How to Sell Online

The Small Business Guide to Selling Online

You have a product or service, and you have a website. But, sadly, unlike Forrest and Jenny, the two do not go together like peas and carrots. Perhaps you’ve had success selling through sites like Etsy and eBay. That’s great, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t keep those avenues open. But why not tap into another revenue stream by monetizing your website? After all, by 2017, ecommerce sales will reach $434 billion in the US alone.

In the past, people hesitated to turn their business websites into ecommerce centers, because of security, management, and usability concerns. However, website hosting platforms have uncomplicated online shopping. Now, businesses have another opportunity to sell their wares without any type of middleman.

How Do I Get Started with Online Selling?



To sell products on your website, you need three things:

  • 1. A shopping cart
  • 2. An SSL certificate
  • 3. A payment gateway, payment processor, and merchant account

The shopping cart is self-explanatory (keep in mind, though, that shopping carts require software or a plugin), but the others might be less known.


What is an SSL certificate?

According to GlobalSign, “SSL Certificates are small data files that digitally bind a cryptographic key to an organization's details. When installed on a web server, it activates the padlock and the https protocol (over port 443) and allows secure connections from a web server to a browser.” In plain English: a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate verifies the genuineness of a website and encrypts (makes data undecipherable) information sent to that site’s server. Essentially, it certifies that your website is safe for users to provide personal and financial information for the purposes of purchasing goods and/or services.

Typically, you acquire an SSL certification through wherever you host your website. Even better, many web hosting platforms now offer online store packages that cover the whole kit-and-commerce-kaboodle.


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What is the difference between a payment gateway, payment processor, and merchant account?

Like a sales terminal—or credit card machine—at a brick-and-mortar store, a payment gateway authorizes card payments on your site. PayPal is one of the most well-known payment gateway solutions, but there are plenty of others. Check out this deep-dive into payment gateway and service comparison. According to Ecommerce Platforms, payment processors “are the financial institutions that work in the background to provide all the payment processing services used by an online merchant.” These institutions run in the background and are linked/affiliated with varying payment gateways. Lastly, a merchant account is a type of bank account that authorizes you to accept credit or debit cards payments online. “Many companies including some payment processors and most payment gateways provide merchant accounts,” explains Ecommerce Platforms. Check out this merchant account comparison from SiteGround.


What if I use Wordpress?

Wordpress is all about the plugins, and that holds true for online stores, too. As for which plugin is right for you, that depends on your budget and how much hand-holding you want. For starters, review this Ecommerce Platforms list of the seven best free ecommerce plugins for Wordpress, and then dig deeper to determine which one is right for you and if what’s offered free works for your needs—and if not, which offers pricing and packages that suit your business. Also, check out this guide to Wordpress ecommerce.

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Are there sites or software that handle all of this?

As mentioned above, web hosting platforms offer online store packages. In other words, there’s now software for ecommerce. So, depending on your hosting provider—think Weebly, Shopify, Bigcommerce, and Squarespace—you may be able to use them for a more turnkey and novice approach to ecommerce. Alternatively, if you have a developer or are code savvy yourself, you may prefer to install open source shopping cart software—like Magento or OpenCart—into your website’s hosting service. “Open source shopping carts are basically standalone programs that require you to install them into your own host...So you’ll have to set up, configure and manage your own hosting service to power your online store,” states this Website Builder Expert article. For advice on this advanced avenue, read this article, and for a pros-and-cons comparison of self-hosted vs. hosted, check out this LinkedIn post.


What Kind of Site is Best for Online Selling?

If you already have a website, then you should already have a solid idea of your brand and audience. The ecommerce portion of your website should reflect your brand’s identity and suit the shopping needs of your audience. When in doubt, go for clean and simple with minimal copy and nice photos. As this infographic from Wyzowl shows, people remember 80% of what they see, but only 20% of what they read. So, focus big-time on high-quality product photos and solid web design.


Add Images to Your Online Store

How can I create great images? Here are a few pointers:

  • 1. Use white background to make your products pop and make it clear as to what your customers are purchasing.

  • 2. Enable image zooming.

  • 3. Provide multiple images of a product, including alternate angles, images of individual items if the product has multiples, and interior views if your product is packaged.

  • 4. Enlist a photographer or graphic designer if imaging isn’t your strong suit.



How Do I Optimize My Ecommerce Site?

You’ve already taken the first optimization step: you made your website an ecommerce site. Now, it’s time make it a great ecommerce site. Here’s how:


Improve Online Store Navigation

Improve Navigation

The easier it is to search, browse, and buy, the better your business will be. To that end, make sure your overall site navigation includes a “Shop” button. Once in the shop section of your site, ensure you have a smart search bar, and consider the following:


Audit Your Brand

Earlier in this article, I mentioned that because you already have a website, you most likely know your brand and your audience. If that’s not the case or you think your brand needs refreshed, check out this post.

Also, double-check your “about” page. No need to go overboard, but you should have enough images and text to tell the story of your business: what you do and why you do it. Put that effort into the page, and you’ll be rewarded: shoppers who hit the about page “convert 30% more than those who don’t visit it and spend on average 22.5% more,” stated this Ecommerce Platforms guide.


Personalize Your Online Shopping Experience

Personalize the Shopping Experience

Amazon changed the online shopping game—many times—but their product recommendations based on user behavior might top them all. And now that brilliance is available to any online store, thanks to innovation in ecommerce software and plugins. A 2012 study by Accenture found that “the majority of consumers in both the U.S. and UK are willing to have trusted retailers use some of their personal data in order to present personalized and targeted products, services, recommendations and offers.” And a 2014 AgilOne survey found that more than 79% of US consumers “expect personalized experiences with the brands they interact with.” So, consider adding product recommendations, similar products, and complementary products based on browsing or purchase history.


Personalization isn’t only about offering customers the right products at the right time. It’s also about making your store accessible. To that end, make sure your website is responsive, which means the site adjusts to all devices and screen sizes, including mobile. A 2015 Houston Marketing Matters blog post stated that “e-shopping via a mobile device now accounts for 40% of all purchases; yet 97% of mobile shopping carts are abandoned...this is largely because mobile sites are not designed with mobile shopping in mind, and therefore, nearly 50% of users will go to a competitor’s site if it has a better user experience.” No one can afford to lose that much traffic, let alone small businesses, so make sure your online store is mobile-friendly.


Add Live Chat Software

Sometimes people have questions; they’re on the fence about certain products; or they genuinely can’t make up their mind. In brick-and-mortar stores, you have trusty sales associates to sweep in and, well, sell. Live chat software gives you that power. Typically, people view live chat as a way to offer customer support and troubleshooting, but that’s only scratching the surface of live chat’s power.

Sell Online with Live Chat Software

Live chat—as in a chat box on your website—gives you and your staff the opportunity to convert shoppers into customers. According to This Forrester Report, 44% of those surveyed chose “Having my questions answered by a live person while I am in the process of my online shopping” as one of the most important features on a website. And according to Software Advice, 49% of consumers prefer to ask questions via live chat. Lastly, Microsoft research found that live chat has blown past email and is nearly equal with the telephone when its comes to customers preferred service channel.


Now that you see the value of live chat, it’s time to implement it. Even better, some solutions—like Pure Chat—offer free live chat software that easily plugs into most online shopping platforms, like Weebly, Shopify, Wordpress, SpaceCraft, and Squarespace. For more on how live chat can drive conversions, check out this guide.


Nail Down your Shipping Strategy

Free shipping—another brilliant Amazon move. Today, though, it’s nearly everyone’s move. As this Inc. article explains, “research has shown that, whenever possible, free shipping is a necessity for retail sites.” The article continues, stating that according to recent data from Accent, 88% of consumers “would be more likely to shop at a site online if they were promised free shipping.” Thus, if you can offer free shipping, do so and display it proudly on your homepage. It’s a big draw. If you can’t offer across-the-board free shipping, consider offering it when customers reach certain price points. For additional shipping strategies, check out this guide.


Enhance your Shopping Cart

Abandoned carts are the bane of ecommerce’s existence. People browse on sites, add products to their cart, and then bounce. There are a lot of reasons for this, and if you offer free shipping, then you eradicate one of the most significant. Beyond shipping, though, people abandon carts when the process gets complicated or the store demands too much. Keep it simple by:

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How Do I Market My Online Store?

If you have a website, you’ve probably initiated some online marketing techniques already, but marketing an ecommerce site is more labor intensive. With Etsy, eBay, Amazon, and Bonanza, you’re relying on their search engines (and ad/sponsorship packages) to drive traffic to your products. And that’s great; keep every avenue open for selling your wares. Now, you have to up your game a bit and drive everyone browsing elsewhere online to your site. Here are some recommendations:


Appease Search Engines

From title tags and metadata to online reviews and your NAP, there’s a lot you need to do to ensure those looking for your business can find it and those who are browsing for products you carry discover them. For help on all of this, check out this online optimization guide.


Start Blogging

According to Ecommerce Platform, “When you blog you can increase the number of visitors by 50% and have 885 more leads per month.” Blogging allows you to talk about what you do, why you do it, and the products you sell in a natural, conversational, and humanistic way. Nowadays, people want to have a connection with brands, so afford them that opportunity with content. Furthermore, content is a great way to educate potential customers and create product evangelists. Plus, as KISSmetrics explains, “Blogging also gives you something to share on social media and helps you rank in search engines.”

Worried that your content won’t be any good, that you can’t afford it, or that you don’t have the time? Check out this small business guide to good, fast, and cheap content creation.


Grow Your Subscriber Base

You collect an email address from everyone who purchases from you. Bolster that count by also encouraging website visitors to subscribe to your newsletter. Consider offering people a discount on their next purchase or a free gift when they sign up for your newsletter. Once they’re on your list, send them emails. I recommend starting with a monthly newsletter, featuring that month’s most popular blog content, some recommended products, and perhaps a special offer. For more on email marketing, check out KISSmetrics’s beginner’s guide to email marketing, and check out these solid newsletter examples.

Embrace Influencers

You know your audience, so you probably know the thought leaders in your industry or niche. If not, start researching who reviews products like yours, and then send them free samples. If they review your product or give you a mention on social, reach out to them and ask to interview them for your blog. That gives you content and will help drive traffic from the influencer’s network.


Network and Affiliate

The adage “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” rings especially true online. Here are some ways you can embrace reciprocity:


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Embrace SEO and Adwords

Welcome to the ball of wax that is digital marketing. Let’s start with SEO. Thanks to your blog, you’ve made solid steps in gaining organic traffic. Now, you have to optimize your product pages. Take these tips adapted from Ecommerce Platforms:

  • Use relevant keywords in your headers and image alt tags.
  • Watch the character limit on your URLs, and use keywords in URLs whenever possible.
  • Avoid duplicate content.
  • Write unique product descriptions, and use bullet points.
  • Save pages that have out-of-stock or discontinued products. Rather than remove the pages, offer related, similar, or new items instead.

These tips are merely the tip of the SEO iceberg. To dive deeper, check out KISSmetrics’s guide to SEO for ecommerce sites as well as this Google Analytics tools guide and Shopify’s beginner’s guide to Google Analytics for ecommerce.

And now: Adwords, which is Google’s pay-per-click advertising network that allows online retailers to run paid advertisements on search results pages as well as partner sites and YouTube. Simply put, you build Adwords campaigns based off keywords, and these campaigns are essential in driving traffic to your site. Obviously, the more organic (i.e., unpaid) traffic you can drive to your site, the better, but if you can snag some low-cost keywords, then Adwords can give you decent traffic without breaking the bank. Learn how to get started with this beginner’s guide.

America is clamoring for great products, and people are getting behind small businesses. They deserve another avenue to purchase your wares, and that’s your website. Understand that it takes time and effort to create an online store. And once you have the store built, you commence the never-ending quest of optimization and customer service. This is the case no matter where you sell your goods, though, so you might as well use your own website. After all, it’s the most fitting home for your goods—and your customers.

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