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How to Create an E-Commerce Web Site Empire
A Step by Step Tutorial

Introduction: The Elements of E-Commerce

Your business may be small-but the Internet lets you think big. Whatever product or service your business offers, the Internet levels the playing field and lets you compete with bigger businesses, reaching customers around the world who can conveniently buy from you 24 hours a day.

But in the competitive world of the Web, growing your business and increasing your profits online requires some careful planning. For every successful e-commerce businesses, there are dozens that fail by not addressing basic risks and pitfalls along the way. So to take full advantage of the e-commerce opportunity, make sure you base your Web business on a solid foundation that covers every element of e-commerce:

  • Establish your identity. The right domain name, or URL, can make the difference between a memorable e-commerce identity and getting lost in the online crowd.
  • Find the right online home. For brick-and-mortar stores, location is everything. Your e-commerce business needs the right home, too. Purchase and set up your own Web server, or find a home for your site with the right Internet Service Provider or Web host.
  • Build an attractive storefront. With the right tools, creating a Web site is easier than ever-but following some basic guidelines will help make your site easy and fun for customers to navigate. And that means more sales for you.
  • Let customers know they can trust you. In the anonymous world of the Internet, customers will communicate private information, like credit card numbers or phone numbers, to your e-commerce site only if they're sure your site is legitimate and the information they send you is protected. Make sure your site is secure-and that your customers know it.
  • Make it easy for customers to pay you. You can set up your site so customers can pay by simply keying in a credit card number. But then how will you process that transaction? Make sure you not only offer customers a variety of convenient payment methods, but that you can process them all.
  • Let the world know about your site. A memorable domain name, a great-looking design, and top-notch products and services can make your site successful only if customers know about it. Don't neglect promoting your site to drive traffic to it.

Clearly, building the elements of e-commerce into your Web business is a big job, but it's too important to ignore if you want your e-business to grow and thrive. Just take the following steps to ensure that your e-commerce business gives you the competitive edge.

I. Step One: Establish Your Online Identity with the Right Web Address

The first step toward e-commerce is selecting the name of your site. Your Web address (also called a URL-Uniform Resource Locator-or "domain name"), tells customers who you are and how to find you on the Internet. It is the core of your Internet identity-your online brand. And because no two parties can have the same Web address, your online identity is totally unique.

A. What's In a Name? Everything. Remember that not only does your domain name tell customers exactly how to find your business on the Web, but also it communicates and reinforces the name of your business to every Web site visitor. It can also be used as part of your e-mail address to establish your online identity. Keep these tips in mind before you choose:
  • Make it memorable. "Amazon.com" is much catchier than "booksonline.com."
  • Describe your business. Another approach is to simply and logically describe your business. "Flowers.com" works perfectly for a florist. And if you are setting up an online presence for an established business, keep the name of your site the same as the name of your business.
  • Keep it short. The best domain names are those that customers can remember and type into their browsers after seeing or hearing them only once, so complicated strings of words like "onlinecdstore.com" don't work as well as a simple phrase: "cdnow.com."

B. How to Get and Manage Domain Names

Once you've decided on your Web identity, the next step is to determine if it is available and then register it with a domain name "registrar." Registering is easy and inexpensive, so do it as soon as you've decided on your domain name to make sure you get the name you want. Many businesses register a number of variations, just in case they want to use them later-or to avoid the risk of competitors obtaining similar names. You also may want to register common misspellings so that all customers who incorrectly type your address still find their way to your site instead of receiving an error message. E-commerce businesses most often register a name with "com" as the domain name suffix (the letters after the dot; also called a top-level domain, or TLD), but often also register their names with ".net" and ".org" (for "organization"). Other suffixes include ".tv" and ".edu" for schools and universities. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently announced seven new TLDs - .biz, .info, .name, .pro, .museum, .aero, and .coop.

1. How to Buy an Existing Domain Name What happens if the domain name you want is already registered? You can either choose another name or buy your first choice from whoever got it first. The fact that the name you want has already been registered doesn't necessarily mean it is not available for sale. You can easily find out whether a domain name that has already been registered is for sale.

2. How to Register Domain Names Worldwide The Internet is global-shouldn't your business be, too? Registration of multiple domain names for use around the world protects your intellectual property, brand name, and trademarks against infringement by global cybersquatters. If you plan to do business in other countries, you can register country-specific Web addresses (in country-specific TLDs such as .ita for Italy and .uk for the United Kingdom) with Network Solutions' idNames search and registration service. But as your business grows, you may find that registering and managing multiple domain names is a complex, time-consuming process. IdNames can also consolidate worldwide domain name management into a single centralized account if you have 50 or more domains. Once you've established your Web identity by selecting and registering your domain names, it's time to build your site.

II. Step Two: Build a User-Friendly Site

With a domain name in place, you're ready to start building your e-commerce storefront. But before you begin, take some time to plan.

A. Plan Your Site Carefully

First, identify clear marketing goals for your site, such as generating leads, building a database of potential customers' names and e-mail addresses, or putting a product catalog online to save the time and expense of printing and mailing. Quantify your objectives-such as increasing sales by 15 percent-so you know whether or not your site is successful. Then, figure out what your potential customers need to know before buying your products and services. This might include:

  • An overview of your company, its products and services, and their applications
  • Complete product or service descriptions, including features, key benefits, pricing, product specifications, and other information, for each product or service
  • Testimonials, case studies, or success stories so customers can see how similar individuals or organizations have worked with you
  • An FAQ section that anticipates and answers customers' common issues

Plan the structure of your site, focusing on making it easy for customers to learn what they need to know, make a purchase decision, and then buy quickly. Create a site map that outlines every page on your site from the home page down and how customers get from one page to the next. Use tools that quantitatively measure site activity-where customers are clicking, how often, and whether they end up purchasing-and then compare the results with your goals.

B. Choose the Right Site-Building Tools

With a solid plan in hand, you're ready to start constructing your e-commerce site. Many e-commerce businesses turn to professional design studios to create their Web sites. But if your budget is limited, many Web site building tools like online website builders make it fast and easy for you to create a polished, professional-looking site-with no in-depth HTML knowledge necessary. The entire process can put you on the Internet in less than 24 hours at convenient and affordable monthly prices.

C. E-Commerce Site Design Tips

Following these basic guidelines will help make your site not only attractive, but also easy for customers to use-and that means easy to buy from you.

  1. Carefully examine your own favorite e-commerce sites. Creatively adapting the most compelling marketing and design techniques will enhance your site's effectiveness.
  2. Your home page is your site's-and your business's-online front door. It's essential that it make a good first impression on visitors. Make sure it clearly presents the following basic elements that customers are always likely to look for:
    · Your company name, logo, and slogan, prominently displayed. Take full advantage of the opportunity to showcase your brand identity.
    · A link to an "About the Company" page for customers to quickly learn who you are and what your business offers.
    · A site menu listing the basic subsections of your site. Keep this menu in the same place on every page throughout your site to make it easy to navigate.
    · A "What's New" section for news, announcements, and product promotions. Frequently updating this area will encourage customers to return often.
    · Contact information. Don't make it difficult for visitors to find your phone number, e-mail address, mailing address, and fax number.
    · Your privacy statement, clearly describing your business's policy for protecting customer's personal information.
  3. Make it easy for customers to explore your site. As you build your site, try to minimize the number of clicks it takes the customer to go from your home page to actually being able to click "buy" and checkout. Four to six is a useful rule of thumb. Make sure links make sense, so customers know what to click to find what they're looking for. Don't make your navigation buttons or links too dominant an element in your site design: instead, focus on product information.
  4. Keep things simple. Don't fill up your site with graphics, animations, and other visual bells and whistles. Stick to the same basic color palette and fonts your company uses in other communications, like your logo, brochures, and signage. Ensure that images and graphics serve to enhance, not distract from, your marketing goals. Make sure your text is easy to read-black letters on a white ground may not be terribly original, but they are easier on the eyes than orange type on a purple background.
  5. Keep download times short. Test pages to make sure they're not too overloaded with graphics that slow load times-and minimize the size of your images when possible. According to the Boston Consulting Group in American Demographics (August, 2000, p 46), nearly half of online shoppers surveyed said they left sites when pages took too long to download. Zona Research estimates that most Web pages take anywhere from 3 to 11 seconds to load, depending on the user's modem and Internet connection (remember: many e-commerce customers shop from home using slower connections). Most users click away to another site or log off if a page takes more than 8 seconds to load, costing e-commerce businesses billions in lost potential revenue.

As soon as you've completed this step, you're ready to put your site on the Internet.

III. Step Three: Set Up Your Web Server-or Select an ISP to Host

Your Site

Your Web site is a series of files that reside on a special computer, called a Web server, connected to the Internet. For customers to visit your site, they must actually connect to that Web server via the Internet and view the files. Web servers and the Internet connections that link them to visitors must be fast and powerful enough to quickly respond to all the visitors' requests to view your site.

Many businesses prefer the complete control of purchasing, setting up, and managing their own Web server hardware and software. Other small- and medium-sized e-commerce businesses prefer to turn to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or Web hosting company, instead of investing in the hardware, software, and infrastructure necessary to get online. For a monthly fee, ISPs and Web hosting companies will connect your site to the Internet at high speed via one of their Web servers, allowing the site to be viewed by anyone with an Internet connection and a Web browser. The host provides your site with space on a server, and also offers Web server software, access to its high-speed Internet connection, tools for managing and maintaining your site, customer support, e-commerce features, and more. There are hundreds of ISP and Web hosting options to choose from, so look for one that can meet all your needs.

IV. What to Look for in a Web Hosting Company

  • Shared hosting or dedicated server? Shared hosting is an arrangement in which your site is housed on the same host server with several other Web sites. This is an economical solution for smaller sites. Paying the host for your own dedicated server, a solution used by larger and busier sites, provides faster access and ensures that your site will be accessible to visitors 100 percent of the time (instead of sharing Web server speed and power with other sites). Does your ISP or Web hosting provider offer both options?
  • Hard-disk storage space. Smaller sites may need only 300-500 MB (megabytes) of Web site storage space, while busier e-commerce sites may need at least 9 GB (gigabytes) of space-or their own dedicated Web server. As your site grows, your ISP should be able to accommodate you with a range of options.
  • Availability. If you run an e-commerce business, your site must be accessible to customers 24 hours a day. ISPs and Web hosts maximize the availability of the sites they host using techniques like load balancing and clustering. Can your ISP promise near-100-percent availability?
  • E-mail accounts. E-mail accounts that match your domain name are often available from your ISP. Are they included with your monthly access and hosting fee?
  • SSL Encryption: The security of the credit card numbers and other personal information customers send you should be a top concern. Does your ISP or Web host protect your site with an SSL server ID? See Step IV below to learn more about Web site security.
  • Support. A big part of the value of turning to an ISP or Web host is that you don't have to worry about keeping the Web server running. Does your host offer 24x7 customer service?

V. Accept Credit Cards

Accepting credit cards and other methods of payment online for your online business is crucial to your businesses success. If a customer has to send you a money order by mail, your sales will suffer because most people won't want to do that. It's too slow to do it that way. They have to wait until the check gets to you in addition to waiting on the package to come from you. The hardest task with setting up an ecommerce website is to find a trustworthy and reliable service that will allow you to accept credit card payments online and without too many problems.

VII. Step Seven: Promote Your Site

You can have a great web site, but if no one knows it's there it won't do you any good. Add it to search engines, directories, spam-free ffa pages, and guest books. Ensure not to put blatant advertisements in someone's guest book. That's very rude and would offend anyone. Take a look around the person's web site and tell them what you liked about it, while also leaving your link. Invite them to sign your guest book if you have one. You should attach your url to every email message you send out. This makes it easy for surfers to come back to your web site. Be patient because it takes time build up a steady flow of traffic. Paid Promotion is highly recommended because you don't have to wait to be listed in search engines.

VIII. Now, Start Selling

With an online identity, a Web host, an eye-catching, professional-looking Web storefront, rock-solid security, easy-to-use payment management, and the right promotions, your e-commerce business is ready to succeed in the competitive world of the Web.

Following these basic steps will help you lay the foundation for a thriving site. Good luck.

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