Designing for an Effective Online Shop

Over the past few years, the Internet has transformed from a place where larger, online retailers thrived, into one that is increasingly allowing small business owners to pursue national and international markets. That means great things for entrepreneurs who are looking to increase their profit margins and dramatically increase their reach, but these benefits must be carefully managed so that they meet or exceed expectations. Indeed, it would be a mistake for business owners to assume that their mere presence in the online environment would guarantee the success of their e-commerce venture.

When designing for success in online retailing, business owners and their web designers have a number of things that should be considered top priority. This includes everything from the checkout process at the end of the transaction to the very first page that prospective customers see when they find the company’s website via a search or a friend's recommendation. By accommodating these best practices when designing an online shop, business owners will be primed for success with a natural, comfortable design that welcomes customers more effectively.

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The First Priority: Products, Products, Products

In an era when search engine optimization is king, many online retailers tend to ignore their product in favor of content marketing. While it might seem like a really great way to lure people from search engines, the problem with this tactic is that it brings potential customers to a written article rather than to a product they might find interesting and worth their time.

Because the product should always come first, online retailers need to follow a few simply suggestions that place the product above all other efforts. These suggestions include all of the following:

1. The Homepage Should Feature at Least Some of the Company's Products

Customers should never type in a company’s ".com" address and land on a blog post. That's only acceptable if the company is solely interested in marketing and selling its content, making the content itself the product. Otherwise, blog posts and other pieces of extended copy will lead to high bounce rates and low overall profits for the business.

Instead of landing on blog posts or large blocks of copy, consumers should be greeted with the company's products right away. This doesn't necessarily mean that the homepage needs to be an online storefront, however. Many companies simply prefer to create a homepage that uses large, vivid photos to showcase a company's offerings and highlight them with simple marketing slogans and captions. Visit any major, corporate retailer's website, and this strategy becomes apparent. By showing the product first, the website makes a statement: This is a place that sells goods to consumers like you, and here's what can be found in the store.

2. Leverage the Power of Landing Pages to Maximize Search-Driven Earnings

Blog posts are an important aspect of today's marketing strategies, but they shouldn't be the only ones. After all, blog posts of any kind still tend to put the words themselves ahead of the product. An effective online store design pairs a cohesive product listing with landing pages that include keywords, actionable items, and a strategy for funneling visitors away from Google and toward the checkout process.

By using landing pages in addition to a company's traditional blog, business owners will ensure that every search engine click arrives at a page where the product is front and center, the written copy drives the sale, and the customer is guided toward the checkout more effectively than via any other type search result.

3. Emphasize Links to the Online Store or Product Listing

Customers who arrive on a landing page or a homepage should never have to be confused about where the full product listing is or how they're supposed to arrive at that part of the website. Showcasing a product front and center on the company's homepage is a good start, but make sure that product images are linked to the online store. For those customers who prefer textual links, ensure that at least one prominent text link to the company's online product listing is included on this homepage as well.

The mission here is simple: Don't allow an otherwise good e-commerce design throw away potential sales by hiding the product listing and checkout. With prominent placement, that can be avoided rather easily.

The Second Priority: Make Sure Things Can Be Found

A website without an effective search tool is a website that most customers will simply leave behind. Companies that sell a broad array of products need to make sure that customers can easily and effectively find each product and be directed to its individual page within the website. This allows them to not only see the product’s pictures and specifications in-depth, but also to simply add the product to their shopping cart and proceed through checkout in record time.

The goal with a search tool is to enhance usability and give customers a way to find what they need without an endless series of dead-end clicks. Think of it as the online equivalent of a helpful salesperson in a more traditional, offline retail outlet.

The Third Priority: An Effective, Easy-to-Use Checkout Process

Though it seems easy in theory, connecting with a customer and actually encouraging them to complete a sale is a very difficult process. Many companies simply can't do this, and that helps to explain why so many retail businesses of all sizes have come and gone over the past several centuries. Business owners should feel flattered that new customers love their products enough to pay for them and make them their own. They should also feel compelled to make sure that customers can effortlessly proceed through checkout and make their payment without any confusion, hassles, or usability headaches.

That might sound like an obvious piece of advice, but all too many online businesses seem to forget it or ignore it completely when creating their online buying experience. There are a few guidelines to be followed when creating a checkout interface, all of which will contribute to easier, more effortless purchases that take a company's bottom line to the next level.

1. Don't Convolute the Process with a Confusing Interface

There are plenty of places to push the boundaries of web design and make a real statement, but a checkout process is simply not one of those places. Businesses that are determined to guide users toward a successful sale need to focus on the basics when creating their checkout design and user experience. Those basics include a few buzzwords:

- Whitespace
- Utilitarian design
- Verbose instructions

Make sure that the checkout process is robustly labeled, explaining to the customer not only where to enter given pieces of their personal information but also why those pieces of information are required. Make sure that each step of the checkout process is labeled. That means indicating whether the customer is paying, entering shipping information, registering for an account, entering promotional deals, or performing some other task.

2. Ensure that the Checkout Process is Highly Secure

Any checkout procedure should be highly secure, generally via the use of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption. Typically, encryption is taken care of by combining a secure checkout software solution with a web host that offers individual SSL certificates to website owners. This is the best combination for online businesses looking to pair common sense checkout design with consumer peace of mind.

It might even be a good idea for the business to indicate that its checkout process is highly secure within the design of the checkout pages themselves. This will give customers confidence that they're entering the right information, and making the right move, all without risking their identity or their financial integrity.

3. Provide Plenty of Payment Options

Some people prefer to pay with their debit card, while others prefer a Discover Card, an American Express, or their PayPal account. Successful online businesses keep this in mind when creating their checkout process, ensuring that they're able to process all major credit card technologies and brands from around the world. Many people will opt to accept PayPal and other electronic forms of payment as well, since this helps them work with emerging markets, new technologies, and mobile customers.

When crafting the checkout procedure, ensure that customers can pay with all of the major forms of plastic, and be sure to include PayPal, Google Checkout, and Amazon Payments at a minimum. These are three of the biggest and most important players in online transactions, and they'll be a key way to expand the business' reach as it grows over time.

4. Provide Confirmation and Follow-Through

Finally, be sure that customers know whether or not the transaction has gone through. This key element of checkout design will prevent customers from paying twice or buying the same item repeatedly, and it's a great way to indicate that the process is now over and the rest of the responsibility lies solely with the company and its warehouse full of products. Pair this on-screen confirmation with a helpful email indicating the transaction's details, and follow up with shipping information.

Encourage the customer to contact the company with any concerns they might have about the product, the checkout process, or the company itself. With a robust commitment to information and support, customers will be more likely to keep themselves in the loop and they'll be open to trying the company's products again at some point in the future.

The Fourth Priority: Effective Customer Service Tools and Designs

The final priority, at least in terms of assembling an effective online website for commerce, is to give customers the tools they need to resolve issues, answer questions, and seek resolutions to any website or payment errors that might come their way during checkout. Customer support should be easily accessible from the website's main navigation area and should include some or all of the following options:

- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- Live chat with a company support representative
- Email options for company departments
- Links to social media accounts

With support options linked in the main navigation area, and accessible site-wide, these tools will keep customers more satisfied and more likely to visit again. That can only mean good things for business owners.

Great Ways to Boost Sales and Support Customers

With everything from online support tools to a no-nonsense checkout process, business owners will find it easy to make the transition into online selling. All it takes is a new view of website design, a thoughtful approach to checkout, and the support of company representatives from start to finish.

Written 2013-09-18 (Updated 2016-10-10)
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Written by David Walsh

David Walsh is the editor in chief here at Web Hosting Search. Having been in the industry for many years now he knows pretty much everything about everything. At least that's what he keeps telling everyone at the office. So, don't hesitate to drop him a line  if you've got a question - david(a)

Share your thoughts

WSPIgnacio,  29 December, 2014

Highly energetic post, I liked that a lot. Will there be a part 2?

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