How to set up an ecommerce website in 9 steps
If you’re new to the world of online retail and are looking to step into ecommerce for the first time, there can be a lot of learning required. It’s not immediately obvious what’s required to get a new online business off the drawing board and into production.
We'll take you through nine basic steps you need to consider when setting up a brand new ecommerce website.
#1. Decide on a brand
Before you start your adventure in ecommerce, you'll need to have a decided upon a brand name. This brand will be reflected in the domain name that you select and purchase for your website.
There are literally hundreds of blog posts written about creating a brand. If you have the time (and resources), it is very possible that you might want to (or already have) engage the services of a branding agency to build your story.
When creating your brand, here some basic steps that will help.
- Research your target audience and identify your main competitors
- Decide on your focus and your personality
- Choose the business name
- Create a brand promise
- Create the look of the brand (logo, colours, font)
- Deploy your brand across your digital property
For more detailed material, look at the following resources:
You don't have to have keywords in your domain name to rank in Google
It's true, you do not have keywords in your domain name to become visible in either Google or Bing. Yes, having keywords can be useful, as it can help users identify with a product or service. But, the likes of Amazon, Boohoo, and ASOS have built brands and not keyword-rich domains.
However, there are times where the concept works, because it's relevant. Let's say, your name is Jon, and you make fantastic furniture from recycled materials. It makes complete sense to choose a name that is relevant to your skillset. For example, jonsreclaimedfurniture.co.uk or jonsrecycledfurniture.co.uk or jonsbespoketables.co.uk.
#2. Secure your domain name
So, you have a name (the brand) for your new venture, now you are ready to progress your journey and buy the domain name.
Domain names can be purchased through hosting companies, or domain registrars. Many hosting companies also offer their own web builder packages, so be prepared to do a lot of research. If at this stage you simply want to secure the domain name of your brand, then that's fine. You always have the option to move your domain name to another provider at a later date. The key thing at this stage is the secure domain name you want.
Where is the target market?
A point to consider is the target market for the new domain. Will you be targeting just your local audience or a national or even international one?
If you are targeting multiple regions or countries, do you need to purchase more than one domain name, or can you deliver everything through a single domain on a non-country specific top-level domain (TLD)?
What happens if you cannot secure your first-choice domain name?
If you cannot secure the .co.uk (or .com) version, there are other variants available to you. Let's say that you have started a food delivery business during the Coronavirus pandemic and you want to buy the domain 'fooddelivery.co.uk'. When you look, you find the domain is already taken. What do you do? You could try a variant of the preferred name. For example, you may be able to secure 'fooddelivery.online', in this instance, the domain works. Some registrars do provide alternative suggestions. You might also find you are being presented with other available domain extensions.
You can find a great overview of the available options at: iwantmyname.com/domains, examples include:
- .online, .bargains, .company, .plus, .rocks, .shop, .store, .website
Notable domain registrars include:
You do not have to have a .co.uk or a .com domain to be visible in search results
You are building a new business, a new entity, and Google and Bing will reward the website with visibility in search result pages when the domain becomes known, is talked about, gains citations, and perhaps most importantly provides a great experience for the user.
3. Choose the right ecommerce platform
Selecting the right ecommerce platform that your website will run from is a crucial decision. Changing the platform at a later date can be a very time consuming and expensive operation if you have thousands of products to move.
There are three key types that you can choose from which vary in complexity, price, and speed to market:
There is a vast range of ecommerce platforms available, in the form of Software as a Service (SaaS) storefronts, off-the-shelf software, or bespoke solutions. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks. When selecting an option, think about the demand you are anticipating and how many SKUs will you have on the system for your product inventory.
If you have a relatively small set of products, it may be more cost-effective to try using one of SaaS providers. As with anything, there are always pros and cons.
Typically the quickest and least expensive route to market.
For a small monthly payment, an aspiring online retailer can set up an ecommerce business relatively quickly. Providers such as Shopify.com or Bigcommerce.com offer easy to configure, template builds with a configurable front-end presentation.
These solutions are great for dipping your toe in the water and finding out how the world of ecommerce works. It’s very quick to throw together a website that looks professional and functions well. However, the platforms are heavily templated and making adjustments to your site to add in large-scale customisation is not an option. There’s little to differentiate between the different e-tailers on these platforms.
Key platforms to consider
Off-the-shelf solutions are available and can be set-up by someone with strong technical knowledge. Typically, a higher level of technical ability is required for set up, allowing for much more in the way of customisation to the platform. Magento, WooCommerce (for WordPress), and Kentico are examples of 'off-the-shelf' ecommerce software, all of which are highly feature-rich and extendable.
A major drawback to any off-the-shelf solution is the number of unnecessary features that often come bundled into the platform. Tools that are designed to meet the needs of the mass market often end up over-delivering to individual businesses that require only a small selection of the services on offer.
As with SaaS solutions, it’s not easy to differentiate your site from the competition. Hundreds of sites run on the Magento platform and all function in exactly the same way. It’s possible to add plugins to the sites, but those plugins are available to all. If a competitor sees that it’s working for you, it’s easy enough for them to copy.
Key platforms to consider
While an exact fit, a bespoke solution is likely to result in a longer timeline to market. This option will also require significant investment and is the least likely option of the three for a small start-up.
A bespoke solution will be able to give an e-tailer exactly what they are looking for from their ecommerce platform. However, there is no way around the fact that bespoke solutions will cost more than off-the-shelf software, as there is a much higher requirement for customisation to set the package up.
A bespoke solution can be a much leaner solution, optimised for the requirements of your build and without the excess baggage that can be included with off-the-shelf platforms.
What about PCI compliance?
The Payment Card Industry Security Standard Council (PCI SSC) is an international body set up to outline the security best practices for online card processing – specifically for any business that processes, stores or transmits credit card data.
As an online merchant, you will need to meet a level of compliance with the guidelines issued by the PCI. The exact level will depend on the nature of your business: smaller merchants are often able to complete a self-assessment survey to meet compliance.
For those using a SaaS solution. PCI compliance will not be an issue, this is handled by your provider. The set-up of your ecommerce store will determine whether you need to be PCI compliant. If your organisation/website is not handling/storing sensitive credit card information, it is unlikely you will need to be PCI compliant.
There are a number of ongoing requirements for PCI compliance, such as running regular vulnerability assessments against your website. These scans can either require a qualified security assessor or an approved scanning vendor to periodically check your website for known vulnerabilities.
Meeting the standards for compliance helps to protect your business from being breached and keeps your customers’ data safe.
Check with your ecommerce solution provider if you are unsure of your PCI compliance obligations.
'Out of the box', the majority of eCommerce platforms report to be SEO friendly, but they are never optimal
Being 'SEO friendly' and 'SEO optimal' are two very different things. Compare the SEO features and make sure those on your key wishlist are included. Contact us if you are unsure of what is required.
#4. A secure (SSL) certificate is an absolute
If you are not using a pre-packaged ecommerce service, then alongside the domain name you will also need to obtain an SSL certificate.
An SSL certificate is needed to secure communications between a visitor’s web browser and the web server hosting your website. There are many providers of SSL certificates.
Alternatively, many hosting companies will take care of the SSL for you, so you may be able to purchase through your web host. Costs vary between providers and you'll need your domain name registered before you can purchase an SSL certificate.
Key reasons why SSL certificates are now a key requisite
- The certificate creates a secure, encrypted connection between the web server and the users' browser, thus protecting user information
- Displays trust (and a 'padlock') in the address bar
- Avoids interception of sensitive user information
- Will protect all principle domain and subdomains
- Is the preferred protocol for all web traffic, not just transactional visits
For an ecommerce website, you may find that some vendors require an Extended Validation SSL certificate (EV). While SSL certificates like the Domain Validation (DV) and Organisation Validation (OL) are both valid, with the EV version, the certificate supplier does a thorough background check on the organisation requesting it. This is to ensure the operation is legitimate and reputable, it is the premium version of an SSL certificate.
Prominent SSL certificate providers include:
The use of an SSL certificate has been a minor ranking factor since 2014. Now, the use of SSL is far more than a ranking factor. Google has developed its Chrome browser to warn users of non-secure websites and therefore, warn users against visiting non-secure websites. As a website owner, you need to utilise SSL to demonstrate your venture is secure to potential customers and to make the web safer for users.
5. Choose the right hosting package
All websites have to sit on a server somewhere (even cloud-based hosting is still server-based, it's just not your server).
Budget may play a part in the final choice. Choosing the right hosting package is important for more than one reason:
Hosting your website in the same country that you’re selling to can have an impact on how quickly the website loads. If you’re selling to a multi-national market, then consider the use of a content delivery network (CDN) to help localise your site to different target countries.
Uptime and performance
The reliability of the host to keep the website up and running is vital. If the website spends half the time offline, then you won’t be taking any orders.
At certain points of the year, such as Christmas, the demand on your website will (hopefully) increase significantly. It’s important to understand how the extra traffic will increase the load on your webserver and the impact that can have on the site’s performance. Too much traffic may even cause the server to trip over and crash, taking your site offline. Cloud hosting solutions are a good option for dealing with increasing demand, as it’s possible to scale the server capacity up in line with demand.
Shared hosting environments
If you are considering shared hosting as an option for your ecommerce site, then think again. As you have no way of controlling who is hosting on the same server as you, it's not a good idea to enter into shared hosting – you won’t be able to maintain control of the security of your site’s environment.
The other companies hosting their websites on a shared server may not be as diligent in their security procedures and could unwittingly provide a hacker with a backdoor into your website. A data breach can be highly disruptive to your business, destroy your online reputation and leave your customers’ personal details open to anyone who cares to look.
Most web hosts will be able to offer Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliant hosting for an ecommerce customer.
If you are likely to go down the SaaS route, you will not need to worry about hosting as providers like Shopify will automatically provide you with a cloud-hosted environment as part of their set-up.
Key ecommerce hosting requirements to consider
- Support for your chosen software
- Database scalability
- Performance management
- Administrative complexity
- Access to error log files
It is recommended that you research hosting that suits the needs of your organisation; possible providers to consider include:
To win and gain new customers, you need to deliver the best experience possible
Not only is website speed is part of Google's ranking algorithm, but it is also a key factor in delivering a fantastic user experience (UX). When choosing a web host partner, research what users say, read reviews. You want to deliver a fast experience to your newly waiting audience. If selecting a CDN, ensure that this is located in geographically-relevant countries to your target audience.
6. Secure an internet merchant account (IMA)
In order to take money online, you need to secure an internet ready bank account called an internet merchant account (IMA).
Internet merchant accounts differ from normal merchant accounts as you have no direct access to the funds collected until they are cleared by the bank. The amount of time it takes for the funds to clear will vary depending on the perceived risk associated with your business.
There are two key methods of obtaining an IMA:
- High street banks can set these accounts up for you, although they have a number of requirements that you will need to meet to qualify for an account.
- Through an online payments service provider who can issue an IMA on the behalf of a banking partner
Both have a level of scrutiny and the business will be assessed and an evaluation carried out prior to the approval of an IMA.
Key information you will be asked for includes:
- Business plan
- An overview of the product and services
- Details of key suppliers
- Delivery provision
- A copy of the online terms and conditions
Ensure your ecommerce solution offers an Amazon feed.
Amazon is a behemoth when it comes to ecommerce. It is also where most product searches start (more than Google). For many online businesses, it is a key channel. Consider Amazon as a way to drive sales while you build the brand. Having a well-structured product feed will also allow you to experiment with other channels (like Google Shopping) when you are ready.
7. Choose a payment service provider (PSP)
If you are going to choose a SaaS solution such as Shopify, you will utilise their payment solutions. If you are building your website via a solution such as Magento or building a bespoke solution, then you will need to consider a payment service provider (PSP).
Once you have an IMA for your business, you will need to decide on a payment service provider (PSP), otherwise known as a payment processor or payment gateway.
Some banks will suggest a PSP when issuing the merchant account, but if possible it pays to shop around as the charge rates differ between them: it’s nearly always possible to find a cheaper deal.
Most PSPs will allow you the choice of using their payment pages, or self-hosting the pages of your checkout.
Self-hosting can give a more seamless checkout experience but can lead to increased risk for security and require different levels of compliance from the PCI.
Notable PSPs include:
Buyers come to your website from a myriad of devices, make sure you have payment options that are user-friendly.
Ease to purchase is crucial for any ecommerce business to ensure the right options are in place to convert users. For example, iPhone users have the ease of using Apple Pay, so ensure your chosen service supports multiple check-out payment types, or at least they can be easily implemented in the future. Use information from Google Analytics to understand conversion rates across different device types.
8. GDPR and terms and conditions
When setting up your new ecommerce business, don't forget General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and ensure your online business has robust terms and conditions.
Key elements you need to consider include:
- Cookies policy
- Terms and conditions
- Acceptable use policy
Seek legal advice from a recognised law firm with expertise in data protection and compliance. Put data protection at the heart of your business and make sure your team is aware of your obligations as the business grows.
Your visitors will expect to be able to know how their data is used by your organisation
Building trust with your users is crucial. Make sure you know what data you want to collect about your users, how you are going to store it, and who the data is going to be shared with. For example, if you plan on utilising Google Analytics and a CRM, you will need to disclose this information to your users.
9. Ongoing digital marketing
Once you’re up and running and ready to take orders, you need to drive visitors to the website. Setting-up was the easy part, now you are moving into a different phase of the business. The following provides a flavour of the ongoing digital marketing considerations you will need to think about.
Basic digital marketing considerations include:
- Organic search is a vast subject. At a base-level have you created optimal page titles and meta descriptions? Is your content unique? Are your images optimised and named correctly? Do you have an XML sitemap? Does your website include product schema mark-up? These are basic aspects of SEO that will help your business start to drive traffic from Google and Bing
- Have you accessed data from Google Search Console (GSC) so you can understand what key terms your website is visible for and the number of clicks being received? Are users searching for your brand?
- Have you considered what your SEO strategy will be? How will you create content based on the needs of the user? How will you determine search intent? Do you or your team need SEO training or help with creating an SEO strategy?
- Email marketing
- What provisions have you made to collect user email addresses? What permission will you have to correspond with customers, prospects? How often will you correspond with them? How will you segment your users and deliver personalised email communications? What software will you use?
- Email is still an important part of the overall digital marketing mix and should not be ignored
- How are you building a view of your users? How many times are they returning? How are they engaging with your brand? Who are your top customers? What were the last pages they looked at? Where are your customers coming from? Not just in terms of online channels, but also geographically?
- Utilising a Customer Relation Management system allows a business to build a picture of users and segment them based on need
- Paid search
- Building organic traffic from SEO activity takes time, paid search gives businesses the ability to drive traffic as soon as a website is live
- Who will look after your paid search? How much budget should you set aside? What would be a good conversation rate? What will be an acceptable cost to convert a visitor into a buyer? How will you take the learnings of paid search activity and build that into your digital strategy?
- Will you focus efforts solely on Google? Should you consider Bing as well? What about Facebook or Insta? Do you know where your audience is and how to engage them? Will you want to retarget users that have been exposed to your brand, but yet to engage with it?
- Paid search can deliver instant traffic. Setting up a Google AdWords account is relatively simple, and within a matter of minutes, you can drive traffic to your website through this channel.
- Do you have information on what terms competitors are bidding-on?
- SEMRush is a useful tool to gain knowledge of what your competitors are doing.
- For more help look at our paid search training courses
- Social media
- Have you secured brand accounts on key platforms?
- What platforms are correct for your audience? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest all have their own huge user base and can help you drive traffic to your website, but you need to consider what the type of content your audience will connect with
- How often will you post content? What time of day is optimal for posting messages to your audience?
- Are key social media logos featured on your website? In return do you have links to your website from your social media properties?
- Is it easy for visitors to share information from your website?
- Website tracking
- Google Analytics is a free tool that allows website owners to measure advertising ROI as well as tracking website traffic, its origins and how users are interacting with the website
- You might want to consider putting together a measurement plan or undertaking basic Google Analytics training to understand how to use the platform to enhance your business
Once the basics are in place, and as digital maturity grows, then your needs may progress to needing help with:
Although a well-optimised platform will get noticed by search engines, it is necessary to actively promote your website to draw in relevant traffic that’s needed to drive orders. It’s important to plan your digital marketing activity, quickly understand what levers drive interest and sales, and set aside a budget to help promote your website for the longer term.
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