Creating an e-commerce website is not a complicated endeavor. You can focus on developing solid products and promoting your brand while turning to a software company to handle the technical details—and you won't even need an engineering degree. However, while you don't need to be a programmer yourself, it's important that you understand at least the basics of what your website hosting provider delivers in terms of e-commerce capabilities, and that issue remains important even after you get your e-commerce operation up and running.
I spoke with Stergios Anastasiadis, Director of Engineering at Shopify (14-Day Free Trial at Shopify) about the most important technology living within an e-commerce website and what you should know to get started. "We have merchants selling products out of their homes," Anastasiadis said. "All you need is an internet connection, and any successful commerce platform should be able to run the technology on your site for you."
First and foremost, your vendor will help you determine the look and feel of your website. It will also provide the capacity to store all of your data, and help you finalize and fulfill transactions. Those are just the most obvious obligations of an e-commerce provider. Beyond that, there's a lot you should know about the specific tech your partner is using to ensure your website is functional, successful, and secure.
1. Website Security
You want your e-commerce website to be safe from hackers. The best websites offer 256-bit Transport Sockets Layer (TLS) encryption, allowing for an end-to-end secure connection across all of the data and transactions on your website. Websites should meet the TLS 1.2 standard and will need to upgrade a browser or operating system (OS) if they currently support TLS 1.0 or TLS 1.1. TLS has replaced Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) as the standard for communications security over a network. From the moment a person accesses your website to the moment that person leaves the website, all of the data is encrypted.
An easy way to implement this is to use Hypertext Transport Protocol Secure (HTTPS) instead of plain old HTTP to power your website. Using HTTPS combines Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) support with TLS. For any sort of online web transaction that needs privacy, HTTPS is an obvious candidate—so much so that, since January 2017, Google Chrome has flagged any non-HTTPS site asking for log-in or credit card information as "non-secure."
Additionally, e-commerce software should provide you with a payment processing tool that can bring extra security during the cart and payment aspects of a transaction. Products such as Stripe tie in with e-commerce tools to provide Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) compliance, without requiring you to do any additional work on your end.
2. Website Performance
If a customer finds your website to be too slow or your competitor's website to be joyously fast, then you're likely to lose that customer. Your webpages should load in less than 100 milliseconds (ms). If the website doesn't load in that time, then your e-commerce vendor should already be on the back end working to find a solution before you even notice.
Your e-commerce vendor will likely have technicians on staff who are constantly tracking page load times by using website monitoring tools to ensure your website is operating at peak levels. If the webpages struggle for any reason, then the staff is usually automatically alerted by email or phone that a problem has occurred. Keep in mind: These load times are true across mobile and web, so make sure to keep track of how your website is loading across multiple devices.
3. Scale According to Your Needs
E-commerce services have varying needs for resources depending on the size and load of a store. You'll want to quickly and easily scale your website depending on what happens to your load times as traffic to your page increases.
When your inventory grows quickly or you need to support heavy load activities, such as Flash sales and seasonal deals, you'll need to scale your platform accordingly to handle these needs or risk customers becoming frustrated with your site's performance and clicking over to another store. Monitor traffic and peak user load times to avoid crashes and scale server resources accordingly.
Fortunately, scaling server needs is easy as long as you or your e-commerce site provider is using a cloud provider that's standardized on a reliable Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) platform. Using such a platform, you'll be able to scale your server power to your heart's content with just a few mouse clicks. Even better, you'll only pay for this added muscle for as long as you're using it, unlike working with physical servers where unused power simply goes dark while costing you the same.
4. Think Mobile First
These days, most e-commerce services help you build out your website on the mobile web before they ever think about a desktop. That's because most content that works on mobile will also render just fine on desktop but not vice versa.
"With consumers shopping on mobile more than ever before, optimizing e-commerce websites for mobile is critical," Anastasiadis said. "From a technical perspective, features that are built with a mobile-first interface can provide merchants with more flexibility and scale."
If you talk to a prospective vendor and it tells you that its developing "web-first" and converting to mobile later, then you probably want to walk away. Regardless of other factors that make the company attractive, such an outdated philosophy will put your website at a disadvantage from the start.
5. Cloud Hosting
Your service provider will likely be storing your data in the cloud using big-name providers, such as Amazon, Google, or Microsoft. Find out which service you prefer by researching factors such as backup, disaster recovery (DR), security, and uptime.
If you manage a service yourself, then Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are all very good options, but you may have a preference between the three or even with a different vendor. Picking one of these is critically important as it will be the one responsible for how often your website goes down, whether or not your stored data is safe, and even if you'll be able to access it again if a disaster occurs.
6. Website Updates
Your website isn't a "set-it-and-forget-it" proposition. You'll want a vendor that can consistently deliver new code to your website for performance improvements or new features. Unfortunately, some vendors only ship new code once a day or even once every couple of days. You want a vendor that can provide code at any point in the day. This way, you'll never have to wait for problems to be fixed or for shiny new features to go live on your homepage.
However, you'll also want accurate reporting of when these code updates go live, especially if they don't directly concern the front end of your website but are more related to the back-end operations relevant to the provider. Those kinds of features usually roll out just fine, but there's always a chance they could break something on your page, too. You want to know exactly when those updates are happening, preferably with a testing window beforehand. However, if that isn't an option, then you certainly want an accurate deployment schedule so you can do site testing yourself as soon as new code goes live.
7. Data Engineering
Ask your prospective e-commerce vendor if it has a dedicated data engineering team on staff who can help you build custom reports about your website's performance. This analysis will help you determine if products are properly placed, if people are abandoning cart too frequently, or if you need a total rethink regarding website navigation.
Sure, most vendors offer out-of-the-box reporting, but if your vendor doesn't have a team available to build custom reports for you, then you'll need to work with a third party to perform this function when it becomes necessary. That's going to cost extra money and add undue hassle for you. The good news is that most companies offer this service in one form or another, and they're constantly updating the tools that surface the analytics.
This capability is also helpful when you start analyzing your site's stats using business intelligence (BI) tools such as Tableau Desktop (Visit Store at Tableau) . Using a BI tool is a necessity once you require deeper insights into how your customers are behaving on your website, what products or services they're choosing or rejecting, and similar knowledge points. Make sure your provider can help you gather the transactional data necessary to perform this kind of analysis. In addition, customize a data warehousing option in your platform to gain more insights. Services such as Shopify offer a fully managed data warehouse for larger merchants in addition to standardized reporting products.
8. Third-Party Integrations
Although you might be a tech neophyte, you probably already use a wide variety of software to run your business. The ability to connect all of your tools is crucial for streamlining workflows and optimizing data intelligence. For example, if you run email marketing campaigns through MailChimp ($10.00 at Mail Chimp) , then combining your marketing and e-commerce platforms ensures that "Thank You" and promotional emails are tied directly back to the website. This allows for greater oversight about who bought what, which promotions worked, and whether or not you can reclaim customers who have abandoned a shopping cart.
Finally, find an e-commerce provider that offers native integrations with as many third-party tools as possible. The more native integrations, the more options you'll have when it comes to expanding your toolset.
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