The e-commerce boom continues, with global online sales projected to hit US$3.65tn in 2023. In such a crowded marketplace, how do you build and launch a website that gets noticed? We’ve studied the habits of successful e-tailers and are ready to reveal their secrets. Follow these simple steps and you’ll have a website that keeps customers coming back for more.
1. Learn from the best (and the worst)
Ready to start building your website? Woah there! Before you dive in, take time to learn from other brands. Website design is always evolving and this is your chance to study what’s good (and not so good) about other e-commerce websites.
The only problem with this challenge: there are more than 26.5 million e-commerce websites online. We don’t want you to spend years on this exercise, so our advice is to put together a ‘sample group’ of five websites. Pick two or three in the same market category as you, plus a couple of sites operating in different sectors or markets.
Once you’ve assembled your ‘sample group’, spend time interacting with them – using both your desktop/laptop and your mobile. Put yourself in the shoes of your ideal customer and ask yourself:
- Is this site easy to use? The joy of online shopping is that it saves customers time. This is why ease of use is so important in web design. Busy customers don’t want to waste time navigating a website. They want to do their shopping and get on with their lives. So when you’re studying your ‘sample group’, assess each site for ease of use. Pay particular attention to how many ‘clicks’ it takes to go from the homepage to the shopping basket. The fewer clicks the better.
- What gives the site personality? You want your website to stick in people’s minds – so that they revisit you often. With your ‘sample group’ of sites, look out for memorable details: distinctive writing, cool graphic design and eye-catching photos. Make a note of these – and use them to inspire your website.
- What drives you mad? In theory, sites built on popular e-commerce platforms should offer a ‘frictionless’ customer experience. But we guarantee: when you’re looking at other brands’ websites, you will find features that irritate you. It might be that they use too much text, or that the photo quality is poor. Learn from these traits, and vow not to make the same mistakes on your website.
As you’re working through these questions, take screenshots of websites and put them onto a digital whiteboard, or into a presentation file such as PowerPoint or Keynote. Use this as a source of inspiration. This isn’t about copying other brands – it’s about reminding yourself what delivers a great customer experience.
2. Choose a great domain name
Every website has to have a domain (the address that locates your site on the internet). Choosing a domain name is a bit like building the foundations for a house. A strong foundation means you can build a house that will last through the generations.
What are the hallmarks of a great domain name? First and foremost, keep it as short as possible. The longer the domain, the more confusing it can be to read and type.
Secondly, use descriptive keywords. For example, if you run an interior design shop, use the word ‘design’ in your domain to signal your purpose to customers (and to search engines).
Last but not least: make sure your domain name sends a clear message about the nature of your website. For e-commerce businesses, the beauty of a .shop address is that it sends a welcoming message to customers. Use .shop and people immediately know what kind of business you are.
Want more tips on domain names? You’re in luck! Check out our blog post Create A Great Domain In Five Easy Steps.
3. Choose an e-commerce platform
Thanks to platforms like Shopify, Wix and Squarespace, it has never been easier to create your online shop. Don’t have expertise in website design or coding? No problem. These cloud-based platforms offer ready-made e-commerce templates, themes, payment services and security features.
If you want more control over the design of your site, you can also look at open-source platforms like WooCommerce. These are more suitable for people with coding experience, or who are working with a dedicated web developer.
To help you choose between e-commerce platforms, here are three questions to ask yourself:
- What level of technical expertise do you have? If you’re an absolute beginner, then pick a platform that makes the website-building process easy. On the downside: you might get fewer options to tailor your site, but on the upside: you’ll get beginner-friendly options and plenty of technical support.
- What can you afford to pay? Platform costs vary widely, so make sure you compare pricing plans before you choose a service.
- Who can give you recommendations? Do you have any friends, colleagues or family members who run e-commerce sites? In this case, ask them about their e-commerce experiences. Find out what platforms they use, and what the pros and cons are. Also: use discussion forums and reach out to people who are in similar market segments to you. Online entrepreneurs can be amazingly helpful – so don’t be shy – ask your questions!
4. Invest in imagery
What’s the difference between an average e-commerce website and a great website? The answer often boils down to one element: the quality of the photography. We live in a highly visual age. Websites bombard us with images. To grab customers' attention, it helps to have clear, bold and eye-catching photography.
Our advice is to put more time and money into photography than web copy and product descriptions. Can’t afford to hire a professional photographer? No worries: there are lots of free online resources to help you sharpen your photography skills. Take a course and improve your skills. Or if you have a friend who’s great at photography – buy them dinner and ask them to help!
5. Design ‘mobile first’
A common mistake when designing websites is to start with the desktop experience. This approach can lead to websites that work well on laptops but are less effective on mobiles. Given the projected rise in mobile shopping, we recommend you design your site ‘mobile first’.
If you’re creating your site on an e-commerce platform (see above), then these will automatically deliver a responsive, mobile-friendly website. But you can still take steps to ensure that your mobile users get the best experience possible:
- Keep your text concise. Long blocks of text mean lots of scrolling on mobiles. This raises the risk of site users getting distracted and not completing a sale. The solution? Keep your text concise, so that shoppers are encouraged to complete a sale without distraction.
- Optimize photography for mobile. Mobile screens are (generally) smaller than laptop, tablet and desktop screens. When you’re creating your product photography, consider how the image will work on a smaller screen. Strong, simple images without too much background ‘clutter’ are easier to see on mobiles. And when you’re evaluating images to upload to your site, test them on mobile format before you publish them.
6. Test your site – and nurture your fan club
How do you know when your website is in peak condition? Yes, you can evaluate it yourself, but be aware of your biases: you are already familiar with your products, so you’re not the best judge of your website. Once your site is ready for customers, it’s time to test it on friends, family and colleagues. You might be in a rush to go live and start selling products, but don’t skip this step: user feedback is your best friend.
Here are some questions for your test-team:
- Home page: Does it make a strong impression? Do you understand what I’m selling?
- Navigation: Is it easy to get around the site? Any roadblocks?
- Product pages: Do my products look appealing? Is the copy easy to read?
- Ordering and payment: Is this a smooth and easy process? Does it feel reassuringly safe and secure?
As well as asking for feedback, don’t forget to ask your testers the following essential question: Will you share my site with your friends, family and network?
Turn your test-team into your fan club, and they will be your most powerful marketing resource. Make sure to express your thanks for any referrals they make on your behalf. People love recognition from brand owners – so take the time to tell people how much you value their support.
Get ready for lift-off
Even if your ultimate plan is to sell via social channels or on major sites like Amazon, building a great website will put you in control of your destiny – whatever the future brings. Your e-commerce site is the ‘home planet’ for your online shop, so take care of it! Design a site for the long term and use the magic of customer feedback to iterate and make improvements regularly.
- How to build and launch an online shop that customers love
How to build and launch an online shop that customers love