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Choosing Ecommerce




Choosing an ecommerce / shopping cart solution

Ecommerce software – online stores – shopping cart systems: these are all terms that refer to websites that allow for direct selling with a credit card enabled online display of products or services.

There is a massive movement toward online sales and away from High Street shopping in many market areas. Some types of business have already become almost entirely Internet based, such as insurance of many kinds. The advantages are so many and varied that a list would take an entire page; the disadvantages are fewer and tend to apply in specific areas where online sales will never compete. It is tempting to start listing these exemptions, with fruit & veg for example; but then supermarkets have even started trading online now, so even these types of goods are not exempt.

There are some clear divisions between the types of applications available; the classes of products that are sold; and the types of seller.

Products can physically exist and be shipped to the purchaser; or are services; or consist of digital and information products that can be downloaded. Sellers can be divided into B2C and B2B traders: that is, businesses selling to customers, i.e. end users, or to other businesses.

Applications - the server-based website software that displays and sells the products - can be bought or leased, and are also available free. Free applications are normally ‘open-source software’, or OSS, which are projects run by a community of developers. They build these programs for a hobby, or earn a living by customising them for people who need specific tasks enabled.

It is important to realise several points about any web-based application: all programs, however well established, however expensive, have faults and room for improvement. Therefore, there is no disgrace in an application being described as a ‘project’. All properly developed applications (software, programs, apps) are projects, since they are all (or should be) undergoing continual improvement.

Good support, in all its forms, is vital. Web applications are now so complex that full backup is required in every area.

An excellent clue to the quality of an application, and its support, is the support forum. Go there first, before anything else.

Open-source web applications are often equal in every way, or are even sometimes better, than commercial rivals. This is because the best brains in the world can work on them. In fact the Internet is based on them, since the Linux operating system and Apache server (both OSS) account for the majority of servers.

An online store system may be free or cheap, but other costs tend to be the larger factor anyway, such as development and implementation. Even where expensive commercial solutions are used, the software cost is not necessarily the major element in a very large and custom-designed project.

A good trading model is to lease a good commercial application, on a server at a first-rate hosting company who specialise in that type of software. Commercial applications that have a solid history are a good bet, because there is one source of support, and generally a reasonable user community.The site hosts can be a critical factor here.

On the other hand, if reliable direct support is available to the user, OSS can be an economical alternative. Remote support in this field is based on community resources, which can be comprehensive if the application is popular enough. These types of support certainly require an expert to make use of.

Difference between ecommerce and shopping cart
In theory there is no difference because ecommerce refers to the use of a shopping cart application. An application = software = a program.

In practice, though, we generally refer to a small ecommerce program, and especially an add-on one for another main application such as a CMS, as a shopping cart. On a CMS, it's a convenient extension that allows a few products to be sold directly through the site. If it's a standalone program, it might perhaps handle up to 5,000 products and provide up to 50 payment gateways. Probably, most users would have less than 1,000 products, for this sort of program usage profile.

However, it would be difficult to refer to large ecommerce software solutions as 'shopping carts', since their potential size and capability seems to exceed that description. They are normally referred to as ecommerce applications, which accords them a little more dignity. In this class are open-source applications such as osCommerce, and commercial ones such as MivaMerchant. There are also many proprietary hosted solutions. As a comparison with the shopping cart class of software, osCommerce provides around 500 payment gateways, and these applications will handle 100,000 products or more.

A further class of software is the relatively uncommon Ecommerce CMS. These provide a mix of product sales facilities with text and multimedia content. This type of program is likely to become more popular in the future, and the current two or three contenders in this class will be joined by more.

SEO for ecommerce
Ecommerce SEO is important because it is one of the two ways to improve website income. The other is advertising, which online will often be of the PPC type, but this is more expensive and therefore less efficient.

SEO, or search engine optimising, is the process of increasing traffic by improving on-site and off-site factors, then improving sales conversions, in order to increase website revenues. Ecommerce websites have special requirements in this area, because there are substantial differences between these sites and other types.

  • Ecommerce sites are dynamically generated by software that resides on the server and generates pages from a database. No web pages exist on the server. In this regard they are similar to CMS websites.
  • There will be multiple pages of products and images - many thousands in some cases - but little in the way of text.
  • If the products are also sold by other vendors, there is a good possibility the product pages will be virtually identical across many sites - a bad thing.
  • Most ecommerce software was developed for purely functional purposes, and no care was ever taken with code quality or search results potential. Code is generally of poor quality, and the requirements of search engines are frequently ignored.
  • Even usability factors are not optimal, which is strange as this is a prime requirement for successful sales.
  • The hosting has a major effect on operational success and security.
  • The choice of plugins is critical, likewise the way they are implemented.
  • There are a multitude of ecommerce options which are a comparatively poor choice for SEO and therefore business success.

These factors mean ecommerce sites are different from the usual text information based website, presenting their own specific problems, and therefore the SEO process must be different.

There are usually web standards compliance issues, accessibility issues, usability issues, and security considerations with ecommerce sites. On occasion such issues are of some magnitude. A prospective ecommerce website owner should therefore choose the software carefully; select a hosting provider with equal care; and if commercial success is required, which seems likely, a suitable SEO consultant's advice should be sought from the start.

On the next page (see the menu link on the right navbar) we look at all those questions you need to ask potential suppliers first.

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