The Definitive Guide to Ecommerce Website Development

Nico Prins
Nico Prins

Published:

The ecommerce industry has been on an upward trajectory for over a decade now. According to Statista, this growth will continue for the foreseeable future.

person using a computer to learn ecommerce website development

a chart showing the increase in ecommerce sales from 2014 to 2025

Image Source

Clearly, ecommerce is an extremely lucrative industry. But the unfortunate reality is that about eight out of 10 ecommerce businesses fail within 24 months.

While there are several reasons behind this stat, most online stores get it wrong from the start with a poor ecommerce website.

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In this post, we’ll give you a step-by-step guide on ecommerce website development to help you start your online business on the right foot. Let’s get right into it.

1. Identify your target market.

The first key step to effective ecommerce website development is defining and identifying your target audience. Remember, your website is the most critical channel for your business. That’s where all your marketing efforts point to, and it’s where conversions take place.

To create a website that appeals to your customers’ unique needs and preferences, you have to understand them first.

For example, a quick glimpse at Kylie Jenner’s ecommerce store, Kylie Cosmetics, tells a whole story about the target audience. From the color pallet choices, it’s pretty obvious who the target demographic is.

the kylie jenner website homepageImage Source

Audience research is perhaps the most effective way to identify your target market. Audience research involves conducting research to develop accurate buyer personas. The research can start from your customer database. If you already have a customer database, analyze it to identify recurring trends.

You could start by evaluating demographic data — look at where most of your customers come from, their age, gender, etc. Next, you could look at purchase history and average order value. This should give you an idea of how much your target customers are willing to pay for your products.

However, your customer database alone will not give you the full picture of what your ideal customers want. To create detailed and reliable customer personas, you must collate data from different sources. You’ll need to analyze your other digital analytics, including your email list and social media accounts. Interviews, focus groups, and surveys can also help you collect data on your target market.

Competitive analysis is also super effective here. try tools like Sprout Social and Buzzsumo to spy on competitors, then use the data from your analysis to refine your buyer personas even further.

Here’s a buyer persona template to guide you when developing buyer personas:

a buyer persone template for developing an ecommerce websiteImage Source

Keep in mind that a business could have more than one buyer persona. If you have unique segments within your target market, don’t force them to share a single persona. Instead, create separate personas, then find a way to harmonize their needs and interests and develop a dynamic website ideal for all segments.

2. Choose the right platform.

Choosing the right ecommerce platform is one of the most critical decisions every ecommerce business owner has to make. The platform you choose determines how successful your business will be, since it affects how you manage your website and promote your online store and also impacts user experience.

Generally speaking, business owners have three options when it comes to choosing an ecommerce platform:

First, you have open-source ecommerce platforms. These platforms give you more flexibility and control since you can modify the open-source code extensively. They’re also free to install, but more expensive to run and maintain since you’re doing most of the work yourself.

As the website owner, you’ll be responsible for expenses on hosting, customization, development, and security. That’s a lot to handle, especially when you consider the importance of safeguarding an ecommerce website against security concerns like a data breaches. Maintaining an open-source platform also requires technical knowledge that you may need to outsource.

For such reasons, most business owners opt for SaaS ecommerce platforms. SaaS (software as a service) platforms operate on a pay-to-play basis. You pay a monthly subscription fee, then gain access to all the tools you need to get your business online. The platform is also responsible for day-to-day maintenance. For example, it will maintain the platform’s security, provide seamless integrations, and ensure PCI compliance.

SaaS ecommerce platforms are not as flexible or customizable as open-source platforms. However, several providers have gone out of their way to offer some level of customizability. BigCommerce, for example, has an open API that merchants can use to make custom integrations and other customizations.

The third option is a headless ecommerce platform. In a headless configuration, the shopping cart is separated from the content management system (CMS). That means merchants can use a CMS platform like WordPress to manage the front end of the website (i.e., what visitors see and interact with) and integrate it with a decoupled shopping cart tool for the back end (i.e., the unseen functionality that powers the website, including your payment processing and product database).

Headless commerce gives you better customization options than a SaaS platform, allowing you to enhance the customer experience and increase your conversion rate. You can also utilize a SaaS decoupled shopping cart tool for faster go-to-market and lower maintenance costs.

On the flip side, these platforms usually have a steeper learning curve and usually require technical expertise to maintain smooth operations.

Once you identify the ideal ecommerce platform, you’ll need to consider a few other factors to hone in on your perfect solution. These include:

  • hosting environment
  • security
  • SEO-friendliness
  • payment options
  • availability of an intuitive website builder
  • backend support
  • mobile-friendliness
  • scalability
  • integrations with essential sales and marketing tools like HubSpot, TrustPilot, etc.

Ultimately, the right ecommerce platform will depend on your business needs. For example, your store size and estimated traffic will determine your bandwidth requirements, hence the ecommerce platform. Similarly, if you hope to introduce more products and attract more customers, you’ll need a scalable platform to support your growth.

3. Determine product categories.

Ecommerce product categorization affects the shopping experience and, by extension, your bottom line. Clear and intuitive product categories make it easier for customers to find what they want, and they also enhance your store’s internal search and overall SEO.

To enjoy all those benefits, you must do what’s called product taxonomy. That means understanding your products and developing a logical way to present them to shoppers.

Beyond understanding product attributes and values, merchants also need to know how their customers' shopping habits. That allows you to categorize and present your products to meet shoppers’ expectations.

Product categorization usually starts with broader categories going down to more specific sub-categories.

a tree illustrating the categories of products on an example ecommerce websiteImage Source

For example, if you have a furniture store, the parent or broader category could be the room of the house, e.g., living room, bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, home office, etc. Then, you could have sub-categories such as sofas, rocking chairs, console tables, and coffee tables, under the living room category.

You could also have more sub-categories below that. For example, the sofas sub-category could have a child category containing fabric recliner sofas, fabric corner sofas, leather recliner sofas, leather corner sofas, etc.

Don’t fall into the trap of product over-categorization, though. Remember that the ultimate goal of product categorization is to help shoppers find the items they want with the fewest possible clicks.

The better you understand your products and customers’ shopping habits, the easier it’ll be for you to nail product categorization. Also, you may want to test different product categorization techniques.

For example, say you have an apparel store with Men and Women category, each with its own Pants and Shirts sub-categories. You could switch up attributes to have a Pants and Shirts category, each with Men and Women sub-categories.

Running these kinds of tests can help you determine the most intuitive product categorization for your brand and customers.

4. Define your branding.

We can’t discuss ecommerce website development without mentioning the role of proper branding. You must develop a unique branding style to ensure your online store stands out from competitors, and that starts by choosing the right color scheme.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for picking the right brand color palette. Several factors usually come into play — for example, your brand identity or personality may persuade you to pick a particular color over the rest. Your niche and products can also push you towards a particular color scheme.

Most companies use around three colors: a primary color, a secondary color, and perhaps a third neutral color. The primary color is the most important since it usually represents the brand. Think Target red, Starbucks green, and HubSpot orange.

Branding is not all about color schemes, though. You also want to find the appropriate logo and brand voice. Ensure the brand logo design blends perfectly with your color scheme.

Meanwhile, creating a brand voice gives your brand a unique personality, helping you stand out. You must use this voice across all your communication channels to maintain a consistent brand experience.

One easy way to find your brand voice is by analyzing your customer personas. These will tell you the kind of people your business is built for. You want to pick a brand voice that resonates with your target audience.

For example, the Harley Davidson store uses a casual yet bold and somewhat rebellious voice that perfectly aligns with their target market. Check out these category descriptions:

harley davidson website product descriptionsImage Source

While considering your branding, think about the unique selling proposition (USP) you want to offer your customers. To create a compelling USP, you’ll have to conduct competitor research and speak to customers. Also, see how competitors are trying to differentiate themselves. That should give you an idea of what’s important in your niche.

On the other hand, speaking directly to your customers helps you understand what they care about. Combine this with the intel from the competitor analysis, and you’ll start getting ideas of effective USPs for your brand. Then, test those ideas through A/B tests or by interviewing other people (preferably individuals who don’t know about your brand). That will help you find the most effective USP for your business.

For example, Bee’s Wrap's USP is that they’re helping better the lives of customers, communities, and their employees through sustainable solutions.

the be wrap website mission and values pageImage Source

Adding a brand backstory is another smart way to make your ecommerce business stand out. It humanizes your brand and makes it more relatable to your target customers. Warby Parker does this well with a backstory inspired by the personal struggles of the company’s founders — read the Warby Parker backstory here.

5. Add descriptions and photos.

Unfortunately, online shopping doesn’t give customers many ways to inspect products. Shoppers can’t touch or smell the merchandise — they can only view it. That means online retailers have the burden of developing creative product displays to help interested buyers get the feel of those items.

One easy way to achieve this is by using high-quality images. There’s no room for pixelated photos in the online marketplace — an unclear image can wrongly create the impression that your product is poor quality.

Use a quality camera (from a DSLR or a good smartphone) to take your ecommerce product photos. Expose the products to sufficient natural light for a more vibrant look nd use a tripod to maintain excellent photo consistency across all products. Take multi-angle photos, including close-ups, to give shoppers more inspection options. You could also experiment with 360-degree product spins.

Also, don’t neglect the product description. Your product descriptions should help shoppers see how the product satisfies their needs or interests, so focus on product benefits, not features.

Mountaineer Brand is an excellent example of an ecommerce brand that gets its product descriptions right. The information helps a potential customer understand the direct benefits of purchasing and using the product.

a product description for a mountaneer brand productImage Source

6. Plan your content strategy.

A content marketing strategy is essential during ecommerce website development. The strategy will help you drive leads to your ecommerce website where they’ll hopefully convert into customers. Creating this strategy beforehand will help you design a website that aligns with your content marketing efforts.

Ecommerce businesses can leverage various types of content for content marketing. For example, you can write compelling blog posts using AP style to discuss the critical issues experienced by your potential customers. Your blog could also feature buying guides for the items sold in your store.

Heal’s furniture store is an excellent example of an online store leveraging blogging:

blog posts on a furniture websiteImage Source

Video content can be beneficial as well. Wyzowl reports that 88 percent of consumers want to see more videos from brands.

Good video content ideas include product demos, product closeups, unboxing videos, explainer videos, testimonial videos, etc. These can be published on your website, and/or distributed through social media or email.

a video on a baby stroller websiteImage Source

Infographics, quizzes, and category descriptions are some of the other content types ecommerce businesses could utilize. You can also run offline marketing campaigns, and drive traffic back to your site using a QR code linked to a URL.

Comprehensive keyword research is another key step to create a successful ecommerce content strategy: Tools like Ahrefs, Moz, and even Google’s Keyword Planner will help you identify high-traffic keywords to target. Include these keywords in your blog posts, buying guides, product descriptions, category descriptions, and URLs to land on search results and rive organic traffic to your website.

7. Test your website.

Always test your ecommerce site extensively before taking it live. The last thing you want is to launch your business with a buggy, broken website. That could damage your brand reputation, making it harder to pull customers in the future.

Start by testing technical issues like site speed, responsiveness, and browser compatibility. An ecommerce website should ideally load in two seconds. Any longer than that and your bounce rate will rise significantlyroof. Test your page load times with a tool like Google’s PageSpeed Insights, and use its recommendations to improve performance.

Your website should also be mobile-friendly. That’s critical, considering 65 percent of ecommerce traffic comes from mobile devices. Ensure your product images load correctly, the text is easy to read, and the buttons are large enough to easily tap. Check the site across multiple browsers to ensure it’s working correctly.

Lastly, put yourself in the customer’s shoes and test the user flow. See how easy it is to navigate the site, search for a product, add it to your cart, and go through checkout. The entire process should be smooth as silk.

8. Use data to update your site.

Congratulations! Your online store is now live. Unfortunately, your job’s not done quite yet. Post-launch, you should optimize your store to maximize conversions. But you’ll need data to achieve that — lots of data.

You can start by A/B testing variables such as your value proposition, CTAs, page layout, etc. For instance, you can create two separate pages, one offering users a price discount and the other providing free shipping. See which of the two appeals the most to customers.

Monitoring your website’s performance on Google Analytics is also essential. That will help you track the number of site visitors, traffic sources, bounce rate, page views, average session duration, etc. You can then use these data points to make informed decisions.

For example, a high bounce rate on a particular page could signal a technical issue with the page. Maybe it doesn’t load correctly or takes too long to load. It’s also possible that the content on that page is irrelevant or of poor quality.

Meanwhile, traffic sources can help you optimize your marketing efforts correctly. For example, you could double down on a marketing channel pulling the most traffic. You could also review the strategy of a poorly performing channel.

Google Analytics can also help you track site searches, which can be extremely valuable for ecommerce sites. Knowing what items your customers are searching for can help you improve the user experience.

For instance, if a particular item is getting tons of searches, you may want to create a separate (sub)category to improve its discoverability. If you’re getting lots of searches for an item you don’t have, consider adding it to your inventory. Sometimes even the search terms can help you write better product descriptions for increased discoverability.

In addition to Google Analytics, you can use other solutions to facilitate data-driven decision-making. For example, Customer Data Platforms (CDP) like Segment can give you a deeper understanding of your customers. They’ll show you how your customers shop and what makes them tick.

Meanwhile, personalization tools like Nosto and Limespot help you deliver personalized shopping experiences. These let you deliver personalized product recommendations and discounts to accelerate conversions.

Build your dream ecommerce website.

The ecommerce industry might be getting more competitive by the day, but there’s still a way to rise through the ranks. That starts by getting your ecommerce website right.

First, identify your target audience. You can do that through audience research and creating buyer personas. Next, choose the right ecommerce platform, then create your product categories. Proceed to define your branding style and add compelling product descriptions and photos.

The next tasks are planning your content strategy and testing the site. Be sure to fix any issues identified before your store goes live. Finally, monitor your online store’s metrics and adjust your website and marketing strategies accordingly.

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