Let’s say you’ve decided to enter the exciting world of ecommerce. Assuming you have a solid plan involving impressive products, exceptional service and/or industry-leading prices, that’s a great move. Despite already dominating retail, the online sales sector still has a lot of room to grow, particularly in developing markets and other areas where technology has lagged behind.
Throw in the convenience of running an online store (minimal startup expenditure, with no need for a costly physical location) and you have something that’s both appealing and practical. But no matter how accessible it becomes, there will always be people who get it completely wrong. People who create an ecommerce website that drives visitors away or fails to attract them at all.
The truth of the matter is that a bad ecommerce website will undermine every strength of your business. You can have all the key elements we introduced at the beginning — great products, service, and pricing — and still fail miserably. If you’re going to achieve your goals, you need a fantastic site.
To help you manage it, we’re going to set out the best practices for creating a standout online retail store. Follow them as you go through the development process and you should be satisfied with the results. Let’s get to them, shall we?
Take Inspiration From Top Bands
Steve Jobs was never shy about stealing and adapting great ideas when he came across them. What he (and many other great creatives) understood was that an obsession with originality can hold us back from finding the best solutions. An ecommerce entrepreneur determined to come up with their own ideas would need to disregard tried-and-tested foundational elements. Their designs would be clumsy and confusing — contrarian for the sake of it.
If you want your ecommerce website to be great, then the first thing you should do is look at great retail websites. Closely examine what they get right and what they get wrong. How do they present their products? How do their search functions work? How do they make visitors feel welcome? Find sites in different niches and see how they differ. Think about how the different audiences must have informed their design approaches.
You don’t need to create some kind of amalgamation along the lines of Frankenstein’s monster, but there is value in making a list of pros and cons to give you guidance throughout the rest of the process. Keep it close at hand, and revisit it after launch to see how things turned out.
Choose A Well-Supported CMS
If you have a massive budget and a lot of time to spend, you can commission a custom CMS designed to your unique specification — but there’s likely no point. Instead, pick a mainstream CMS with the power and flexibility to meet your needs, because you’ll be able to customize everything that matters. For a first-time retailer, I’d suggest one of two options:
- Shopify. The de facto standard-bearer for small-to-medium ecommerce businesses, it’s an intuitive and well-equipped retail system with a huge amount of versatility through its flexibility and range of apps. If you don’t want to make many manual changes, run with it.
- WordPress plus WooCommerce. If you’d rather have a bit more control over your destiny, then it’s tough to do better than the world’s leading free CMS combined with its best ecommerce plugin. It’s fully-featured, open-source, and highly affordable.
Regardless of what you pick (one of those, or something else entirely), you have two options: helm the development yourself, or hire an expert developer to manage it for you. The following best practices should apply regardless, but if you hire a developer then you obviously won’t need to worry about them quite so much:
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Focus on Mobile Usability
Much of ecommerce has been taken over by the mighty smartphone. You carry it with you wherever you go, use it throughout the day, and make spur-of-the-moment purchases. It’s also undeniable that younger shoppers are more likely to use mobile devices to shop online, meaning that anyone who isn’t making mobile usability a priority is way behind the curve.
Due to this, it’s mission-critical that your ecommerce website works exceptionally well on mobile devices. It also makes so much more sense from a design standpoint: it’s easy to scale a mobile design up to a desktop screen, but it’s much harder to shrink a desktop design to fit on a phone screen. Be sure to also get some real-world testing done before launching — something might make sense to you (perhaps because you’ve looked at it so many times) but confuse the end user.
Optimize the Performance
I just talked about mobile usability, but that goes beyond user interface design. Much of the time, smartphones connect to the internet through mobile data — and mobile data isn’t always fast or stable. Even today, plenty of people in the Western world live in areas with weak signals, requiring them to endure 3G speeds (or slower) and frequent dropouts. This makes it imperative that you avoid providing a bloated and sluggish website.
That kind of site would work alright on high-speed broadband connections, but mobile users are particularly impatient and won’t wait around for slow pages to load. If your home page won’t come up within a second or so, you’re going to struggle to compete with other brands in your niche. Cut unnecessary content, keep images trimmed down, and you should be alright.
Work on Technical SEO
SEO, or search engine optimization, needs to be an ongoing process in the ecommerce world. Organic search is usually the biggest source of retail traffic, after all: if people can’t find your ecommerce website, they can’t order from it. In the long run, it mostly involves smart content marketing: scattering relevant keywords and building backlinks from high-value domains.
Leading up to launch, though, there’s one area of SEO that you can polish very effectively: technical SEO. This encompasses all the ways in which the design of your website can affect how its pages rank. Can all the important pages be indexed? Do all the products have the necessary metadata? It’s a good idea to cover these bases as early as possible, because it takes a while for Google to trust a new website, and a bad start will cost you momentum.
This list of best practices for ecommerce websites isn’t comprehensive, but it does run through the most important elements. You’ll have plenty of time after launch to improve your website, so it doesn’t need to be perfect from the outset: just lay a stable foundation to ensure that you make a positive first impression. You can build from there.
Rodney Laws is an ecommerce expert with over a decade of experience in building online businesses. Check out his reviews on EcommercePlatforms.io and you’ll find practical tips that you can use to build the best online store for your business. Connect with him on Twitter @EcomPlatformsio.