How to Build an Ecommerce Website – A Step-by-Step Guide
So, You Want to Learn How to Build an Ecommerce Website!
Many people dream of entrepreneurship, but starting a business was a challenging prospect before the internet. Now, building an ecommerce website and selling products online is within reach for anyone willing to put in the required effort.
If you’re new to online retail and are looking to step into ecommerce for the first time, there can be a learning curve. It’s not immediately obvious what’s required to get a new online business off the drawing board and into production. To help you get started I will explain how to build an ecommerce website from scratch.
Modern ecommerce platforms are economical and highly user-friendly, allowing you to build an ecommerce website for your business with just a few clicks. Most ecommerce platforms also offer key elements like secure payments, shipping, and marketing on a plug-and-play basis, so you likely won’t need any coding experience to set up a professional-looking online store.
This step-by-step guide to building an ecommerce website will walk you through everything you need to know so you can start selling online.
How to Build an Ecommerce Website in 11 Steps
1 – Decide on a Brand
Before you start building an ecommerce website, you’ll need to decide on a brand name. Your chosen brand will determine the website domain name you select and purchase.
There are hundreds of blog posts written about creating a brand. However, if you have the time (and resources), you may want to (or already have) engage the services of a branding agency to build your story.
When creating your brand, here are 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, colors, font)
- Deploy your brand across your digital property
2 – Choose a Name and get your Domain
Your domain — also called a URL — is your web address. Your domain is your website’s “home” on the internet and what shoppers enter into the browser bar to visit your website.
Choosing a good domain name is essential to your branding and overall success. Select a business and domain name closely connected to what you sell. Using descriptive keywords or key phrases in your business and domain name lets your customers know what you sell up-front, plus it helps you rank well in search engines, which is crucial to your business’s SEO strategy.
Once you have a few ideas for a name, you can purchase your domain using a domain registrar service like GoDaddy, Domain.com, or Google Domains. Visit one of these websites and enter your business name. It will tell you if that domain is available.
If your name is not available, these sites will display options, like .net or .co, or an alternate domain name. If possible, it’s a good idea to stick with a .com because that’s the most common and trusted usage. However, you may also want to consider non-traditional domain names like .shop or .store.
Your domain name will typically cost between $12 to $25 per year. The cost depends on the service and any add-ons, such as domain privacy. You may also find that whichever ecommerce platform you choose to build your website includes a free domain with your purchase, which brings us to our next point.
3 – Pick your Ecommerce Platform
Your ecommerce platform is where your site “lives” online, and you have many options. There are free platforms with limited features and nearly free stores built on WordPress. In addition, you can add ecommerce features to popular website builders or go with a dedicated ecommerce platform that can support unlimited growth.
Here are some top ecommerce platform options to consider:
Dedicated ecommerce platforms
These are the easiest way to launch a full-featured ecommerce website quickly. These solutions are robust and expandable and deliver powerful built-in functionality like secure payments, shipping labels, email marketing, and multi-channel sales support. These solutions aren’t free but provide many tools starting at around $30 per month.
Three top dedicated ecommerce platforms to consider include:
- BigCommerce: BigCommerce is geared to multi-channel sellers and is perhaps the most expandable small business ecommerce platform. Plans start at $29.95 per month.
- Shopify: Shopify is the most popular dedicated ecommerce platform ideal for startups and drop-shippers. Shopify plans start at $29 per month.
- Shift4Shop: Shift4Shop is another top contender in the dedicated ecommerce platform field and offers a budget startup plan for just $19 per month.
These dedicated ecommerce platforms offer a free trial period, so you can test-drive them risk-free before deciding which one you’ll use.
Website builders with ecommerce features
Another way to build an online store is by using an ecommerce website builder. Popular website builders Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace all offer ecommerce functionality. If you already run a website on one of these platforms, you can add online sales features by simply moving to an ecommerce plan.
- Wix: Wix offers hundreds of beautiful, easy-to-use website templates with ecommerce features starting at $23 per month.
- Weebly: Like Wix, you can quickly and easily create a beautiful site on Weebly with ecommerce features for $25 per month.
- Squarespace: Ecommerce features start at $30 per month, and you can choose from hundreds of design templates.
Simplicity makes website builder platforms popular with the DIY and side-gig crowd. However, if you’re building a website with the intent to grow, a dedicated ecommerce platform delivers more integrated sales and marketing features for similar costs.
Ecommerce plugins for WordPress
The WordPress platform drives over half of the world’s ecommerce websites due to its vast customization options and low cost. For example, you can add online store functionality to any WordPress website for free using the following ecommerce plugins:
- WooCommerce: The free WooCommerce plugin adds complete ecommerce functionality to WordPress websites.
- WP EasyCart: Like WooCommerce, WP EasyCart adds a full suite of online store features to WordPress.
- BigCommerce: Dedicated ecommerce platform BigCommerce also plugs into WordPress so that you can combine their multi-channel sales features with a brand-building blog.
4 – Get Your SSL Certificate
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. However, costs vary between providers, and you’ll need your domain name registered before buying an SSL certificate.
Key reasons why SSL certificates are now an essential requirement:
- 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 cover all primary domains 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, the certificate supplier does a thorough background check on the organization requesting it with the EV version. Background checks ensure the operation is legitimate and reputable. It is the premium version of an SSL certificate.
5 – Choose Your 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).
Your budget may play a part in the final choice. Choosing the best hosting package is vital for more than one reason:
Hosting your website in the same country that you’re selling to can impact how quickly the website loads. If you’re selling to a multi-national market, consider using a content delivery network (CDN) to help localize your site to different target countries.
Uptime and performance
The host’s reliability to keep the website up and to run is vital. If the website spends half the time offline, then you won’t be taking any orders.
At specific points of the year, such as Christmas, the demand for your website will (hopefully) increase significantly. It’s essential to understand how the extra traffic will increase the load on your webserver and its impact on the site’s performance. Too much traffic may 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
Think again if you consider shared hosting as an option for your ecommerce site. 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. As a result, they 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’ 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.
Suppose you are likely to go down the SaaS route. In that case, 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 setup.
Essential ecommerce hosting requirements to consider:
- Support for your chosen software
- Database scalability
- Performance management
- Administrative complexity
- Access to error log files
Thoroughly research hosting that suits the needs of your organization; possible providers include:
- WP Engine
6 – Choose a Payment Service Provider (PSP)
If you choose a SaaS solution such as Shopify, you will utilize their payment solutions. However, if you build your website via a solution such as WooCommerce or build a custom solution, you must consider a payment service provider (PSP).
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 to use 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:
7 – Plan and build your Ecommerce Website
You’ll need to gather the following elements and information to create your business website:
Logo and brand imagery
All ecommerce platforms let you add a simple type logo. However, if you want to stand out and get noticed by your target audience, you need to create a brand logo.
Product photos, descriptions, and data
Consider this checklist of information to include on your website, plus a few tips to help you market products effectively:
- Great product photos: You can create great product photos with a bit of creativity and a cell phone camera. For even better results, you should hire a professional product photographer. Be sure to take photos from several angles and show your products in use.
- Product videos: Authentic, real-world videos are proven sales tools, and you can also capture these with your cell phone.
- Detailed product descriptions: Create great product descriptions that cover every detail. Include the size, weight, and material for each product you sell and add answers to frequently asked questions. Use keywords in product titles and descriptions where it makes sense to achieve search engine ranking.
- Product options: Options like size and color are called variables, and ecommerce platforms let you create multiple variables for items in different sizes, colors, etc.
- Product SKUs: Ensure you have your internal stock-keeping units or SKUs, plus any manufacturer’s codes. Sometimes buyers will search using a manufacturer’s code, so these are good to include in product data.
- Product pricing: Many ecommerce platforms give you single-item and group pricing options, plus sale and discount pricing. Some even let you track your product costs for reporting.
- Item size and weight: Ecommerce platforms use item size and weight to determine real-time shipping costs and print labels. Printing labels is optional but can be a handy timesaver that automates your shipping process.
- Inventory: Insert a stock amount for each item, and your ecommerce platform will track your inventory as products sell down.
Your story is your chance to connect with potential buyers, so make the “About Us” section of your website sing. Share your journey, embellish it with photos and videos, and make it entertaining and engaging to keep buyers coming back for more.
Customer service pages
Excellent customer service keeps shoppers coming back, so use the customer service page of your ecommerce website to set expectations. Key elements here include:
- Shipping rates and times: State your typical shipping turn-around, the rates you charge, and average delivery times.
- Returns and exchanges: Cover your returns policy and state who pays for return shipping.
Your ecommerce website menus help shoppers easily navigate your website content. Most platforms let you create the main menu bar, footer menus, and sometimes top and sidebar menus. Experiment to see which combination works best for your product collection and content.
8 – Set up Payment, Tax, Shipping, and Marketing
This step will vary depending on your ecommerce platform. All-in-one solutions like BigCommerce and Shopify come complete with built-in payment processing, tax calculations, shipping label printing, and marketing tools. Most others require integrating a few outside services to handle these tasks.
Payment processing and tax table setup
All ecommerce website platforms covered above offer plug-and-play integration with top payment services like Square, PayPal, and Stripe. To enable payment processing using your preferred solution, you click a few buttons, provide your information, set up your account, and you’re connected.
Most platforms also let you connect your payment gateway and merchant account.
However, built-in and plug-and-play payment services are the simplest and often the most economical options for startups.
After setting up your payment processor, you’ll configure the sales tax rates you will collect from shoppers. All ecommerce website platforms support sales tax collection and let you apply taxes to select or all items and orders. The sales tax rates depend on your location and, in most cases, your overall sales volume.
A word of advice; sales tax is a tricky subject, and even ecommerce giants like Amazon often run afoul of laws and regulations. In addition, cities and counties usually have individual tax rates, which may not be the same as the state tax rate. Therefore, it is advisable to consult a tax accountant to help you set up the correct tax rate for your store.
You can, and should, integrate shipping software with your ecommerce platform to streamline the order fulfillment process. Integrated shipping seamlessly connects orders to shipping software so you can select carriers and shipping methods, print labels, and automatically notify customers when their orders ship.
BigCommerce, Shopify, and WooCommerce offer built-in shipping, so the setup takes just minutes. Most other platforms require that you connect a third-party solution like ShipStation or ShippingEasy to print labels and trigger customer notifications. These integrations work well with most platforms but can add monthly costs.
Once you set up your shipping solution, you can create shipping rates to charge your customers shipping fees. Most ecommerce websites let you add real-time rates and the actual cost of shipping each order. You can also set up flat rates based on order totals or offer free shipping for all or select orders.
Email marketing and social media setup
Like payments and shipping, some website platforms offer robust built-in marketing tools. For example, All-in-one solutions BigCommerce and Shopify offer complete marketing toolkits. As a result, you can quickly build and use email lists to connect with customers, plus sell products and send promotions across your social media accounts in a few clicks.
Other ecommerce platforms require a bit more work to set up marketing features. For example, you can connect WooCommerce to top email marketing services like MailChimp using free plugins. However, you need premium plugins to connect your products directly to social media accounts for social commerce.
9 – GDPR Compliance
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
Be sure to seek legal advice from a recognized 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.
10 – Test and Launch your Ecommerce Website
The next step in building your ecommerce website begins with processing a few test orders. Each ecommerce platform handles testing differently; however, all let you run a few pre-launch test orders through the system. These orders connect with your payment processor but don’t charge your card.
Once you’ve sent a few test orders through successfully — or have worked out any bugs you noticed while navigating your ecommerce website — you’re ready to open for business.
11 – Promote and Market Your New Store
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 gives you a basic idea of the ongoing digital marketing considerations you will need to consider.
Primary digital marketing considerations include:
- Organic search is a vast subject. At a minimum, have you created optimal page titles and meta descriptions? Do you have unique content? Are your images optimized and named correctly? How about an XML sitemap? Does your website include a product schema mark-up? These are fundamental aspects of SEO that will help your business start to drive traffic from Google and Bing.
- Using an SEO tool like Rank Math SEO will help you optimize your products and product descriptions and drive more traffic to your ecommerce website.
- Have you accessed data from Google Search Console (GSC) to understand what key terms your website is visible for and the number of clicks your site receives? For example, are users searching for your brand?
- Have you considered what your SEO strategy will be? For example, how will you create content based on the user’s needs? How will you determine search intent? Do you or your team need SEO training or assistance creating an SEO strategy?
- How will you collect user email addresses? What permission will you have to correspond with customers and prospects? How often will you communicate with them? How will you segment your users and deliver personalized email communications? What software will you use?
- Email is still an essential part of the digital marketing mix, and you should not ignore this marketing strategy.
- 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 visited? Where are your customers coming from? Not just in terms of online channels but also geographically?
- Utilizing a Customer Relation Management system allows a business to build a picture of users and segment them based on need.
- Building organic traffic from SEO activity takes time. However, paid search gives businesses the ability to drive traffic when a website goes live.
- Who will look after your paid search? How much budget should you set aside? What would be a reasonable conversation rate? What will be an acceptable cost to convert a visitor into a buyer? Finally, how will you learn from 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, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok? 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 have 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?
- SE Ranking and SEMRush are helpful tools to learn what your competitors are doing.
- Have you secured brand accounts on key social platforms?
- What platforms are correct for your audience? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest all have a vast user base and can help you drive traffic to your website. Still, you need to consider what content will resonate with your audience.
- How often will you post content? What time of day is optimal for posting messages to your audience?
- Are essential social media logos featured on your website? Do you have links to your website from your social media properties?
- Is it easy for visitors to share information from your website?
- Google Analytics is a free tool that allows website owners to measure advertising ROI and track website traffic, origins, and how users interact 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:
- Customer Experience (CX)
- User experience (UX)
- Conversion rate optimization (CRO)
Although a well-optimized platform will get noticed by search engines, it is necessary to actively promote your ecommerce website to attract relevant traffic needed to drive orders. Therefore, it’s essential to plan your digital marketing activity, quickly understand which strategies drive engagement and sales, and set aside a budget to help promote your website for the longer term.
Building Your Ecommerce Store
A good ecommerce site is more than just a place to sell products. It’s where a business can create an experience that strengthens its brand, draws in new customers, and converts casual shoppers into loyal brand ambassadors.
Creating an ecommerce business takes ambition, time, work, and a little bit of startup capital. The most crucial step is deciding to get started. You’re not going to get everything right your first go around. Be willing to experiment, fail, and keep moving forward. That’s the path to successful ecommerce entrepreneurship.
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