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Basic ecommerce web site-1
Basic ecommerce web site design and development - Part 1

By: Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast

This series examines the many different stages in preparing your web site for online sales and credit card transactions. It will assist you in making a more educated decision before implementing ecommerce software, web development packages and add-ons, or purchasing commercial web site hosting.

Online sales processing using credit card based transactions is not quite as straightforward as you may think. Many web site owners new to ecommerce are under the impression that they just plug a shopping cart into their site. This can be the case with third party processing services, but it can be expensive. In this series we'll also examine the various options - from free to fee.

"I don't want to support credit cards.."
In case you were thinking about avoiding online credit card transactions to sell your product, think again. The days of 'send me a cheque or money order' are long gone. Consumers will want your product, and want it now.  

Even if the product or service you are offering is totally unique, you will miss many sales if you don't implement some form of online credit card processing. But implementing a processing service doesn't necessarily mean shelling out big dollars up front.

The web site
OK, I'm sure you know this one! The web site acts as the store front for the products and services you wish to sell online. Your site visitors are, for the most part, window shoppers and browsers. A commercial web site's aim is to convert these browsers into buyers.

The web site should be designed to gently lead the client through the learning and sales process. Your sales text must be grammatically sound and spelt correctly. Poor spelling loses credibility points straight away.

Ensure that there is plenty of well laid out textual content on the site to attract search engines as well as to inform prospective clients. Use keyword and keyphrase rich text; that is, utilize copy that includes common phrases that people would enter into search engines when performing a query.

What search terms are commonly used?
A useful tool in understanding how people are searching is freely available on Overture. You simply type in a term, such as 'web site design', and it will return all the variations of that criteria and the number of times it was searched on in the last month.
Try the Overture Search Term Suggestion tool.
Attracting search engines and targeted site traffic is a huge ongoing learning curve, and there are plenty of other articles and tools on our site to assist you with this. View our search engine marketing resources or our general promotion archives.

Cross Browser Compatibility
Internet Explorer isn't the only browser on the market. There are currently over 100 different brands of Internet browser currently available. IE's major competitor is Netscape and what looks good in Internet Explorer may look terrible or even crash other browsers! Make sure that you design your site to be viewable in at least:

Internet Explorer 4.0+
Netscape 4.0+

By paying attention to compatibility issues, you will increase your sales. Learn more in our browser compatibility article.  

The use of images
All images used should clearly depict the product/service and where possible, don't use stock images that come with products such as Photoshop. Seasoned Internet surfers will recognize these as they appear on thousands of sites around the world. Use original photography or scanned images wherever you can.

Ensure that you optimize your images for rapid download. Much of the world still does not utilize broadband, and no-one is going to wait around for 2 minutes to see a photo of a "happy customer" or "successful businessperson who uses our product". All popular graphics packages support compression for web based graphics, usually through easy to use wizards.

Images are a wonderful medium to assist in the online sale of your products/services, especially useful to those clients with poor literacy levels or who are in a rush, as we all seem to be these days. But remember, while a picture may be worth a thousand words in the offline world, it's worth next to nothing when it comes to search engines as spiders do not 'see' pictures.

Image HTML coding should also contain 'alt' tags. This is a textual representation of the image which is useful for the situations where the image doesn't load for some reason. Search engines spiders also latch on to this content, especially if the image is linked to another page. 'alt' text will also pop up when a visitor moves their mouse over the image. Here's a sample of html code for an image which also contains 'alt' text:

<img border="0" src="../images/iconarticle1.gif" alt="Article section - Web development, eCommerce and site promotion tutorials and comments - free for reproduction!" width="50" height="50">

Site Navigation.
Site navigation should be simple and all the questions a consumer may ask should be answered along the way. Where possible, adhere to the "three click rule" - that is, a visitor should be able to access any information regarding your product or service within 3 clicks of any other area of your web site. Pay close attention to cross-browser compatibility issues as many menu systems play havoc with Netscape and other browsers.

Recommended pages.  
Along with the home page, your sales pages and the shopping cart, I recommend implementing the following web pages as part of your ecommerce site:

About Us Page.
The "About Us" page is crucial to boosting consumer confidence. It provides a summary of the business, your commitments and direction.  

While we are all protective of our privacy, online business is no different to traditional business in that we all like to 'put a face to the name'. When purchasing goods online, I always go to the 'About Us' or company profile pages before parting with my money (especially after one bad experience - another story for another time). The page should also provide other contact details for your business and your various registrations, associations and affiliations. View further information relating to "about us" or company profile pages.

Privacy policy.
What are you going to do with my information? - a question asked by many online shoppers. Putting together a privacy policy doesn't necessarily require a legal team! Learn more about developing Privacy statements.

FAQ's (Frequently asked questions)
No doubt you'll be asked many questions about your product. Many of these questions will be repetitive. It's these questions and answers that you'll want to add to your FAQ page. This promotes customer confidence and saves your valuable time. A prospective client may be somewhat hesitant in asking questions and this hesitancy may translate into a lost sale. A well constructed FAQ will help coax these online customers into purchasing.

You don't need to spend a lot of money on a basic FAQ system. Simply list the questions at the beginning of the FAQ in dot-point format, perhaps broken down into various categories to make searching easier. Each of these questions should be directly linked to the answer further down the page with the use of bookmarks. This basic design also allows for scalability.  

You can link to the FAQ not only through the main menu system, but after every "buy me" type statement. The FAQ should be accessible within one click of any other area of your web site that is dedicated to selling the product or service.

Testimonials page
A dollar value can not be placed upon positive client testimonials; this is some of the best promotional copy around. Elicit feedback from your current customers and ask their permission to publish their comments on your site.  

Testimonials can be implemented on a page of their own, or interspersed between your own statements regarding the product. If you do implement a Testimonials page, ensure that it can be accessed with one click from any other page on the site.  

Ideally the link or button should be placed on your web site navigational menu, preferable at the top.

If you don't have any testimonials or referees, it may be worthwhile considering supplying a select group of people with the product free of charge for testing and feedback purposes.

In our second part of this series, we'll cover other pre-sales services worth considering as part of your online sales pitch. Also included is some introductory information about ordering processes and ecommerce components. View part 2 of Basic ecommerce web site design and development..

Related learning resources:
Payment Gateways, Internet Merchant Accounts and third party credit card processors

Shopping Carts - hints and tips in choosing the right ecommerce solution for you

Over 130 ecommerce solutions reviewed - the results
Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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