What is Ecommerce ?
Ecommerce is the use of specialist website applications to collect and process orders for products or services. An ecommerce website is one that displays products and allows visitors to select one or more, and then go to a checkout section where the shipping address can be input and payment made. Payment is normally by credit card but some software settings may allow payment by phone or by mailing a cheque.
Another term for this type of application is a shopping cart. Because that implies a smaller class of program, it is commonly used to describe an add-on for another, larger program such as a CMS. There is no specific requirement for a small program to be called a shopping cart and a large one to be called an ecommerce application, but this is the current trend.
How does ecommerce work ?
The software is installed on a server that has databases and ancillary software available. The ecommerce software then creates a website. It uses a database to store all the product details, prices, and publishing data. When a visitor's browser connects with the website, the server software creates the relevant page, which displays products and prices, and a buyer may click on a product to add it to their list of required purchases, termed a basket or cart - e.g. 'Add to cart'. On clicking the Checkout button, they are taken to a secure section where the credit card details are processed. The checkout may be in one of three locations:
- Type 1: within the website
- Type 2: off the site but within the host's secure facility
- Type 3: on a remote server run by a payment processor or merchant partner
Like a CMS and all other modern dynamic websites, there are no actual pages on the server, unlike the older HTML page system that hard-coded sites use. All 'pages' are created on-the-fly, in a fraction of a second. Therefore page content changes or other edits are fast to implement - a simple page edit can be done in 30 seconds and goes live immediately. No actual page has to be altered, simply some details in a database.
What is a good ecommerce program ?
Like any software, an ecommerce application must be chosen to fulfill a list of criteria. For ecommerce software those choices are:
- Class of application
- Server type
- Number of products
- Search friendliness
- Hosting cost and/or monthly costs
The budget is always the most important criterion for software, which may be free / open-source, economy commercial, mid-market commercial or enterprise commercial. There are pros and cons to all choices here, so as long as the budget is there, other factors can be looked at to form a shortlist. For smaller budgets then open-source or economy commercial can be chosen. Normally, in open-source software, quality or functionality are not issues and choice is made based on other factors. However there is a restricted choice in good-quality open-source ecommerce applications.
Class of ecommerce application
There are some well-defined groups these programs can be placed in:
- Large scale, capable
- Smaller scale
- Ecommerce CMS
- Small hosted
- Large hosted
About 80 - 90% of ecommerce software runs on a standard LAMP server, with the rest mostly on Windows servers, aka IIS servers. It is normally more economical to use a standard server. Some custom-builds and enterprise-scale solutions use IIS.
Number of products
The capability of ecommerce applications - their ability to scale up in size - is often determined by cost. However there are some open-source choices that scale well.
This is an area where many applications fail dismally, as they are based on obsolete code and maintained by developers who never considered this aspect when the software was initially built. We restrict our choice to those that are proven to work well, since an ecommerce website only has one function: to make money. If it had some other function then we could look at other factors being more important, but since it only has one possible purpose then it seems sensible to prioritise for that. There is only one known way to run a successful commercial website at realistic cost and that is to succeed in search.
Hosting and monthly costs
An ecommerce site has different requirements from other types. It needs several databases (one for the application, one for web analytics), a good level of security (which is due in good part to the hosting), efficient use of the secure https channel, good integration with a card processor, an SSL certificate, and so on. The host is a much more important factor than in other sites. A secure hosting service may charge a monthly fee for use of their services.
This is related to many factors such as security, capability, search success -and almost every other factor, of course. Many users have different opinions so it is a good idea to list your requirements and then check which software has the best reputation in those areas.
It goes without saying that security needs to be good, as the site will inevtably be the target of numerous probes and attacks. Customers' details must be secure, and all financial transactions must be protected in several ways. If the monthly fee can be afforded, it may be a good idea to sign up with the type of secure ecommerce host who offers the special on-site secure payment facility mentioned as Type 2 above - this is the most secure of all.
Here are some applications that fit into the various classes mentioned:
Server-side, commercial, large scale, capable
MivaMerchant is a mid-market application that will handle a large number of products.It runs a proprietary compiled code, and this has two very useful results:
- It is much more secure than text-code apps
- It is lightning fast
It is so blisteringly fast that a new user, used to something like Magento or Zen Cart (or the average CMS) will be amazed at the speed. A backend edit is live less than a second after you hit the Save button, no matter how complex the changes.
SEO is difficult and has defeated famous SEO names, but we place our Miva sites at Google #1 of course. The backend is very capable and all options are possible. There are a reasonable number of plugins, or developers can build to suit. A capable site to handle 100,000 products can be set up for under £8,000 / $12,000, with design and functionality additions raising this figure. Under £10k / $14k is the norm, for a large and very capable site that will handle very high product numbers, high traffic, and place at the top of the search results. We have various US and UK-based options.
Smaller scale, commercial
ClickCartPro is a useful ecommerce application for remote install on any standard server, at a very realistic cost. Like all ecommerce software, SEO is much harder than with ordinary websites, but results are good for technical SEO specialists. Costs are far lower than for Miva. Good developer support means that much is possible.
This is one of the fastest-growing areas on the web and developers cannot keep up with demand. An ecommerce CMS adds good content handling to the shopping cart backend, and is probably what all capable ecommerce software should be aiming at. The problem is that this type of application is about the most complex there is, so that very few developer teams can cope. For small-scale operations, Joomla-Virtuemart is a good choice. It has the best content handling of all, and its ideal product number range is up to 1,000. Joomla is one of the best CMS options for SEO, so commercial success is not difficult to achieve for CMS / ecommerce specialists. This system is perfect for sites with a smaller number of products, and that need the best visuals of all.
If the budget permits then eZpublish ecommerce CMS version is a good choice. This is an enterprise-class semi-commercial open-source solution that rivals anything available from the large commercial suppliers. It is a PHP application, meaning that support is not too hard to find. A dedicated server may be best, which will not be a handicap in this cost range because the minimum installed cost is likely to be at least £10k / $15k.
Large hosted solutions are useful for enterprise-level traders who can manage the monthly costs of £100 / $150 to £1,000 / $1,500 and up, in addition to the startup costs.
Other ecommerce solutions
Here are some other options that we don't use but are included for reference.
The most attractive options in small hosted shopping carts are the Ebay and Yahoo store type of offering. This isn't the best choice from an SEO point of view but works well enough when linked in via a standard website. The advantage is that someone else has all the worry and problems with payment processing, security, templating etc.
The best-known example is Actinic, which is a good application to use when there are server issues, or when security needs to be very tight (there are few server exploits since you must FTP the flat site pages up to the server). Best for simpler sites with fewer products. It is now a good, search-friendly solution. Runs off a local database, i.e. one on your PC, such as Access. You build the site on your PC then sync it to the server.
Open-source ecommerce software
We do not normally work with open-source solutions because they don't offer the code quality and search success that we need. Custom builds based on the OSS platform may be different.
Magento is improving fast and might be suitable if the specific job is appropriate. For example, a specific task needs addressing that cannot be offered by a budget commercial solution, or some sort of similar issue.
As stated we look for quality and search-friendliness, capability, valid code, and multi accessibility testing passes as the starting point, and this is a tough call for open-source ecommerce. Speed is another issue: pageload times, backend edit times - another tricky area for open-source PHP ecommerce, which is often as slow as treacle in winter.