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Steps for setting up a hosted web site for eCommerce

I am a regular reader of LinkedIn Answsers. I scan and read answers when there is a question of interest to me and I’ll contribute to the conversation if I have expertise for a given question. It’s not uncommon to see questions from the community about setting up a web site or establishing an eCommerce area for a new business. So I thought it would be good to write down the high level steps for setting up a hosted web site for eCommerce.  My focus here is really on small business or start-ups, although the basic steps could be applied for individuals as well.

Step 1 – Map the website to your business plan

Make sure you business plan and strategy documentation are complete.  Remember, the website is just a tool and needs to fit tactically within your plans. The content of your site will be based on your business plan and should provide value to your customers.

Step 2 – Register a domain

You can use a number of providers for this such as Network Solutions or GoDaddy. Domain names such as YourCompany.com may be hard to find but each of the providers will has an online selection tool for guidance in finding a name. Be aware that domain name pricing will vary depending on the perceived value of the domain or if the existing owner is looking to sell the domain. There is a registration fee for the domain and an annual renewal fee.

Step 3 – Decide on build or buy

It’s a classic software question. Build or buy? Years ago, most software required a custom build to match the specifics of a business. In large part, that has changed over the years as software is now available in compartmentalized modules. You can build an eCommerce site now with popular open source management systems such as Drupal or Joomla. What’s left is configuration and data load after setup. For complex businesses or those needing an extremely custom build you may still need to pay someone to build a custom web site for you. If you are just starting, then most likely one of the existing free services will have enough features for you. If you are outsourcing this step then most of our dollars will go towards the configuration and setup.

Step 4 – Decide on a payment processor

Everyone needs a payment processor to navigate the transactions at the end of checkout. Do you accept credit cards, ACH, direct debit, eCheck, etc. One option is a complete outsourced checkout service such as those offered by Amazon or Google. In these models the provider serves the checkout pages and conducts the transactions for a fee. The advantage is that you get the experience, name recognition (for trust), and strength of these processing services without having to build your own. Another option is to use a built-in payment module for some of the open source systems. In this scenario, you’ll need to make contract with your own processor and hook your module to them.

Step 5 – Find a web site hosting partner

Do a search on web site hosting and you’ll get hundreds of results. My advice for this step is to look at the industry wide service offerings for hosting providers. This will include items such as price, bandwidth allowance, page hits, disk space, email, encryption, and pre-installation of open source software. Decide which items are most important to you and make a comparison grid.

If you decided to use an open source web site tool in step 3 then you should look for sites that have pre-installation of this tool with hosting. This will save you the headache of having to install the software manually because the hosting site will have a guided wizard like approach.

Most likely you’ll pay for the web site hosting on an annual basis the same as your domain.

Step 6 – Setup email for the domain

You can use your web site host for email routing and inbox setup or you can use another service such as gmail. Within Google Apps you can find instructions about how to redirect your domain email into your gmail account. Once your email hosting is defined, you can choose from any number of email client tools on the market to manage the email.

Step 7 – Configure and load data to the web site

This will be the most time consuming step in the process. You’ll need to make decisions about page content, layout, location,etc. As you do this, use the content management tool for your website to configure the pages and layout.

Then you’ll need to load and configure the products that you will sell on the site. Don’t take this step lightly. Product Merchandising can make a huge difference in your conversion rates and sales.

Step 8 – Setup website monitoring and analytics

An eCommerce site isn’t complete without web site monitoring. You want this to track visitors, conversion rates, site usage, etc.  You can buy an off the shelf package for site monitoring or use a free service such as Google analytics. If you are just starting a business I recommend Google analytics.  It’s easy to install and provides an intuitive interface to read the results.

Those are the basic steps. There’s certainly more things you’ll need to be concerned with to maintain the operation of the site, but this is a good guide to setting up a hosted web site for eCommerce.  Other items to consider will be search engine optimization (SEO), buying ad space, running promotions, and back links.  If you read this far then I hope you found the list useful. Let me know if you think I missed a step or if anything is unclear.