Friday, October 9, 2009

Choosing an E-Commerce Solution: 10 Things to Keep in Mind

by Collyn Floyd

Do you have a website with e-commerce capabilities (i.e., one that takes online sales) and want it to generate high amounts of traffic and revenue? If e-commerce is the lifeblood of your website, you need to treat it as such, and more than likely that means forgetting about cutting costs with a "canned" e-commerce solution.

If you've done any research on e-commerce products, you've surely noticed the vast array of products, features, and prices. We've put together a list of considerations to help you make sense of it all and select an e-commerce product that's appropriate for your needs. So before you put just any e-commerce application on your website, we recommend that you consider the following: Budget

E-commerce solutions come with a variety of different bells and whistles - and corresponding price tags - from dirt cheap to put-a-second-mortgage-on-the-house expensive. Of course, it's always tempting to go with the least expensive option, and in rare cases that might be all your website needs. But you want to make sure that you're not getting a product that's too basic or inflexible for your website's needs. Make a list of all the features you need now as well as into the future and make sure the e-commerce solution you're considering can accommodate those needs. Integration

Pre-packaged e-commerce solutions often fail when it comes to integrating with databases and systems already in operation. With a customizable e-commerce application, this isn't an issue. Make sure it can tie into any legacy networks or systems or integrate into your QuickBooks or other accounting software. Flexibility

Flexibility is absolutely key when selecting an e-commerce product. That's because you'll want a product that can grow and adapt along with your business. Don't just think about your business needs today, but try to anticipate what they might be down the road. Will your e-commerce solution still work if you need increased functionality? What if you want to add on more features or tie in to a database?

Some of the cheaper e-commerce solutions are merely pre-packaged products that have no ability to be customized or expanded. And while it's always possible to change e-commerce products down the road, but that can be terribly expensive and time-consuming. User-friendliness

Ever found yourself using a shopping cart that made you work or guess at the checkout process? Chances are that both diminished your trust in the website and made you to buy the product from another website. An intuitive shopping cart and checkout process helps ensure your customers stay on your site and complete the transaction. Appearance

Along with user-friendliness comes appearance. A big part of your shopping cart's appeal is having an aesthetically pleasing, professional look. Make sure your shopping cart reassures customers that your website is legitimate and the transaction will be smooth. After all, they'll be entering their credit card numbers and other private data; a sloppy appearance can drive your customers straight to your competitors' website. Customer Service/Support

Does the e-commerce solution you're considering have customer service for you? Be sure to find out what level of support your e-commerce provider offers. Are they there 24/7 or just during regular business hours? Do they have a live person you can talk to or will you be referred to online FAQs? What kind of product updates do they offer and how often? If you have technical questions, can they assist you with those as well?

It's important to know going in what level of service you'll have, otherwise you could be looking at headaches and frustration down the road. Coupon/Promotion Management

Does your website offer discount coupons or let users pay by gift certificate? Or would you like to offer these features in the future? This may seem like a given, but often less expensive e-commerce solutions don't allow these basic options. Make sure your e-commerce solution gives you the ability to add/edit coupons, discount codes or other promotions, as well as sell and process gift certificates. SEO Friendly Content Management

This one's a biggie, but then again we're an SEO firm (as well as a web development firm) so we're sensitive to these things. We know first-hand the value of having your site perform well in the search engines, so if you're doing any kind of web marketing, you need to make sure that search engines can index the product pages of your website.

Your e-commerce solution should allow you to create short, clear URLs; search engines don't like the long, messy URLs that most e-commerce applications generate and are at times unable to index them. Besides being search engine friendly, short URLs are more user friendly and easier to remember and share. Your e-commerce application should also allow you to optimize each product page, including page titles, alt-text and meta-data. Conversion Tracking

Again, our biases as an SEO firm come through: it's essential that you be able to track conversion information based on search engine traffic and keywords. Do you want to know what search engine is sending you the most traffic? And what keywords are resulting in sales? A good e-commerce solution should also provide partial form conversion tracking, in other words, the ability to capture information from abandoned forms. Security

Online security breaches and identify theft can cause major damage to your customers' credit and your reputation. Your customers trust you to keep their credit card and other personal information secure, so when selecting an e-commerce product, be sure to find out what security procedures the vendor has in place and how often they update/review security information. Be sure to ask if they've had any security breaches in the past. In Summary

It's hard to overstate the importance of selecting the right e-commerce solution for your website. It's where you actually make the sale and collect payment information, so it needs to be user-friendly, search engine-friendly, reliable, flexible and secure. Without those things, you could be looking at all sorts of issues for your business and customers.

We'll leave you with this advice: Do your research up front, ask to take the product for a "test drive" to make sure it accommodates your needs, and don't skimp on features or price. You'll have confidence that you're investing in a flexible, customizable e-commerce system for the long haul. You won't be sorry.

About the Author

Collyn Floyd is a marketing and public relations specialist with The Karcher Group, a web development and search engine marketing firm based in North Canton, OH. She is passionate about helping The Karcher Group's clients achieve greater online traffic, leads and sales through search engine optimization and marketing.