Online entrepreneurship is a rewarding experience. You get to develop your business’s style and vision, sell a product you’re passionate about, and devote your talents to something you believe in. This guide will improve your conversion, bring more visitors to your site, and put you ahead of your competitors. Follow this guide to best practice to develop a store you’re proud of and set you on the path to eCommerce success.
1 – Accessibility and conversion
Conversion doesn’t just happen.
A key element of an online business is the ease at which customers can navigate and purchase. Sites often place design at the heart of their website to create a layout that looks modern and innovative, but leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to ease of navigation. Customers need a clear path of action to effectively guide them around the store and towards a purchase. If your customers are confused about where to click and where it will take them, your business will struggle to close transactions.
For improved conversion a site needs to:
- reduce fear
- build trust
- reinforce benefits.
In a physical store, conversion is enhanced through the tangibility of the product, the business and the salesperson. In the online realm, it comes down to the quality of the website. A “good” site is a different concept to different people, however there are some generally accepted conventions.
A navigation system that makes sense, both in terms of best practice web structure and for the end user, is the most important aspect of an eCommerce site.
It should be simple and reduce the number of clicks required to reach the desired result. The menu system needs to be logical and shallow, with smartly designed categories. If your customers have to wade through a poorly laid out menu system, or one that requires them to click 15 times before they reach the product, you will lose their interest.
When the customer arrives at the checkout, the process isn’t over. Almost 70% of people will abandon their cart at the final phase. While a lot of the time this will be simply because they changed their mind, were checking the shipping costs, or getting a quote, a good portion will have been put off by an aspect that didn’t reduce their fear, build their trust, or reinforce the benefits.
Elements of the checkout process that can reduce the rate of abandonment:
- A visual indicator of how far the customer has progressed for a clear path to completion and the required investment of time.
- Streamline the transaction to the 3-page rule: Cart à Payment and shipping à Order confirmation.
- Remove compulsory sign up and allow guest registration, which will decrease the fear of unsolicited emails
- Implement cart abandonment tactics to bring users back. Convincing even 1% of people to return and close the sale will see a dramatic rise in turnover.
- Ensure your security credentials are up to date and display the relevant security badges to help remove fear.
The product page is important, however, users will often conduct outside research. This makes the page less about selling and more about showcasing the quality of your service and ease of your site. Aspects that can convince a customer to purchase from you include:
- An “If you like” or “Other customers bought” section to upsell or cross sell. It can also show users that your site has an intuitive understanding of the product niche.
- A sidebar to give the user the power to refine their search without heading back to the main search page. This improved functionality will influence their decision to remain on your site.
- Product description that highlights the benefits clearly, with all the details that outline the benefits to the customer.
- A “bestsellers” section. This can be a side bar or a banner that shows what is popular and makes it immediately visible.
Ease of navigation also relies on a user being able to get anywhere on the site from wherever they happen to be. Requiring a visitor to head back to the homepage to access their cart will only increase the chances of losing them. A floating “Add to cart” button, or one at the bottom as well as the top of the page, will reduce the chances of abandonment due to a user thinking it too much trouble to scroll.
It is also a good idea to include a bread crumb trail system, which allows users to find their way back to any page they navigated from in their journey. This is particularly useful for parent category pages and specific product pages. The browser’s back button can be unreliable when navigating between styles, colours, or sizes, but a simple link to take them back to whence they came will encourage their continued engagement with your site.
2 – Content
Content is the flesh of the site and the tool used to show off the benefits of the products. Some sites use heavily branded content, while others rely on stock photos and minimal editorial. The industry your site operates in will often dictate what content is used, however if you can embrace more forms, you will have better customer engagement, which can lead to higher sales figures.
Every product page needs at least one high quality photograph. Ideally more, but it depends on the industry. For example, a clothing store might need five or six, while a cellphone case retailer might only need two. The images should strike a balance between size and resolution to ensure site speed remains optimal
Video is becoming increasingly popular and effective, with sites using it on product pages to show off everything from clothing to tech devices. As the quality and ease of shooting has improved and mobile and desktop internet speeds have increased, video has become more prolific.
Text content still remains the most important form for SEO. It is universally accessible, regardless of whether a site is being browsed on a desktop or mobile device, or how fast or slow the connection is. Written content needs to follow an F shape hierarchy of importance. Users read as little as 28% of content on a page and generally skim to find what they are looking for. This means that the page needs to be structured with informative headings and sections that break the site into key points for ease of reading. The content should be front loaded to hit all the important aspects in the first two paragraphs, with the remaining content being extended information.
- Customer reviews and ratings
Often a site will use testimonials to promote their product and brand, however they will only ever use the very best, 5 star examples. While the idea is clear; to show that people love a site, product or service, it is an immediate red flag for people browsing. The advantage of allowing all reviews, whether positive or negative, is two-fold. Firstly, the more content a product page has, the more likely it is to rank SEO-wise. User reviews are a rich source of long tail key phrases and the kind that the everyday searcher is likely to use. Secondly, it is a way to engage with users who have had good and bad experiences with your brand, and right the wrongs or reinforce the positive. With the explosion of social media and review sites, it is impossible to hide from criticism, making it important to address it and improve the perception of your brand.
- Product descriptions
If a site uses product descriptions provided by the manufacturer it will cause duplication issues, which in turn will impact the ability of the pages across the site to rank well on search engines. It is best to write original descriptions, enabling you to create highly branded content, as well as ensure it is original.
3 – Platform
There are dozens of eCommerce website platforms, which makes it easier than ever before to get an online store up and running. From Woo Commerce to Wix, Bigcommerce to Open Cart, the explosion in eCommerce has created a demand for easy-to-use, yet highly functional platforms. Currently, the big three names in eCommerce are Magento, Shopify and WordPress.
- Magneto is the most more technical platform, and one that requires a fairly high level of developer knowledge, or the help of a qualified professional. A simple store can be ready to make sales in approximately 10 days.
- Shopify is the medium point between functionality and ease of use. Shopify makes it possible for people to start a store with just a little technical knowledge. It is a native eCommerce system, integrated with an easy to use CMS and many templates to choose from. This makes it possible for a store to be up and running in as little as three to five days.
- WordPress began life as a blogging platform, then became a CMS and has now expanded into eCommerce via a WooCommerce plug in. A key advantage of WordPress is its familiarity and simplicity. It is one of the world’s most popular CMSs and is used around the world by businesses and bloggers alike. It allows users to add eCommerce functionality to an existing site, without any conversion or redesign.
Amazon and eBay dominate the virtual retail space. It is important to tap into these audiences and the main platforms – Shopify and Magento – offer seamless integration. This allows users to maintain their marketplace accounts from the CMS, without any need to use eBay or Amazon directly. The ability to have a central inventory, including any physical store sales, also eliminates the risk of over selling.
With many eCommerce systems providing hosting as part of the package, it can be easy to forget that is as vital to your revenue as the platform you choose. A poor choice of hosting provider can lead to outages, which in turn will impact your revenue and rankings.
As with most things, you get what you pay for. Cutting corners with hosting will limit your access to support, may mean a lower quality product, and could leave your site exposed to threats. A higher priced hosting option will give you great support services, a faster site, and you will be dealing with a company whose ability to keep big sites online will be affected by even the smallest outage.
Another issue that can impact the reliability of hosting is the physical location of the servers. A lot of cheaper hosting is located in the US and India, which aside from the distance involved, will also impact your ability to get support if things go wrong.
For most eCommerce businesses, shared hosting will be adequate, however as a business grows and develops, it may require its own dedicated server. A dedicated server gives your site huge resources and the highest level of security. As you aren’t sharing a server with other users, no one has access to it. You don’t necessarily need to be a huge business like Amazon to require a dedicated hosting service, instead it could be a matter of future-proofing your business and website to cope with projected growth and expanding product lines. Another option is VPS or virtual private server hosting. Rather than share resources with other websites, yours is allotted a certain amount. This gives more power and flexibility than you’d have on a shared account, but without the cost of a dedicated server.
As with every aspect of choosing the right option, research is vital. Your hosting provider should have the ability to grow with you in the immediate future and provide the right level of support. eCommerce has opened itself up to everyone, from those with immense technical knowledge, to people who can only send emails. Selecting the right platform and hosting package can determine whether your business will flourish or falter. Don’t rely solely on price, instead consult with friends and look online for reviews of services. Check out websites that use the services you are looking at to decide whether their products will match with your requirements.
4 – SEO
The majority of people begin their shopping with a search engine. This makes it important to undertake a comprehensive SEO strategy to ensure your site has the best chance of being discovered.
Keywords and content
Keyword research is still an important part of the SEO puzzle. While the world of optimisation has moved away from density as a major rankings factor, you still need to tell the search engine what your page is about. For this type of research, you must to look beyond what your product is and think about what people will be searching for. Good places to start include Amazon, Wikipedia, and Google itself. The auto-suggest functions of these sites give a good idea about the most common terms being used around your core keywords. Wikipedia will also list alternative terms within their articles. This helps identify other common names for your product and what people of varying ages and backgrounds might use other than the words you do.
In terms of specific keyword research tools, the main two are Google Keyword Planner and SEM Rush. GKP is the least powerful and will show you subtle variations on the terms you enter, which can be useful for uncovering some ideas but generally won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. If you can afford to pay for it, SEM Rush is a good tool for uncovering what your competition is already ranking for. You enter a competitor’s URL and it will give you a list of the words and phrases, the page each ranks on, as well as other businesses ranking for similar phrases.
The structure of a site is important not only for the end user to navigate, but also for search engine crawlers. It is important to aim for simplicity and scalability, and help maintain a three-click maximum. This means that a user can find what they need within three mouse clicks. Simplicity means keeping the site map shallow, enabling the SEO authority to remain concentrated, while scalability means that more products and categories can be added without the need for an entire site revamp.
Following the three-click rule requires smart grouping of products and a good filtering system. Amazon is the gold standard of menu systems and they take advantage of hovering navigation bars to minimise the number of clicks required. Their structure makes their enormous inventory easy to get around, while the filters down the left hand side of the page allow the user to narrow the results without moving away from the page. Amazon’s site has 168 million pages on its US version alone, which means it should be easier for a smaller eCommerce site to create a logical and easy to traverse their site’s structure.
The title tag does more than simply sit in the tab along the top of your browser. It is a key rankings factor and an important place for the page’s main keywords. It is a great opportunity to add words such as “cheap” and “buy” and the ones that are less easy to insert into content naturally, but are commonly used during a search.
While not a rankings factor itself, it impacts the click through rate (CTR), which is a rankings factor. Again, using words such as “cheap” and “buy now”, or ”X% off” to speak directly to the user’s search. The search results will show the matching terms in bold on the Google SERP, making the meta description an important way to capture the attention of the user.
It has been shown that longer content, in particular product descriptions, ranks better than short. However, this becomes irrelevant if the content doesn’t satisfy a few criteria.
- Google, and all search engines, want the page to satisfy the user’s query. This goes back to ensuring your keyword choice is right for the page and your industry, making sure the information you are presenting answers their questions.
- Your content should be original and comprehensive, with the main points and benefits outlined in an easy to read form, such as bullet points. Keyword density isn’t as important as good content, but you still need to include the phrases so they can be ranked.
- It is also important to include related terms that you would expect to see around the main phrases. For example, a product page for a blender might include:
- User manual
These aren’t words you’re trying to rank, instead they support the keywords and phrases.
Key issues to address
- A web page needs to serve two masters – the search engine and the user, however search algorithms have reached a point where they class thin content as that which cannot adequately answer the query. Chances are, if your content is threadbare, your customers want more information too.
- External duplication will affect your site’s ability to rank. The most common cause is using the product description supplied by the manufacturer for your content. Regardless of whether it is long or short, well written or gibberish, it will have been used by other sites and needs to be rewritten.
- Internal duplication is also a problem. This is where a website owner has pasted the same content across different pages of their site. Every page should have unique content to give it the best chance of ranking.
Site is too small
- If your site doesn’t have many pages, Google will generally see that as a negative. If your site sells only one product, then this can be a tricky thing to overcome, but there are ways. Landing pages and regular blog entries are a good way to build a site with a sufficient number of inner pages. Blogging will also have additional benefits in regards to giving your site fresh content on a consistent basis.
Too many pages
- Conversely, if your site is too large you could find yourself further down the rankings than you’d like. There is no magic number for the best size, but if you have a lot of pages for the same pair of shoes, each for a different colour and size combination, you can suddenly find yourself with an unwieldy site. It is best to noindex these pages via the robots.txt file to prevent them being used to calculate your rankings. If you have pages you no longer need, then you should delete them to keep your site tidy.
Site too slow
- A site with slow loading times will have a harder time ranking against a competitor that has their site optimised for speed. Google provides a tool that enables website owners to assess the speed for mobile and desktop versions of a site, as well as how mobile-friendly it is.
Social and blogging
There is an emerging correlation between social signals and rankings. Sharing content and posting about a website on Twitter or Facebook, linking back from a blog or reblogging, are all shown to lend authority to a site. The key to successful blogging is consistency and originality. It is important to develop goals and a plan to measure and replicate the results. The aim with any blog is to educate and inform, and present ideas that add to the conversation.
The same level of planning is needed for social media, with engagement being the key aim. Virality is not something that can be planned, which makes it important to build campaigns that focus on building your brand and creating a relationship with users.
Social media is the ideal arena to engage your followers and let them contribute to your success. User generated content, when done right, can be the stickiest and most compelling of all. Users respond to the experiences of others for the same reasons they read reviews of products before purchasing. Another consumer’s opinion is seen as more reliable and unadulterated compared to that of a business with its own interests to serve. User generated content is a powerful opportunity to build a community around your brand and develop an audience of dedicated advocates who will contribute to your success.
5 – Testing
A key part of any eCommerce web design project is testing. Making sure your site is operating correctly and at optimal speed will have a positive impact on your revenue. There is often an assumption that if there is something wrong, the customer will tell us. More likely, the customer will simply leave.
Testing doesn’t have to be complicated. It can simply be spending a few hours clicking every link and attempting a variety of dummy transactions. This phase can be laborious and dull, but failure to ensure your site is functioning correctly can result in lost sales, lost customers, and can be a smear on your site’s young reputation.
At the very least, test the pages that are on a conversion path:
- Home page
- Check-out pages
- Product pages
- ‘My account’ pages
- Landing pages
- Payment and address pages
You should also do a run through of:
- Page links
- Page content
- Page images
- Displayed prices
- Consistency of font size and style
- Mobile friendliness
eCommerce success isn’t luck. It is all the little things done well.