Need a Web Designer?

Free website offers

You know you need a website (or redesign), but you’re wary about dealing with web designers. After all, web design can be expensive.

Although professional web design is the best choice for most businesses, there are alternatives. Let’s review the major options to see whether any of them are right for you.

Website Options

There are actually a number of different approaches to creating a website.

Home Grown

Maybe you know a little bit about creating web pages. Or maybe you have a brother/sister/cousin/friend who does. So you think you can get the web pages you need built at little or no cost.

The problem with this approach is that there’s a lot more to building a website than simply knowing how to create web pages. You might be lucky. Most people who take this approach aren’t. The majority of the worst websites on the Internet probably fall in this category.

For example, take a look at this site and this site. How do you feel about the businesses behind these websites?

Templates

A template (or theme) is a website design without the content. You add your name, logo and content, and load it onto your hosting service.

Some templates are intended for standalone websites, but most are specific to a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal.

There are many free and low-cost templates available. Some have been developed by experts and are quite well done. If you can find one of these that you like, creating a website can be very straightforward.

Warning: Be very careful about where you get your template or theme. There are a number of reputable sites, but many sites that show up high in search engine rankings have downloads that contain dangerous malware.

Pros:

  • If well-written, avoids many of the basic design mistakes
  • You see what you’re getting beforehand
  • Usually less expensive than a custom website design
  • Website can be up-and-running very quickly

Cons:

  • Your website will look like the websites of everyone else using that template
  • Designs tend to look “generic”
  • Can be difficult to modify
  • May not do a good job of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Requires a basic set of web development tools to upload the template to your hosting service, and the skills to install it there

Website Building Programs

This option is a variation on the template option. Most hosting services have programs that allow you to quickly generate your own website. You choose a starting point (a template) and are then able to modify various aspects of it (often with a “drag-and-drop” interface).

Pros:

  • If well-done, avoids many of the basic mistakes
  • Allows more customization without having to be web-knowledgeable
  • Usually offered free as part of your hosting package
  • Website can be up-and-running very quickly

Cons:

  • Your website will look like the websites of everyone else using that template
  • Designs tend to look “generic”
  • Limited configuration options
  • Often don’t do a good job of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Your website is tied to that hosting service

Professional Web Design

A professional web designer has significant web design and development experience. They know what it takes to do a good design and can build a website that is customized for you.

Most web design firms have a single designer or a small number of designers. Unless your website is very large (say, more than 2,500 pages) or has very specialized requirements, the design can easily be handled by a single designer.

Pros:

  • Design is unique to you
  • Better looking and performing site
  • Search Engine friendly
  • You’ll be working with experts
  • You can get any special features you want

Cons:

  • Usually costs more
  • Development time longer
  • You don’t know what you’re getting up-front

Hybrid

There are now a number of templates or themes that are very well-written. They provide many customization options and are very Search Engine Optimization (SEO) friendly. Good examples are the Genesis and Thesis themes for WordPress.

It is becoming more common to hire a web designer who works with you to choose a particular high-quality theme and then customizes that theme to your needs.

Pros:

  • The design is customized for you, so it doesn’t look so generic
  • You have a good idea of what you’re going to get up-front
  • You get a good looking and performing site
  • Design will be Search Engine friendly
  • Less expensive than a fully custom design

Cons:

  • Not as cheap as doing everything yourself
  • Design will not stand out from the crowd as much as a custom design

Picking a Website Design Approach

So, how should you decide which of these options is best for you? Here are a few of the most important considerations:

  • Budget—hiring a web designer to develop a basic small (1-5 page) website will cost at least several thousand dollars. Larger or more complex sites can cost a lot more. If even the basic site is beyond your budget, you probably need to use one of the other alternatives.
  • Branding—how important is it that your site be personalized or unique? If you don’t care that your site looks generic, then one of the more standardized options might be sufficient.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)—are you going to be depending on search results to drive traffic to your business? If so, getting a customized solution that is SEO friendly could make a big difference.
  • Time away from business—how much time can you afford to devote to the project yourself? Hiring a web designer allows you to offload most of the effort, so you spend your time doing what you do best.

Now It’s Your Turn

Here we’re reviewed the major approaches to building a website. Because I fit into the “professional web designer” category, you might wonder if I can be objective about this.

No one is completely objective, but the fact is that some businesses are just not a good fit for what I do or what I charge. If you’re one of those, we’re both better off if you concentrate on more realistic alternatives.

Do you think that the analysis was even-handed? Did I forget something important? Comment below and let me know.

Do You Really Need a Website?

Depending on which study you read, 40-60% of small businesses in the U.S. have no website.

Are these businesses missing the boat, or are they making a sensible decision about where to spend their marketing dollar? Does every business really need a website?

Since I design and develop websites, I’m not a completely disinterested party, but let’s see if we can analyze this without letting bias get in the way.

The Customer Perspective

Looking at how customers behave is a good way to start analyzing any marketing question. What does customer behavior tell us?

How Customers Get Information

A recent survey by Webvisible found that 82% of consumers use search engines when they need local information,. This was far ahead of the runner-up (Yellow Pages directories with 57%). Furthermore, 50% said that they looked online first.

According to this survey, many consumers say they have struggled to recall the name of a business in their area or have wished to quickly check the website for store hours, directions or a phone number. But 39% say they routinely have difficulty finding that information using a search engine, even for businesses they know exist.

What happens when searchers can’t find what they’re looking for? Quite a few end up going to businesses for which they can find information.

The lesson: not having an online presence results in lost sales.

Consumer Confidence

Most consumers aren’t aware of the statistics quoted above. What they see is that virtually all large and medium business, and quite a few small businesses, are online. This leads them to assume that just about every business is online.

What happens when they find that you don’t have a website? Their confidence in you immediately drops. They believe that having a website shows that you’re a legitimate business.

The lesson: Websites give searchers confidence.

Consumer Buying Patterns

Suppose a consumer wants to hire someone who does what you do, or wants to buy something that you sell. Are they just going to walk into your establishment, ask their questions and make a decision? Maybe.

But a more common pattern is that they find out the basics of what you do or have for sale, and then go away to do more research.

Where do they do that research? If you have a website, they go there. That gives you an opportunity to reinforce your message and make the consumer comfortable that you’re the one to deal with.

And if you don’t have a website? Then they do the research on your competitors’ websites.

The lesson: Not having a website gives up an opportunity to close the deal.

Exceptions

Are there exceptions to the above? Of course.

For example, people don’t generally look online to see where to get their next tank of gas (unless they’re looking on a site that surveys gas prices). There are a certain category of purchases like this for which the consumer is not going to bother doing research.

Another example might be a small town, in which there are not a lot of choices and where those choices are already well-known.

So yes, there are exceptions. But, if you don’t have a website, are you sure you’re one of those exceptions?

The Business Perspective

Our discussion of the consumer perspective highlighted the downside of not having a website.

Now let’s be more positive, and look at what a website can do for a business:

  • Sell your products. Your website is your sales presentation. It’s your opportunity to convince the consumer even if they’ve never been in your place of business. And if your products or services lend themselves to online sales (via an online store), then your website could provide an even bigger boost.
  • Provide a storefront that’s open 24/7. The pace of life has increased. People need to fit a lot of activities into their lives, so shopping doesn’t always happen during normal business hours. A website lets you give your sales presentation even when you’re closed.
  • Expand your market. You don’t have to rely on people walking or driving past your place of business, or perhaps finding you in the Yellow Pages.
  • Increase referrals. Your happy customers will want to tell their friends about you. Which are they more likely to remember: (123) 456-7890 or fredsplumbing.com?

Not Just For-Profit Businesses

What if you’re a non-profit? All of the above arguments still apply. It’s just the products and services that are different.

Depending on the nature of the non-profit, a website can support:

  • Donations
  • Memberships
  • Serving the core purpose of the non-profit (e.g. education)
  • Outreach to those the non-profit wants to serve

Wrap Up

If you’re one of those businesses that has no website, I hope that the above has given you an appreciation of what you might be missing.

If you can think of additional arguments, one way or the other, please let me know in the comments.

Photo from Opensourceway via Flickr

eCommerce Demystified Series

Business person confused about ecommerce

We have just finished a comprehensive 10-part series designed to explain eCommerce in terms that a smart business person can understand.

When publishing a series like this over the course of 10 weeks, each article needs to have some recap material to help the reader tie the discussion to previous weeks’ content. Now that all of the articles in the series have been published, this type of material is redundant.

To make this series more accessible, I have edited the individual parts to remove redundant material and create an introduction page that acts as a Table of Contents for the series.

If you have any recommendations for follow-on articles, please let me know.

eCommerce Demystified – Part 10: Wrap Up

Business person confused about ecommerce

We’ve covered a lot of territory. Now it’s time to summarize and make some recommendations about how various businesses ought to proceed.

Over the course of the 9 previous parts of the series, we described the major steps in a typical eCommerce process, identified the 4 major scenarios for how to divide the eCommerce functionality between the merchant’s website and outside providers, and examined a number of different factors that you should consider when evaluating which scenario to deploy. We then went into some detail about our four scenarios. We also covered a lot of items that were not specific to the platform you choose, yet that are critical to the success of your online store.

eCommerce Scenarios

As a reminder, the chart to the right shows the 4 major eCommerce scenarios that we have discussed in some detail.

With this in mind, let’s look at the key decisions you need to make.

Which Approach to eCommerce?

If the discussions so far have already convinced you that some particular approach is best, then go for it! But if there’s any doubt in your mind, this section will make some broad recommendations. Although any of the approaches can be forced to work in just about any situation, matching your needs with a solution that correctly meets those needs can save you a lot of headaches.

The flowchart below outlines the general decision-making process for picking an appropriate eCommerce scenario.

eCommerce decision flowchart

The table below summarizes this information in a somewhat different way. It lists each of the 4 scenarios, and explains what types of businesses are most likely to find each appropriate.

Scenario When is this appropriate?
Merchant Store You have (or expect to have) a high-volume online store. You want complete control over the buyer experience, and are willing to take on the effort of PCI-DSS Validation (or to hire a consult to handle it for you). This scenario has the lowest per-transaction cost, as you are only paying for the specific services you can’t do yourself, i.e. payment card processing.
Hosted Payment Most other medium- to high-volume stores. This approach provides most, if not all, the benefits of the Merchant Store scenario without the burden of PCI-DSS Validation. The main difference is that the page on which the customer enters their payment card information is hosted by your Payment Services provider. If you choose the appropriate provider, this page will fit in seamlessly with your store, and the cost will be no higher than the Merchant Store scenario.
Hosted Cart Your typical customer makes only single-item purchases. This approach is a good one for small companies that have only a few products or non-profits who wish to allow donations via credit card. A “Buy Now”, “Donate” or “Subscribe” button on your website allows customers to pay via credit card using one of the well-known payment processors (for example, PayPal). This approach is cumbersome if the customer will typically want to pay for multiple items, but can be the most cost-effective approach in the more limited circumstances.
Hosted Store When you want an online store but don’t want to host it yourself. You will probably pay a little more for this service, but you do not have to worry about the details of operating your own store.

Merchant Account or Integrated Payment Processor?

Ultimately, this comes down to personal preferences and a cost analysis. In previous sections, we described the fees charged by various service providers with and without a separate Merchant Account. This, plus your own investigation into any other services you might be interested in, should allow you to estimate how much it will all cost.

Besides the costs involved, you need to decide whether you feel more comfortable dealing with a bank (i.e. using a separate Merchant Account) or whether you feel that a non-regulated financial services company is sufficient.

Who’s Going to Build Your Online Store?

The considerations here depend on which of the scenarios you pick:

  • Merchant Store or Hosted Payment. For either of these, you need to install and customize an eCommerce software package. Unless you have very simple needs, you’ll generally benefit from hiring someone with experience to do this for you. Even if you have some experience in developing web pages, you’ll probably find that eCommerce software is sufficiently different that you’ll face a steep learning curve.
  • Hosted Cart. In this case, you don’t need an eCommerce software package. These services have administrative interfaces you can use to customize them to your needs. There are two aspects to this customization:
    • Checkout page branding. Hosted Cart checkout pages are typically “co-branded”. This means that they are the vendor’s standard page with room for your logo and some branding. You use the administrative interface to customize your page. You can easily do this yourself, or have your web developer take care of it.
    • Buy/Donate buttons. The administrative interface also allows you to create the buttons to put in the appropriate places on your website (for example, product pages). You specify what type of button you want and the nature of the purchase, and the interface provides you with the HTML to insert. Again, you may be able to do this yourself.
  • Hosted Store. Here, your entire online store is hosted by your provider, so again you don’t need an eCommerce software package. As with the Hosted Cart solution, these types of services have administrative interfaces you can use to customize the look and feel of your online store. The customization in this case is more complicated, but again can be divided into two categories:
    • Store Design. Unlike the Hosted Cart scenario, in which the look and feel of the cart and much of the branding is determined by your service provider, here you have almost complete control over how your store looks. You’re essentially designing a new website. Many of the hosted services offer professionally-designed templates that can be a good starting point for your store design. If one of the templates fits your needs, and you are a little technically inclined, you might consider handling this yourself. If you want something more sophisticated, or are not technically inclined, you are probably better off hiring someone to design your store for you.
    • Store Operation. You will most likely have a lot of options for how your store operates—categories, product structure, checkout flow, customer registration rules, etc. You will need to become familiar with the various options and choose what makes sense for your business.

Final Word

There are eCommerce solutions to fit virtually every situation and budget. I hope that this series has been helpful in guiding you along the path to a successful implementation.

When you’re ready, I have the skills to help you implement your online store.

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eCommerce Demystified – Part 9: Success Factors

Business person confused about ecommerce

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?

Search Engine Optimization

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.

Keywords

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.

Page Rank

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

Carry bag

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

Social Media badges

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 , 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.

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eCommerce Demystified – Part 8: Hosted Store

Business person confused about ecommerce

You’ve decided that you want an online store, but you’d like someone else to handle all of the details and host that store for you. There are many Hosted Store providers who offer such services. In this part of our series, we’ll look at what you can expect.

Overview

Four major eCommerce scenarios

In this installment, we’ll cover the Hosted Store scenario (last on the right in our diagram). The distinguishing characteristic of this scenario is that, except for a link to your off-site store, your website is not involved in the sales process. A Hosted Store Provider vendor provides the product pages, the shopping cart and payment card processing.

What Is Required?

The pieces of the total solution are:

  • Web server (optional)
  • eCommerce software
  • Hosted Store provider
  • Secure connection with SSL Certificate
  • Payment Gateway (see discussion)
  • Merchant Account (see discussion)
  • Privacy & Security Policies

eCommerce software is now unnecessary. In fact, you don’t even need to have your own website. Many Hosted Store vendors let you define additional pages to the store website, which might be all that you need.

As with the Hosted Payment plans we already discussed, whether you need a Payment Gateway or Merchant Account depends on the plan you pick. Some providers handle these functions themselves, some require that you have your own Merchant Account and some offer multiple options.

Hosted Store Plans

There are many vendors offering Hosted Store plans. As with the other scenarios, we can’t cover them all here. Instead, we’ll try to give you a good overview.

Well-Known Brands

As with the other scenarios, the most popular tend to be the well-known brands. The table below summarizes some of these.

  Yahoo Small Business eBay
ProStores
WebStore by Amazon
Setup $50 None None
Monthly $39.95 $29.95 $24.99
Per Transaction 1.5% 0.5% 2.0%
Payment Gateway Included Multiple Amazon
Acquirer PayPal or Merchant Account Multiple Amazon

As you can see from this table, prices and approaches vary widely. Note that, in all cases, there are additional charges for Merchant Services.

Yahoo Small Business

Yahoo Small Business offers a online store that uses your own Merchant Account. They include Payment Gateway services as part of their package. For payment card processing, you may use PayPal Checkout, Bank of America Merchant Services or any Merchant Account compatible with their Payment Gateway provider (FDMS Nashville).

eBay ProStores

eBay ProStores offers a number of payment processing options, including:

  • PayPal Website Payments Pro
  • PayPal PayFlow Pro
  • Authorize.net
  • Quickbooks Merchant Service

Whether you need a Merchant Account or not depends on which of the options you choose. For PayPal Website Payments Pro, PayPal is the acquirer, so you do not need a separate Merchant Account. All of the others use your own Merchant Account.

In this case, the transaction fees charged by eBay are lower, but you’re paying additional for both Payment Gateway and Merchant Account services.

WebStore by Amazon

In the case of WebStore by Amazon, Amazon handles all of the payment card processing. This means that, in addition to the charges listed above, you pay for transactions as follows:

Monthly Sales $ Transaction % Per-Transaction Fee
<3,000 2.9% $0.30
3,000-10,000 2.6% $0.30
10,000-100,000 2.5% $0.30
>100,000 2.4% $0.30

General-Purpose Hosted Store Providers

The well-known brands tend to address the eCommerce “mass market”—all of the basic features and a relatively low price.

If you need additional customer support or some customization, there are many other Hosted Store providers (for example, Nexternal) who you might consider.

Industry-Specific Hosted Store Services

Depending on your industry, you might find that there are specialty Hosted Store providers with offerings tailored to your needs.

For example, here in the California wine country, there are a lot of wineries. As a result, there are providers like Cultivate Systems and eWinery Solutions that specialize in Hosted Store solutions for wineries. Even Nexternal (mentioned in the previous section) has a special “wine vertical”.

If appropriate, you might want to evaluate the special features they offer and how their pricing compares to the alternatives.

Hosted Store Design

One point to keep in mind is that your hosted store is a second website. Someone is going to have to design it.

All of the big-name services offer design templates. Their advantage is that they are easy to implement and guaranteed to work. Their disadvantage is that they probably don’t look much like your main website.

If you want your online store to look like your website, someone is going to have to do the customization. It’s easier, since they are not having to develop the design from scratch, but it is still work that you have to either do yourself or pay someone else to do.

Choosing a Hosted Store

So, how do you choose a plan? We discussed a lot of the considerations in Part 4. In this case, some of the factors to consider are:

  • Support. With a Hosted Store solution, you’re using someone else’s system for your eCommerce. How much support are you going to need? What kind of support? The larger, more generic providers tend to offer lots of documentation and basic support. Smaller, more specialized providers expect to provide more personal support. You have to decide which better meets your requirements (and budget).
  • Existing Merchant Account. If you already have a Merchant Account, you’ll have to decide whether you want to continue using it or not. For example, if you have Point-Of-Sale (POS) terminals you’ll need to keep your Merchant Account to service those. In that case, you might prefer a Hosted Store that uses your existing Merchant Account.
  • Features. Although all of the Hosted Store providers offer the basics, they differ in how these are implemented. And don’t stop your evaluation with just the basics— you might find that one provider offers a more obscure feature that’s exactly what you need.
  • Cost. Of course, cost is always a consideration. You should use your expected transaction volumes and other costs (for example, a Merchant Account) to estimate you annual cost.

Summary and Next Steps

That ends our overview of the Hosted Store scenario. This is a very popular approach, but as you probably noticed, there are still a lot of decisions for you to make.

This also is the last of our four major eCommerce scenarios.

But choosing which of the scenarios is appropriate for you is only part of a successful eCommerce implementation. There are many other aspects that you need to consider. In , we’ll take a look at what else you need to keep in mind .

Note: When you’re ready, I have the skills to help you implement your online store.

Get a Quote

eCommerce Demystified – Part 7: Hosted Cart

Business person confused about ecommerce

You’ve decided that you don’t really need an online store on your website, but you’d like to have full control over how your products are presented. Then maybe a hosted cart solution is what you need. In this part of our series, we’ll look at what that takes.

Overview

Four major eCommerce scenarios

The distinguishing characteristic of the Hosted Cart scenario is that your website is handling only the product catalog portion of the sales process. A Hosted Services Provider provides the shopping cart and handles payment card processing.

This approach allows you full control over how your products are presented to the customer, while offloading all of the actual shopping cart details.

What Is Required?

As you might expect, this approach is even simpler than those we talked about previously. The pieces of the total solution are:

  • Web server
  • eCommerce software (optional)
  • Hosted Cart provider
  • Secure connection with SSL Certificate
  • Payment Gateway
  • Merchant Account
  • Privacy & Security Policies

eCommerce software is now optional. In this scenario, it would simply be used to manage and display your product catalog, linking to the Hosted Cart provider for all other functions. This might be useful if you have a lot of products. But if you have only a few products, it’s probably simpler to develop the product pages yourself.

You don’t need a Payment Gateway, as your Hosted Cart provider performs that function. Similarly, because the payment card processing is happening on the Hosted Cart provider’s web server, they provide the SSL Certificate.

You also probably no longer need a Merchant Account, as most popular Hosted Cart providers handle that function themselves.

Popular Hosted Cart Plans

In this section we/ll look at a few of the best-known Hosted Cart services.

Hosted Cart Plan Pricing

The most popular Hosted Cart plans are those offered by the well-known brands. You’ll notice that the pricing on all of the plans is identical.

  PayPal Website Payments Standard Amazon Simple Pay Google
Checkout
Setup None None None
Monthly None None None
Per Transaction $ 0.30 $ 0.30 $ 0.30
Transaction fee—% of transaction, tiers based on volume:
0-3,000 2.9% 2.9% 2.9%
3,000-10,000 2.5% 2.5% 2.5%
>10,000 2.2% 2.2% 2.2%

How They Work

Hosted Cart buttons

The typical approach to using a Hosted Cart service is to place “purchase” buttons on the web pages you use to describe and promote your products. These buttons link to cart or checkout pages on your Hosted Cart provider’s website.

There are many options as to how these buttons are created and what exactly happens when your customer clicks one.

The key point to note about the Hosted Cart approach is that these buttons are all you need on your own website.

Choosing a Hosted Cart Plan

As you can see from the above table, there’s really no cost difference between the big-name providers. There are, of course, minor differences among them that might sway the decision one way or another:

  • Additional payment options. If you choose to use PayPal or Amazon, customers who have accounts with those service can take advantage of any already-stored payment information they might have. Depending on your customer base, this could be an advantage.
  • Shopping cart differences. Although all three providers ultimately perform the same function, their approaches differ. You should check out each to decide which approach seems to be the best fit for your needs and preferences.

Summary and Next Steps

That ends our brief overview of the Hosted Cart scenario. As you probably noticed, the implementation is becoming simpler and simpler as you offload more functionality.

In , we’ll take a look at our last scenario—Hosted Store.

Note: When you’re ready, I have the skills to help you implement your online store.

Get a Quote

eCommerce Demystified – Part 6: Hosted Payment

Business person confused about ecommerce

You’ve decided that you want an online store on your own website, but you don’t want to deal with a full PCI-DSS validation. Then perhaps an online store plus a hosted payment solution is what you need. In this part of our series, we’ll look at what that takes.

Overview

eCommerce Scenarios

The distinguishing characteristic of the Hosted Payment scenario is that your website is doing all of the processing except for collecting payment card information.

This approach offers feature flexibility similar to the full Merchant store, with the advantage that you don’t need to do a full PCI-DSS validation.

In-House or Out-Sourced?

As with the Merchant Store scenario, the first decision you’ll have to make is who’s going to develop your store. The fact that you are using hosted payment rather than handling it yourself doesn’t really affect the decision, since most eCommerce software packages have built-in support for both. Whether the implementation is complex depends more on the features you want rather than the payment approach.

So if you have web development expertise and your eCommerce requirements are simple, you could consider developing your own store. Otherwise you probably ought to out-source the job.

What Is Required?

The pieces of the total solution have changed somewhat:

  • Web server
  • eCommerce software
  • Hosted Payment provider (new)
  • Secure connection with SSL Certificate
  • Payment Gateway
  • Merchant Account (optional)
  • Privacy & Security Policies

You’ll still need eCommerce software to support your store and shopping cart. The difference is that it now hands off the payment processing to your hosted payment vendor rather than handling that function itself.

For an overview of popular eCommerce packages, see Part 5. All of the comments apply to this scenario as well.

You don’t need a Payment Gateway, as your hosted payment provider performs that function. Similarly, because the payment card processing is happening on the hosted payment vendor’s web server, they provide the SSL Certificate.

Whether you need a Merchant Account or not depends on the type of hosted payment plan you sign up for. Some plans use your Merchant Account, while others include this as part of the package.

Popular Hosted Payment Plans

Just as with Payment Gateways, there are many options for hosted payment. We can’t possibly cover them all, but in this section we/ll look at a few of the best-known services.

Hosted Payment providers usually charge a per-transaction fee. Some also charge setup or monthly fees.

Hosted Payment Plans With Merchant Account

With these plans, the Hosted Payment provider is handling payment card verification directly, so you do not need a Merchant Account.

In addition to the basic Hosted Payment fees, these plans charge a percentage of the transaction (typical of Merchant Accounts).

  PayPal Website Payments Standard Amazon Flexible Payments Google
Checkout
Setup None None None
Monthly None None None
Per Transaction $ 0.30 $ 0.30 $ 0.30
Transaction fee—% of transaction, tiers based on volume:
0-3,000 2.9% 2.9% 2.9%
3,000-10,000 2.5% 2.9% 2.5%
>10,000 2.2% 2.9% 2.2%

Hosted Payment Plans That Use Your Merchant Account

In order to use these plans, you must have a separate Merchant Account. To calculate the total cost of payment card processing, add the charges below to the charges from your Merchant Account provider.

  PayPal PayFlow Link Authorize.net SIM
Setup $ 179.0 $ 99.00
Monthly $ 19.95 $ 20.00
Per Transaction $ 0.10 $ 0.10
Plus Merchant Account fees

Note: Authorize.net is one of the largest U.S. Payment Gateway providers and works with most banks and card processors. (Disclaimer: Wine Country Web Design is an Authorize.net reseller.)

Choosing a Hosted Payment Plan

So, how do you choose a plan? We discussed a lot of the considerations in Part 4. In this case, some of the factors to consider are:

  • Existing Merchant Account. If you already have a Merchant Account, you’ll have to decide whether you want to continue using it or not. For example, if you have Point-Of-Sale (POS) terminals you’ll need to keep your Merchant Account to service those (or choose eCommerce software that has a POS capability). In that case, you might prefer a hosted payment service that uses your existing Merchant Account.
  • Branding. Hosted Payment providers differ in how much you can customize your payment screens. For PayPal, Amazon and Google, it will probably be obvious to the customer who you are using. As we discussed in Part 4, this has advantages and disadvantages. Other services (for example, Authorize.net) allow you to customize the user interface almost any way that you want.
  • Additional payment options. If you choose to use PayPal or Amazon, customers who have accounts with those service can take advantage of any already-stored payment information they might have. Depending on your customer base, this could be an advantage.
  • Bank vs. non-bank. As we discussed in Part 4, providers like PayPal and Amazon are not banks, and the rules applying to banks do not apply to them. For example, PayPal limits the amount of your revenue that you can withdraw each month unless you go through a “verification” process. If this is a concern, then you might lean toward a plan the uses your own Merchant Account.
  • Cost. Of course, cost is always a consideration. You should use your expected transaction volumes and other costs (for example, a Merchant Account) to estimate you annual cost.

Summary and Next Steps

That ends our brief overview of the Hosted Payment scenario. It offers most (if not all) of the features of the Merchant Store scenario, without the need to do a full PCI-DSS validation. This is a big advantage.

In , we’ll take a look at our next scenario—Hosted Cart.

Note: When you’re ready, I have the skills to help you implement your online store.

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