I have developed over 250 ASP.NET sites alone in the past 6 years. In doing that many sites I have had more than my fair share of opportunities to develop custom E-Commerce solutions. They all are unique, since every business is unique. But at the same time they all have very similar characteristics they need to follow.
Recently I was asked what things need to be done in order to have a good E-Commerce site. I have been asked this hundreds of times over the years and I think I have a pretty decent answer, it is just involved.
There are a few main categories to structure the plan for an online shopping experience, I like to think of them as Marketing, Infrastructure, Security and Programming. The funny thing is they are all very symbiotic with each other.
Marketing consist of the overall presentation of the store. This is as much the advertising, product presentation and purchasing experience. There are three ways to promote a site, Search Engine Optimization, Search Engine Marketing, online marketing and traditional advertising and promotion.
Just like visiting a traditional brick and mortar store presentation plays a big part in success as well as profit margins. While it is often over thought or over done, the graphic design of a store does count. You do not have to spend several thousand dollars creating the ultimate graphic design for the store. The only people who care about that are the person paying for it and the graphic designer. A good designer will not try to impress their graphic designer buddies but be more interested in finding a design to increase your sales. Look at Amazon.com for example, very simple design, but they do put a lot of research and study into the actual content and action elements on each page. More on that later.
You should also know your audience. If you are selling custom made jewelry, create an experience for the women that will be buying your products. Make it fun for them. Maybe give them a place to show off their creations to the world. Let them express themselves and also give them ideas as to how much fun your product can be. In short make them feel welcomed and comfortable with your store.
The same would hold true for men. A sporting goods store might want to include a fantasy football league for their customers. This keeps the customers coming back and the knowledge of their interests can be used to increase sales.
Search Engine Optimization includes creating good copy about your products and structuring your page to best rank in the natural search results in the search engines, such as www.live.com. Another part of this is working to build natural links to your site. This can prove difficult, but by using various online and traditional tactics you can achieve a wealthy list of quality links to your site. A key point here it to try and get links of similar, authoritative sites to various pages on your site. One main drawback to leveraging SEO is that it can take months and even as long as a year to really start seeing major results.
Search Engine Marketing is the use of the various Pay Per Click programs offered by all the major search engines. Overture.com pioneered this type of program in the late 90's back in Web 1.0 days. They were bought by Yahoo! and are now Yahoo! Search Marketing. The way these programs work is you create ads for your site and have those ads served when specific search phrases are used by a searcher. Placement on the search phrases is done by bidding, where typically the highest bidder gets the top position. However that is less and less the case, the top position is typically the ad that generates the most revenue for the search engine. There are many more options available for pay per click marketing, but generally they do not see good return and have many problems with fraud.
It is a very good idea to have ad copy that targets a specific products and correlating search phrases. For example the phrase 'White Wicker Patio Furniture' should take them directly to the catalog page listing your white wicker patio furniture. There are two benefits to this tactic. First you get to bid much less, second you help the user by taking them directly to what they want. You could just bid $2 for each visitor for the keyword 'furniture', but 'White Wicker Patio Furniture' costs $0.05 per visitor. You could also take them to the home page of your site, but since they have to search around for your White Wicker Patio Furniture, most likely they would rather click the back button in the browser and find the next site. It takes more work to do it right, but it quickly saves you a lot of money and increases your sales.
Online marketing can consist of many things. Blogging, like I do here, is an example. Other examples would be writing articles for authoritative sites, www.dotnetslackers.com would be an example in the .NET programming world. Finally with all the social media or Web 2.0 sites online these days, many companies are leveraging identities on sites such as www.MySpace.com, www.FaceBook.com and www.Twitter.com to spread their message around and speak to their potential customers. In a similar fashion many companies are also creating presence on Second Life.
Finally traditional marketing and advertising channels can be leverage to build a brand and spread a message just as they have in the past. One of the key drawbacks is that it is not as easy to track responses as with online media. Tracking responses and actions through online media is fairly easy since everything is done with a hyperlink that has to be processed by the server. With traditional media, such as television, radio, magazines and newspapers there is no concrete way to really track actual response to your message.
I will be posting additional entries on E-Commerce Infrastructure, Security and Programming real soon.