Although the costs of websites have dropped dramatically since the dot-com boom, e-commerce remains a murky area for small businesses due to watered down website cookie cutter packages which allow anyone to “provide websites,” and also the fact that pricing a website can be like purchasing a used car due to the fact that every client has unique needs, which need to be accounted for accordingly.
Disclosure: In addition to my tech reporting, I also am a web developer, and I own a web development company. Still, this piece is neither to bash the professionals I work with, nor is it intended to shame the industry. Rather it is a small sampling of a few key tips I provide to my clients and those around me when they ask about expanding their online prescience.
The first thing to know is that when it comes to having a website built is that it’s always best to stick with open source platforms. While cookie cutter websites might be tempting due to the astronomically low costs (typically $5 to $50 a month), in the long run you suffer because the low cost comes with the price of not being able to move your website if you decide to switch hosts down the road.
For web development, in most cases the platforms you’ll want to use are WordPress or Joomla. If you need a complex website, you might want to use Drupal, and possibly have a look at Magento if you have a very complex online store. All of the previously mentioned platforms are open source, meaning that as the code is open, the projects have thousands of developers working on the projects to ensure quality, and also because the technologies are essentially industry standard, so it’s usually very easy to find a developer to assist with your project.
As far as security goes, since the invention of computers there has been a debate of open source vs. closed source (e.g. Windows) which is a topic for another article, but my answer to the question is that no solution is 100%, and each side has its merits. But, as far as security goes with the previously mentioned solutions – the reasons I named them is because due to the large communities, they typically have the fastest responses to bugs and security holes.
The next thing to keep in mind is that when having a website built, be weary of a developer pitching a solution “built on open source.” Typically that’s developer lingo for “We took WordPress [or another open source solution] and butchered it so that it appears the same, but you’ll still have to call us for virtually anything.” Although it is a horrible business practice, situations like that happen all the time mainly because the client doesn’t know about the limitations until the time comes to switch vendors. Additionally, some clients are so intimidated by the label” e-commerce” that they assume it’s standard for developers to do every single task.
In reality, when doing business with a developer, today’s websites have gotten to a point where even if you don’t know every exact detail, there is no excuse for at least having the ability to learn it if desired or needed.
Due to length constraints this article is not going to be a step by step guide to setting up your website, but rather it assumes that you are running the latest version of WordPress already and are ready to add new features and designs.
WooCommerce is created by the theme company WooThemes. Although they originally were a premium WordPress theme company, WooCommerce was released awhile back as their foray into expanding the functionality of their theme.
As WooCommerce is built upon the core WordPress code, you can be assured that it is very easy for yourself or a developer to customize to your needs. Additionally, built in analytics and coupon capabilities help with targeting your inventory, while a built in mini-CRM system for order fulfillment/management helps to ensure maximum store efficiency. The package also sports numerous SEO features to ensure that your shop is structured to properly handle Google and the other search giants.
Finally, as WooCommerce supports PayPal and Google Checkout, you can even get your online store running without having to sign a contract with a traditional merchant processor. Note, however, that the contract free plans often carry much higher fees, so if you are doing significant sales, going with a traditional processor might be a good idea.
WP e-Commerce is another simple yet robust plug-in for WordPress, which is 100% customizable, meaning it can be modified to fit your exact needs. In addition to providing similar functionality to WooCommerce, a few vital features setting WP e-Commerce apart are real-time USPS and UPS shipping quotes, cross sales (i.e. product suggestions), and robust merchant processor support.
In addition to the free functionality, WP e-Commerce also has upgrades you can purchase for additional fees. Some additional functionality of note are affiliate plugins (for managing an affiliate program), paid digital downloads support, and FedEx add-on to provide real time shipping quotes to customers.
Although the information here is not a walkthrough to get an online store up and running, it should at least give you a bit more knowledge and leverage when it comes to discussing your company website with the developer. Just like speaking to your CPA, doctor, or other professional in a complex field, even the most basic due diligence will help greatly to ensuring a mutually beneficial work arrangement.