This is it! You’re ready to launch your online store. But before you choose an eCommerce website platform, let’s tackle some important questions before you dive in.

Of course you want your eCommerce site to look great. But a beautiful design is just the start. Your website has to provide a terrific shopping experience for your customers and a good selling experience for you.

While all the top eCommerce platforms are going to offer great design options, it’s the side your customers don’t see that you need to pay attention to. You’ll want to choose an eCommerce platform that seamlessly calculates shipping costs, taxes, takes various payment options, automatically sends receipts, prints out shipping labels, automatically sends email confirmations, helps you manage inventory, has a return system, and so much more. Oh, and do we need to say it? It better have top-notch online security baked right in.

Okay, so how does all that happen? We’re not going to get too technical here. We just mention this so you can decide how DIY you want to get with the various eCommerce options.

In terms of code, websites have a client side and server side. The client side is the design side that uses HTML and CSS. This is everything customers see as they navigate your site.

The server side—the side that does all the stuff that’s invisible to the site visitor, but is critical to the details of the sale—is more complicated. That’s the server-side code that can involve Javascript, PHP, Ruby on Rails, etc. This is the side of your online store that customers don’t see, but an eCommerce platform that does these functions well makes the shopping experience for your site visitors and the order fulfillment experience for you a good one.

With that out of the way, we tackle the first and most obvious question…

Which eCommerce Platform is Right for Your Business?

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors.

Your budget
Your technical expertise
The size of your business

Roughly speaking online entrepreneurs fall into one of three categories:

1. The dedicated Do It Yourselfer (DIYer)
2. The “Get me on the Road, give me some direction, and I’ll take if from here” folks
3. The folks who are seriously code savvy or who have a budget that allows them to have a web developer or two on staff.

For the first group of DIYers, these entrepreneurs are comfortable diving into any platform and figuring it out. At minimum they likely already have experience running a WordPress site, and they are comfortable working with HTML and CSS to tweak or even seriously overhaul a design.

These folks are comfortable—in fact they prefer—seeking out answers and tutorials online. They’d rather spend their time than their money to track down answers when they want to customize the design or functionality of their site.

These dedicated DIYers are going to be comfortable using the free WooCommerce eCommerce platform that is used with WordPress. Alternately, if they don’t mind spending a little more to get up and running even faster, they should consider using Shopify.

The Pros and Cons of Shopify versus WooCommerce

WooCommerce is a free eCommerce platform used with WordPress. But don’t let the word “free” fool you. Using the WooCommerce plugin is free, but of course you’ll be paying for your domain name, server space, and an SSL certificate. A domain name and an SSL certificate is often included with your server subscription, like Bluehost with WooCommerce-ready hosting for $6.95 per month, so explore your options.

Also Automattic, the company that brings us WordPress, bought WooCommerce in 2015, so the two platforms are better integrated than ever. All good, but bear in mind if you choose WooCommerce you’ll be responsible to activate every update to WordPress and WooCommerce and any plugin you may add to extend the functionality of both platforms. These updates are critical to keep your site secure, and are typically managed with just one click. None of this is a surprise or a big deal if you already use WordPress.

In addition, you’ll enjoy a huge selection of free and paid plugins that extend the functionality of your site. But bear in mind that each plugin potentially adds another feature that can be exploited by hackers. That’s a headache for every website online, but more so for WordPress since it’s in such wide use.

You can also get the excellent and free Yoast SEO plugin for both WordPress and WooCommerce. SEO is critical for an eCommerce site! In addition, because you’re using WordPress you have a built-in blogging platform, and, yes, content marketing (blogging!) is very important for an eCommerce site.

The other option that’s popular among DIYers and those who may be less experienced with code but are eager to get up and running is Shopify.

Shopify is a hosted all-in-one ecommerce solution. When you choose Shopify, you pay a monthy subscription that includes your hosting costs. Once you are signed up you are literally ready to begin uploading product images and start selling. All software updates, SSL certificates, and security updates are included in your monthly fee, and they are done seamlessly behind the scenes. You get to focus on your business.

The reason we steer our clients to Shopify rather than other options in the hosted eCommerce category including Big Commerce and Volusion, is the same reason more people gravitated to Facebook over MySpace, or choose to shop at Amazon over Shopify is emerging as a larger and better designed, and better performing platform. In fact, the platform is so respected that suggests it may soon be ripe for acquisition by Amazon or Google. We want our clients positioned to ride Shopify’s wave of success.

To recap: WooCommerce is self-hosted, meaning you determine what server subscription you want to use, then you upload WordPress and the plug in WooCommerce and get started. Shopify is an all-in-one hosted eCommerce solution. You sign up and you are ready to go.

WooCommerce allows more customization, but both platforms offer loads of additional free and paid plugins to extend functionality. WooCommerce can be cheaper, but you will be responsible for implementing timely updates of WordPress, WooCommerce and your plugins. Shopify largely manages updates seamlessly behind the scenes.

So what about larger businesses that want to consider enterprise-level ecommerce website development options? Now you are looking at an eCommerce platform like Magento. But let me start waving the red flags. You may see online those pretty pie charts that indicate many eCommerce sites are hosted on Magento, but the visual data is misleading. Those are big business sites—think Nike, Nordstrom, Home Depot, etc.

Let me ask you: do you have a team of web developers and designers on your team that is at the ready to manage the client side and server side code that we mentioned above? Do you want to pay for a private server? Manage your own security updates? Nah, probably not. So don’t be swayed by data that doesn’t apply to your goals right now.

Which eCommerce Website Development Solution Should You Choose?

Here’s the advice we give our clients:

If you have coding experience, like to dive into the details, would rather spend your time than your money, and maybe right now you are just wanting to test the waters of your eCommerce idea, you’ll be happy with WooCommerce. When you choose a hosting solution like Bluehost that has a one-click install process for both WordPress and WooCommerce, you’ll be up and running very quickly. Not only that, choosing WooCommerce is a decision that leaves the door open for you to migrate over to Shopify if you choose to. WooCommerce is the ideal choice to enter the eCommerce world with a minimum investment of money.

If you are like many of our clients who are eager to begin selling online, and are willing to learn the simple steps to upload product images and learn to navigate the backend options of managing inventory, etc., we definitely recommend Shopify. It is the most user-friendly option with the potential to emerge as the undisputed eCommerce platform of choice.

What to Ask Your eCommerce Website Developer Before You Sign

So, you’re ready to launch your store but you’d like to get a running start by hiring an eCommerce website developer to get you off on the right foot. Excellent.

First we hope your designer or developer has asked you a lot of questions about your business, its size, your goals, and your level of technical experience. We hope they have taken the time to introduce you to the various eCommerce options as we have here.

But before you commit, take time to understand what you are paying for. The following are some important questions to ask.

How much training will I receive when the site launches? Is it included with the initial development costs?
Your website developer should be prepared to walk you through signing into your new site, and how to manage uploading images and managing the back end of inventory management, shipping, etc. This isn’t hard! If they are developing your site on established platforms like WooCommerce or Shopify, they should already have a menu of frequently asked questions as well as links to detailed online “how-to” articles and videos—either videos they’ve made themselves or how-to videos provided by the platforms. There is a wealth of excellent tutorials online. Your developer owes it to you to have sourced the best of these and make them available to you.

How much SEO is included in the design setup?
This is a critical question. Let me ask you: In Ye Olden Days would you pin your business card up with a sea or other business cards on the bulletin board of your local community center and expect business calls to come rolling in? Laughable, right? Well, without SEO baked into your site from the start, your business won’t be found by the search engines, period.

You have to ask your eCommerce website developer how they with optimize your product images for search, whether they will be optimizing your pages’ title tags, how they will optimize your product captions with keywords, etc. If they say, “SEO is not a service we offer” please, we beg you, move on. ECommerce website development minus SEO is not the way to start your business.

What type of security and backups will my site have?
If you have chosen a self-hosted eCommerce option like WordPress and WooCommerce, much of the security responsibility is on you. Your eCommerce website developer should instruct you to keep WordPress, WooCommerce and all your plugins updated, and include either a free or premium security plugin such as WordFence with your initial setup. Creating weekly website backups are critical as well. This can be done through a number of free and paid WordPress plugins, and through your hosting provider as well at an additional fee.

Shopify, on the other hand, manages more of the security issues for your eCommerce website behind the scenes. But your sign in access, who you allow access to your site, and your plugins will be points of security risk. It will be up to you to secure these vulnerable points by following best practices by using good passwords, limiting access to your site, not signing on if your web access is via public wi-fi, activating two factor authentication sign in access, and making sure your plugins are up to date.

Will you install Google Analytics and Google Search Console tools?
Both Google Analytics and Google Search Console are free tools that are added to your website with a simple copy and paste line of code. Your web developer should add both tools to your website’s code before your site goes live.

Both of these tools are important because they reveal how your site is performing in the search returns. The Google Analytics tool is well known. The Google Search Console tool is less so which means it’s less often added to sites. Insist on having both added (again, we are just talking about asking your developer to add two lines of cut and paste code). Google search console is the tool that reveals what search queries are bringing traffic to your site. Without this information, you lose out on key information to optimize your site for search.

How easily can the site transition to another platform if I change my mind?
The answer is “very easily.” Every eCommerce platform makes it pretty simple to import your online store to their platform because they want you as their customer. So never be tricked into thinking you are stuck on an eCommerce platform, or your online store will somehow disappear if you grow disenchanted with your website developer or the services they offer.

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