In this guide, you will learn about a whole gang of things to consider when starting an online retail business. Things, I didn’t consider when starting an e-commerce business 7 years ago.
Let’s get to it.
Admit it, we all hear about the success of online retailers that started in a bedroom, and we want a piece of it. I run an online store and I still want a piece of it.
When am I going to get my piece of it?!!
What even is it!
GIVE ME SOME IT
Sorry, I’m taking us off on a wild loop. You’re here for one reason only, you want to know what I did wrong, so you can avoid that. Then hopefully, blast your way to e-commerce success.
Look, I can’t promise you fortune, well I can’t promise you anything, other than 7 things I wish I knew when I started my online business.
This post is done with an e-commerce focus. That means, much of what I say here, may not mean much to some, but if you’re looking to start your first e-commerce business, then stick around.
So here goes.
Table of Contents
- The Best CMS for E-Commerce
- Themes Save Ps
- Proper Link Architecture
- Apathy to Growth
- Blogging and Off-Page SEO
- Performance Insights
How to pick the best CMS for online store success
Right, you’re possibly thinking, what is a CMS? It means content management system and really it’s just a fancy way of saying, your shell of an online shop. So what is the best CMS for online store success?
If you had an offline shop, you would have shelves and price tags, and stock rooms and tills.
Well, the CMS stores all your files and pages, products and prices, then adds a fancy front visual that users can browse, click, pay and receive.
Your shop will be a CMS. That’s essentially all you need to know about that.
But what you do need to know, is what one to get. So let’s name some famous ones:
There are others and I am probably offending a few platforms by not mentioning them, in short, the real heavyweight operators are Shopify, Woocommerce and Magento. Woocommerce is what you will likely use if you have a WordPress site, Shopify is great if you can advertise on social media and Magento is the f***ing deathstar mega machine.
Now – I haven’t used Magento much, except to browse around it, but it is high end and incredibly capable. Woocommerce is also a fantastic way to go. It’s versatile and cheap to use. I didn’t pick these, I went with Shopify.
Before I explain a bit more, Wix and Squarespace, seem to have invested more in their brand marketing and less in the actual commercial-grade value of their tools. It’s 2020, they do nice Youtube videos but, they still suck.
Why does Wix and Squarespace suck?
You could take my word for it, or you could try yourself. They do not have nearly enough applications to enhance the experience and they also have very poor performance scores which we will come to later. In short, they can never hope to match the features you will want or need and they are like watching a pensioner in the Olympic 100m final when it comes to page speed scores.
Back to me. I picked Shopify
I run an e-commerce business that sells vaporisers. This means I cannot use paid ads and the only forms of marketing I can adopt are SEO based. Ie: writing fun blogs and getting google traffic organically. Shopify isn’t terrible at this but Shopify is more geared up toward those that can use paid social ads and is highly mobile optimised for it.
You can see that in the built-in functions Shopify wants you to use, Instagram shoppable etc. Yet they haven’t considered adding functionality to their blog section, to make it more user friendly, to enable drag and drop products to buy etc. This is something that sites who generate traffic from organic search, would want, it creates a call to action.
Is Shopify good for blogging?
The difficulty with which uniquely structured blogs are to make, and the simplicity of selling via social apps from Shopify, tells you something. Add to this the URL structuring of Shopify that doesn’t allow you to create subcategories, and a host of other SEO niggles. This means if I had known my only marketing method was SEO, I would NOT have used Shopify.
I would have used WordPress with Woocommerce. In fact, a sister site I set up that sells similar products, outranks my 7-year-old Shopify site on a number of products and with a lot less work done.
In my own sector, the leading sites for organic search are all WordPress. Now, this may also be because SEO fans prefer WordPress and as such the best talent has chosen to use it for their sites, but from my own experience, there are clear limitations.
So, if you know how you will be doing the lion share of your marketing – pick the right platform for that.
If you want to see our beginners A-Z on startup marketing – read it here
Shopify is super easy to make a simple, attractive, robust site. It rarely breaks and is not prone to the car crash disaster that WordPress updates can do to a Woocommerce site. So if you are all about paid socials, looking trendy and all that jazz, then Shopify is great. BUT if SEO is going to be your route, I wish I had known to use Woocommerce instead.
Verdict: I need an SEO friendly site and Woocommerce hosted on WordPress would have been my choice.
Don’t be like me.
Themes Save Ps
Themes. What are they?
They are predesigned templates you can buy or even get for free and rebuild based on your own images and words. They are a wormhole to a finished website. A shortcut to completion.
When I was at Uni in 2000 I did a computing architecture course. Part of that course involved building an online music store, like a Virgin or Tower Records online. That meant, tables and frames and Html for days. If you have ever built a website from a blank notepad file, saved as HTML and opened in explorer you will know what I am talking about. It is a hell of a chore.
These days, things are a little easier, but most of us still go online and find a person to build a website based on a style of someone else’s we like. What I didn’t realise until about 3 years ago, is that that web guy you paid, just went online and bought a theme for you.
The problem with this, is you haven’t thought about what you actually need the theme to have pre-developed in it to work best for you. How can you, you haven’t started yet. You don’t know your customer.
Revelations in building a retail e-commerce store
In 2019 I attended a website convention and the one thing that struck me was this:
Shoppers spend more time on other peoples websites than yours. That means, give them more of what they know and less of what they dont.UX Crunch – 2019
What does this mean? Well in short, if you haven’t considered the mind of a shopper to build your e-commerce store, then chances are, the first thing that many will be doing when landing on your site, is working out how to navigate it.
Some things come intuitively to us through experience, while others don’t. This means if your site visitor has to spend more than a few seconds working things out, they will bounce. That is bad for SEO, which is bad for business.
A good example where this approach can be seen is with the recent changes to LinkedIn to resemble Facebook’s feed a little more. This is what people meant when they said ‘Competitor Analysis’. It’s so important to understand what your target customers are currently doing and work around that.
How did I build my first e-commerce site?
I let a friend who had never designed a website before, do it for me. He picked the CMS with no prior analysis and made a website that resembled a brochure and not a shopping experience. This meant now I had a website that looked more like a blog but without the structure behind it to win at SEO.
I spent years tweaking around with it, paying a ton of money to others to build custom code to gradually make it look more like a shop.
What should I have done?
Gone to my competitor’s websites and found out what theme they were using for those on Shopify.
Rather than build the code to add a search bar in the header, or create attractive blogs, or filter sidebars, I should have just found one that already had them.
This all is a result of not looking out for what shoppers are currently enjoying when shopping online at other websites. An expensive task to forget.
How do you find out what Shopify theme someone is using?
Had I done that and paid about $100 for a theme, I would have all the code I needed, to make an e-commerce site ready to go. Instead, I spent close to $5000 over the first few years trying to engineer my own thing and never built with the right code in the first place.
For that money, I could have rented a suite in Vegas, a cereal bowl full of Cocaine and an evening of lapdances at Spearmint Rhino. Imagine that. You could do something correctly, do more business, rank better, have a mindblowing weekend in Las Vegas and still spend less money.
Verdict: I wish I’d known to think about what it is that good sites in my sector do and look to improve not reinvent them. To do that, I should have just bought the right theme in the first place.
3.Building Proper Link Architecture
This is probably foreign to most of you reading this, in fact, I’ll admit, it was gobbledygook to me until about year 6 of me running an online store.
There are two things to focus on here (that I didn’t):
- Site hierarchy
- Internal linking
Site hierarchy is simply ensuring your e-commerce store is ordered in a logical fashion. If you have a clothes shop online, here’s an example:
Home > Men’s Clothes > Evening Wear > Casual > Tops
If you imagine each level is a page and try to ensure that unless a special page, you aim to ensure your website keeps a logical order like this. Ie: on the home page, you link to the men’s clothing long before you link to casual evening tops for men.
Linking from the home page to a later stage category/collection has the potential to confuse Google as to what pages your target customer should view first.
This creates a site structure that search engines struggle to understand and cuts your odds of success.
This was not how we used to do things. In fact, huge parts of what is known as ‘end of the funnel’ keywords were accessible from the homepage, essentially eliminating obvious steps in the customer journey. This meant we were ignoring the user journey of the vast majority who:
- Didn’t understand or know our site yet
- They didn’t know what they were looking for on-site
- Or didn’t use the same product terms as us.
What happened when we had bad site structure?
We didn’t rank despite having a domain authority stronger than many competitors.
When you have 30 shops and do multimillion annual revenue, yet see your website being outranked by ‘Aunt Dorothy’s Small Shop’ or similar, you know you’re doing something terrible.
What you need to consider when starting an e-commerce business, is that your home page is likely the most powerful store of SEO value on your site.
This, therefore, needs to focus it’s spread-on effect to your ‘higher level’ collections/categories or cornerstone posts. Those higher-level categories will be named with the broader terms with the most search volume associated with them.
From here you begin to niche down. This ensures that you use a dominance of related keywords within an organised pathway.
To illustrate this in another way:
My website is an electronic cigarette retailer. If I have on my home page a banner that takes the user to ‘E-Liquids’ and ‘Specific Brand E-Liquids’ using the following links, I am going to confuse Google as to what page I want E-Liquid to be the lead page for:
Instead, the specific brand should be considered a child of the Vaperun.com/E-liquids section. This will create an ordered chain of related pages that indicate which ones carry seniority.
This version above shows Google, that if it’s just E-Liquid we want to rank for, then the broad E-Liquid category is probably considered the best choice. If the specific brand is typed into search, it’s more likely Google will know to move to the specific page.
So what did I do wrong with Site Hierarchy?
Well, I didn’t do any of this and consequently, our e-commerce business struggled with acquiring higher ranking on important traffic terms. It took me 6 years to realise this and we are only now fixing it.
The same needs to be said for not making too many duplicate versions of collections that can cannibalise one another in the eyes of the search engines.
How many pages have an emphasis on the same or similar keywords? Fix that. Keep a spreadsheet identifying what each page’s keywords are so you know if you are duplicating focus.
The last thing you need is Google not knowing which of your pages mentioning a ‘blue widget’ should show. Better to rank 15th for one page, than two pages both ranking in the 50s. Merge the pages and see your ranking climb.
The clean, organised structure makes your site easier for search engines to read and if they can navigate it well, they will assume it’s been designed for a better user journey too. The outcome, higher rankings, more traffic, more sales.
The easy way to build good internal link structure
I am not going to go too deep into this area so much as it will be different for everyone. But, one of the easiest wins on your site is to ensure your best traffic pages link to other related parts of your site directly. This is called internal linking. Essentially you are sharing some of that good stuff (SEO flow) to other pages you are trying to boost.
The more links on a page the more diluted the effect. So, don’t go HAM. Instead imagine you have £100 of SEO power and the more of that you give out, the less each gets. Making pages you want to rank better get links from higher traffic pages you currently have, is a good way to tell search engines to look at it closer.
The only internal linking we did was to send users to our contact form. For years we failed to grasp the value of internal linking and wasted a lot of opportunities. Had a few well-trafficked pages been internally linked to another that was in the top 20 of results, well… We may have ended up with many more sales over the years, more visits, a bigger database of shoppers etc
How can I find my top pages for adding internal links on?
This is a super easy task.
- Visit Google Search Console
- Click Behaviour
- Select Landing Pages
- Sort by traffic
From this, you can identify your most frequently found pages on Google and give you an idea of which pages on your site have search juice. Ensure that appropriate and not too many internal links are curated naturally in the text on the page.
NB: One note, don’t make the keyword that is the reason for that page ranking, be turned into a hyperlink. It will suggest to Google that another page is considered more valuable to you for that term. Thus, potentially defeating the point of the exercise.
4. Apathy to Growth
I can sum this section up very quickly. And it’s not as obvious as you think. Don’t set out to be small and inefficient. Aim to be great even if your ambitions of scale are low.
If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing it right.Some smart person
As your site grows, you will accumulate a lot of products and pages. You will also end up with hundreds if not thousands of pictures and URLs. If you don’t spend the time caring today, you will have to care one day. This becomes a job done twice, fixing mistakes.
Mistakes I made when starting an e-commerce business
So these are some, but not all the mistakes I made and I have subsequently had to rectify all of them at great labour, time and cost.
Avoid this work later, by just doing it right today:
- Not adding alt-tags to images – Google can’t truly view a picture, an alt tag tells google what it is and helps a page AND your images rank better
- Not adding descriptive file names – Don’t upload product files as image102809800.png for the same reason as ‘alt tags’. Correct file names that relate to the item, make it easier for Google to understand the page content.
- Not focusing on file compression – The easiest way to see if a website is poorly planned is looking at the file sizes on the home page. No one needs a banner slider and no one needs the sizes of image files you aren’t compressing. Smaller image files, make the page load quicker and improve the chances of your page ranking
- Not considering what terms your target customer uses – Using words as your focus words on pages that only those in the industry use, mean you just won’t rank.
- Not checking with others over what images or pages either resonate best or are easier to navigate. Just ask people what they would improve, ask people to select a favourite image. These small steps ensure you are giving yourself the best shot at success.
- A/B Test everything
Your competition are doing this
There are so many areas that we neglect when we start an online store. Some of this is because we don’t know better. Other times it’s because we don’t think that our competitors are doing it.
The leading team in your league is doing everything they can to get the winning edge. You won’t beat them doing less.
From email campaigns where you can’t be bothered to test a few different subject lines, to not spending the time to properly organise your menu bar and filter options.
Failing to pay attention to these items, will not be something an e-commerce site can do and hope to become successful.
A/B Test EVERYTHING for e-commerce store success
A/B Testing, by the way, is the ability to send a few different subject lines to a small part of an email database. The one that has the highest open or click rate is used to send the remainder of the emails too.
We only ever do this now and it results in conversion rates of orders of magnitude higher. Don’t fail to do it.
The same can be said for not personalising the cross-sell/up-sell or sales offers. E-commerce platforms give you the unique ability to target a customer based on historic shopping behaviour. Spend a little time tweaking after-sale emails and post-checkout ‘up-sell’ boxes to be based around similar products they historically buy.
The conversion rates on offering people something they are actually likely to buy, over something they aren’t, are obviously far better. If you fail to bother, someone else will and you may lose that customer of life.
Don’t be lazy to it all, even if you think your work will make little difference at the beginning.
As you scale, you will not have to go back over and do it. Realising you have missed out on hundreds of extra sales.
Perfect planning prevents piss poor performanceAnonymous, UK Armed Forces
5. Blogging and Off-Page SEO
So blogging, you heard you should do it, you hear it can help with SEO. So then you do no more research than that and proceed to write about spurious ways to shoehorn your brand into topical issues.
Then you wait.
Nothing happens, so you write more of this drivel every day for the next 3 – 4 years.
One day, you realise that your blog posts aren’t getting you traffic because no one is searching for that type of content. Starting an online retail business was supposed to be easy!
So you become slightly more enlightended and realise that you need to find out what people are actually searching for. You stumble across
- Google Trends – A good resource
- Youtube’s drop-down search box
- Answer the Public
- SE Ranking topic suggest
So you write about these topics. (Here’s a good guide on long tail topics)
Still blogging for seo, nothing happens.
Then you learn that you need to write in a certain way, or with certain structure. So you ignore all the posts you once wrote about and add yet more content to your site, in this slightly better format.
- You now know you are writing about things that people have an interest in searching for.
- You are writing a lot more words and adding a featured image at the top
Still… nothing happens.
Now you focus on finding the exact search volumes of these words or phrases and what according to sites like Ahrefs are the keyword difficulties of ranking for them.
- If you need to know more about keyword difficulty, Ahrefs themselves have a great resource on this. Just click the words above.
You realise you are up against sites with tons of pictures, infographics, even videos. You’re a ways behind the competition.
You also discover that you need to do ‘Off-Page SEO’ to even get them ranking. That is something you definitely haven’t done.
What is Off-Page SEO?
Off-Page SEO in it’s simplest form is the linking from an external site to your own. Say you write a great article on 7 things you should know when starting an online retail business and another website references it on theirs. That hyperlink from theirs to your page is what we call a ‘backlink’. Backlinks are essentially a vote of confidence. Getting lots of good quality ones to your pages are the secret to letting Google know, when it comes to that keyword, you’re the Don.
Want to know more about backlinking? Check out this internal link below to an article I wrote before
Why Is Off-Page SEO important?
Imagine two websites, same age, the same amount of content and current visitors, same page speed. How does Google work out which one should rank higher?
There are some other factors, but backlinks to your site from others and more of them is the dealbreaker.
That should answer ‘Why is Off-page SEO important’.
There are lots of tools to help you find good backlinks, but if you want good quality but low-cost SEO tool, there is one I always recommend for starting out and that is SE Ranking. It’s affordable as all hell and is the only one with a decent phone app.
When starting an online retail business, your time is going to be all consumed. Having an easy, cheap way to track keywords is a godsend.
- SE Ranking – the only SEO tool for novices with a mobile app
If you want to see where you can score more from or where your competition gets theirs from, to poach them, SEM Rush is a leading name too.
How do you do Off-Page SEO?
There are a few techniques many use and some are a bit more long-winded than others. Some are short term fixes, others take time, but will show fruits in the end.
- Sign up to all the business directories you can and ensure you properly populate social media and google business profiles. Keep the data you enter into each, consistent and the same.
- Using software such as SEMrush or SERanking, take a look at who your competitors got theirs from and then email those sites. The chances are, they paid for advertising and got the backlink
- Build interesting and unique content and find a related resource or news sites that offer guest post opportunities
- Identify broken backlinks on your targeted topics or terms, then present the webmaster of those sites with your alternative.
Now I have hugely glossed over the details for the purposes of expedience. But if you want to check out a podcast while you go about starting an online retail business:
How many backlinks do I need to rank higher on Google
How many backlinks you need to rank higher on Google or Bing, really is dependent on keyword difficulty and competition for it. That being said, if you start today you are going to be in a whole lot better position than I when I didn’t start for 6+ years.
You don’t just want to get backlinks for your homepage, but also focus on links to your internal pages to using the specific keywords those pages focus on.
But remember, relevancy is key. Google can and may penalise you for dodgy bought backlinks that bear no relation to your topic.
I failed to do these things and I am now in the same position as a new startup in a congested marketplace. Don’t be like me, be on top of this from day 1.
Backlinks tell Google that you are a person of authority on this topic and ensure your chances of ranking better is improved.
If nothing else – Take away this on Blogging
Blogging for SEO is less about sheer quantity but more about quality.
It’s better to get 12 backlinks for one blog than 1 backlink for 12 blogs. Back a horse and ride her.
Pick your battles in life and the same can be said for content marketing. For many small businesses, if you win one well-trafficked keyword, it could change your life.
So, don’t feel the need to blog every day. Your time is precious when starting an online retail business.
Ensure your content is a well written, well designed, interesting piece of content, that DOES SOMETHING.
You need to inject calls to action. If someone is reading it and you aren’t telling them what to do next, you are wasting your time.
It’s like putting a sign above a shop, renting it, staffing it and putting nothing on the shelves. What happens? The shopper walks out.
That’s what happens when you don’t encourage action in your blogs.
What a travesty.
Now to number 6
6. Site Performance Matters
For every one second of site speed improvement on Walmart’s website, experienced up to a 2% increase in conversions.CrazyEgg | Walmart Website Speed Analysis
Your site performance as far as you need to know, is the time it takes for the page to load. Not just the home page, but the internal pages too.
There is far more to all this than simply that, but if you focus on page speed now, you will be in a far stronger position than your competition who are starting out. And in fact, thinking smarter than many of the established names also.
What’s a good site performance?
So let’s start by getting your mobile performance score from Google’s lighthouse app.
Now let’s care mostly about mobile as that is where the vast majority of your traffic will come from.
Make a note of your score, and then smack your head against the table.
If it is anything like mine was when I first checked this, it will break your heart.
My Lighthouse Score was 8/100
Remember that phrase ‘mobile-first’ – you thought it was some call to arms quote about how good mobile was. Well, it means exactly what it says. Work on your mobile site first, not your desktop.
80% of my website visitors are on mobiles. That number only drops to 75% for store conversion on my site.Figures from Vape and Juice
Mobile first when starting an online retail business please.
We all love sitting in front of a mac or laptop and designing a nice easy to view desktop site. But only your folks and you will see your desktop attempts at starting an online retail business. Make the website you are building, look beautiful on mobile.
So now you have seen the horror story of a slow website or poor performance score – what do you do?
Well first, consider the store theme you are using. Did you check if it was optimised for speed?
No, course you didn’t, because you made the same mistake as me. But it’s not too late for you.
Do a speed performance test on Pingdom:
This will tell you how long it takes for the theme you have or your site to load. And is a good measure of what you can do to fix this.
Do not see this is a side issue. By January 2021 Google will begin to penalise sites for poor site performance. Essentially slow sites may equal low rankings.
How do I speed test my theme?
This is less difficult than you may think. Simply find the demo or preview theme online, or where you bought it. Load the preview and copy the URL at the top. Then plug that into Pingdom for a speed test and you can see if it’s got a need for speed, or seeded in it already.
A really simple trick is to leverage all the blogs out there. We recently used Shoptimiser for a Woocomerce store. But googling, fastest WordPress shop themes is a very simple way to find what you need if starting an online retail business.
Commerce Gurus are a known theme developer who has a pure focus on fast-loading sites.
If you are going the ‘build you own’ site route- then they are worth checking out. My advice for anyone starting an online retail business is to learn to do the basics yourself.
How do I improve my page speed?
One of the first things you should do is make sure you have compressed down your image files.
You don’t want to make them unreadable, but you need to consider how much image size you want to have on your pages.
WebP is a new internet-friendly file format for Jpeg files. It’s insane and can reduce files down to single-digit kilobytes. You will need to be on a CMS that allows them or use a ‘Content Delivery Network’ that enables it.
A content delivery network is a middleman that stores your site on their system and speeds up the page-load. (Generally)
The second thing to do which is an annoying thing to be told is:
- Reduce script bloat by deleting unused apps or plugins
For every app you have on your site when you load a page, they tend to all run, whether you need them or not. Be really strict on who gets to be an app on your site if starting an online retail business. If they aren’t used much, the reality is you will miss them less than you miss the traffic you aren’t getting to your site.
In truth – most of the apps on say Shopify, do things you could code yourself, or find someone to do. Which will save you money in the long run. Also, if you get the right theme from the outset, you can find one that already has streamlined functions hardcoded in.
Page Performance for your online retail business
Now you have compressed your excessive files or removed sections on your homepage that aren’t truly needed. Maybe you have sacked off a few apps, go back to Pingdom and run the test again.
You will feel like you have made some progress starting an online retail business in the right way.
Ready for our final part – Number 7
7. The importance of User Experience | UX
I didn’t know these two letters when starting an online retail business. It took me a while.
Research says it takes the average user 0.05 seconds to judge your website@Kyecass | Medium.com
UX means ‘user experience’ and it refers to what the customer feels, sees and senses when on your website.
Amazing customer experience from a great UX is what you want. The opposite is not a good entrance to starting an online retail business.
We have touched on this earlier when I mentioned looking at what themes your competition are using. But also take a look around you and see what your favourite online stores are doing. Can you apply those principles to your own site?
I believe the 3-second rule applies to more than just cookies and toast. It applies to everything. We judge and we judge quickly.
Instinctively it is within us to judge. We can’t tame that out of us, no matter how much soy latte we drink or Bernie Sanders rallies we watch on Youtube. We are animals who are wired to calculate risk on a subconscious level.
Are you toast yet?
We judge when we shop online. If the experience you are offering does not consider that fact, then you are toast
That in mind, don’t do what I did and pay no heed to the journey from the hit to the basket.
Whether it’s your checkout page still having fields like:
- Company name
- Address line 2
- First name and surname separated into two fields
Or product page ‘add to basket’ buttons that take you to the basket every time you click it.
There are countless examples of annoying things that we ask customers to do online and all it takes is a tunnel, a WhatsApp or a facetime to distract the visitor. Failing to get the deal closed quickly means you risk abandoned carts and being forgotten about.
Great UX means happy customers but happy bank managers too. Sites with higher conversion rates rank higher also.
So let’s start with something simple like this great resource to work through. You’ll be 7 years ahead of me and glad you came to my post all about starting an online retail business.
And yes, that phrase being repeated is all about the SEO.