Building an e-commerce website doesn't require an engineering degree. You can focus on creating great products and marketing your brand while enlisting a software company to do all of the technological heavy lifting. However, it's incredibly important that you understand exactly what your software provider is doing from a technological perspective before you make a decision, and even after your website is up and running.
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I spoke with Stergios Anastasiadis, Director of Engineering at Shopify about the most important technology living within an e-commerce website and what you should know to get started. "We have customers 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 technology 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 Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, allowing for an end-to-end secure connection across all of the data and transactions on your website. 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 either Transport Layer Security (TLS) or SSL. For any sort of online web transaction that needs privacy, HTTPS is an obvious candidate, so much so that as of January 2017, Google Chrome will flag any non-HTTPS site asking for login or credit card information as "non-secure."
Additionally, e-commerce software should provide you with a payment processing tool that can provide 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.
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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. Think Mobile First
Speaking of mobile: 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. "All features should be developed on mobile first, on iOS and Android," said Anastasiadis. "Features must be delivered on those native platforms and data must be able to scale."
If you talk to a prospective vendor and he or she tells you they're developing "web-first" and converting to mobile later, then you probably want to walk away. Regardless of other factors that make the company attractive to work with, that outdated philosophy will put your website at a disadvantage from the start.
4. Cloud Hosting
Your service provider will likely be storing your data in the cloud with Amazon, Google, or Microsoft. They probably even work with all three companies so you'll be able to choose which Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offering gets to store your data. Find out which service you prefer by researching factors such as backup, disaster recovery (DR), security, and uptime.
Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are all very good options but you may have a preference between the three or with a different vendor. Picking one of these is critically important as they will be the ones 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.
5. Website Updates
Your website isn't a "set-it-and-forget-it" proposition. You'll want a vendor who 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 who 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.
6. Data Engineering
Ask your prospective e-commerce vendor if they have 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, like Tableau. Using a BI tool is a necessity once you need deeper insights into how your customers are behaving on your site, what products or services they're choosing or rejecting, and similar knowledge points. Make sure your provider's data engineering staff can help you gather the transactional data necessary to perform this kind of analysis.
7. Third-Party Integrations
Although you might be a technology 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 speed and data intelligence. For example, if you run email marketing campaigns through MailChimp, combining your marketing and 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've abandoned a 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.