11 Best Practices for Running a Successful Online Store in 2020

At the time of this writing, we’re well into 2020. And I won’t lie…things might seem a bit dark.

A global pandemic, a major economic crisis, you know the gist.

But do NOT despair! It’s times like these when we need entrepreneurs and creative, hard-working people bringing their abilities to fore.

It’s never been more important for us to understand how to build and run successful online stores.

To that end, I’ve dug deep for you all: these are the best practices, with plenty of statistics to keep you on the right path and resources for additional information.

Note: This article is written for those who want to create and run THEIR OWN store online. If you’re interested in selling on Amazon, eBay, or other platforms, you can check out my overall list on how to make money online.

Okay, ready?

Let’s get started with one of the most fundamental points of consideration:

Item 1: Figure out how you’ll host and manage your website

figure out

If you’re not super familiar with how to build an ecommerce site, it’s good to be aware of how you can do so.

Basically, there are a LOT of platforms and services aimed at helping you do this, which is great but confusing.

GENERALLY speaking, these are your main options:

  • Purchasing a hosting package that comes with ecommerce and sitebuilding features
  • Purchasing a hosting package and installing WordPress and WooCommerce on it
  • Using a website builder that has ecommerce features
  • Using a shopping cart/ecommerce website builder

If you’re a bit confused by it, don’t worry. There’s a lot of overlap.

But the main way of understanding the different platforms out there is through their FOCUS.

Hosting packages focus on the hosting, and ecommerce or sitebuilding features are often more like add-ons for them.

Shopping cart builders and website builders focus on the easy building part, but give you less control over hosting.

All of these different types of platforms come with their own prices and features.

Using WordPress with WooCommerce is probably as popular as the big shopping cart builders, because it has the best of both worlds: reasonably easy site/store management, with lower cost and powerful settings.

WordPress is a great option because it’s a FREE content management system, though you have to pay for hosting.

WooCommerce, the most popular ecommerce plugin for WordPress, is also totally free, though you can pay to have more features.

However, while these are overall easy to use, they can be complicated in terms of the number of things you have to do to manage them:

  • WordPress.org is free to use, as long as you pay for web hosting separately (there is a WordPress.com, which is paid, but that’s another topic).
  • You can access many free themes on WordPress, but if you’re running a store, you’ll likely want to invest in a paid theme.
  • You will almost certainly want to add features to your WordPress using plugins, many of which are free. However, plugins need regular updating, which can be tedious. Not updating plugins can lead to security concerns.
  • WordPress itself has regular updates. You do not have to update immediately, but updating keeps your site secure (and gives new features).

So in general, it’s not that WordPress itself is super complicated to manage as much as it just involves a lot of moving parts that need a lot of attention.

This may take away valuable time you could spend just focusing on your site.

This is why managed WordPress or managed WooCommerce solutions are so popular:

These are hosting packages that come with WordPress and WooCommerce installed already. They automatically update WordPress, WooCommerce, plugins, and themes, while still letting you manage your hosting and settings when you want to.

Through us you can get a discount on one of the best platforms for WooCommerce hosting, Liquid Web.

 best practices

It essentially provides the power of WordPress and WooCommerce with ease of use and powerful hosting that rival platforms offer.

And on the note of powerful hosting…

Luckily, there are services designed to make this easier—and through us you can get a discount on managed WooCommerce hosting, so you only need to worry about running your store.

Item 2: Whatever platform you use, make sure it keeps your site up and responsive.

You already know that your website needs to be up and running to get sales. But you may be less clear on what threshold you should be looking for.

99% uptime sounds good, right?

In actual web hosting terms, 99% uptime is POOR. Here’s why:

 best practices-uptime calculator

99% uptime means 1 hour and 40 minutes of downtime in a week, and SEVEN hours of downtime in a month. That’s very bad if you’re running an ecommerce site, of all things.

What’s better is 99.9% uptime: many hosts guarantee it, and while it’s not “good,” it’s the industry bare minimum.

Here’s how 99.9% breaks down:

 best practices-uptime calculator

But even 43 minutes of downtime in a month isn’t great, for e-commerce.

I would recommend that you shoot for a host that can give you AT LEAST 99.95% uptime, and preferably 99.99% to 100% uptime. (You can see what that means using our uptime calculator).

You also likely know that your site should be fast.

But let me stress how important it REALLY is, using this terrifying study that came straight from Google:

 best practices - google bounce study

To be clear: this is in reference to mobile users specifically—which is still a lot of traffic (more on that soon).

The point stands: if your site takes even SECONDS too long to load, you may immediately lose a large chunk of visitors. That means a lot of lost sales.

It’s yet another reason why I like Liquid Web’s managed WooCommerce hosting—responsiveness is a priority for them.

fast stores

It’s not glamorous, but having a good-performing site is an ESSENTIAL practice for online stores, and one that is often forgotten about because it’s so fundamental.

Item 3: Make sure things are SECURE.

This one is commonly ignored, unfortunately, but it’s essential. After all, you’re not just handling your own information—you and your host are handling highly sensitive information from many other people.

There are different ways of making sure your site is secure, and there are different sorts of threats to security you should be aware of.

The most basic and fundamental level is having a good host. This means ensuring your platform takes proper care of its servers.

Typically, you should want your host to have physical security, energy and network redundancy, the best bandwidth infrastructure, etc.

Take Liquid Web’s data center qualifications as an example:

 best practices - google bounce study

Making sure the servers your site uses are secure doesn’t just mean your site will be more secure, but also that it will perform better.

The next level has to do with software. Whatever software you’re using to manage your onsite security may have some security flaws.

WordPress is generally okay, but because it’s more popular, it’s also more highly targeted.

In addition, plugins for WordPress and apps or extensions for other platforms may come with their own security risks. These risks increase over time if not regularly updated.

This again reinforces the need to properly vet the platform you use to make sure it has adequate security software—and the value of managed solutions that update everything for you.

You can check out more security best practices here.

Item 4: Be aware of your tax obligations.

Few talk about tax obligations for online selling because it’s not particularly glamorous. It doesn’t involve a ton of creative energy from the store owner.

But it’s incredibly important and can be a huge headache, especially if you’re just starting out.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the taxes you’re subject to will likely vary based on the sort of online store you have.

If, for example, your online business consists more of digital products and downloads, you may be subject to taxes different than those of a business selling physical goods.

However, generally speaking, you are likely going to be subject to some or all of the following taxes:

  • In the United States, business owners pay self-employment taxes in the form of quarterly, estimated payments.
  • Different states and countries will typically have their own additional taxes for businesses and perhaps online sales.
  • Taxes wherever your items are sold or delivered to. Including internationally.

Although it’s only two bullet points, you can see how quickly this can get complicated: if you’re selling to people all over the country, or selling to people internationally, you may have to deal with sales tax for a wide range of locations.

The good news is you’re not the first person to face this challenge. You can hire an advisor or tax preparer to look at the various local taxes you may be subject to.

You can also invest in software to auto-calculate these things for you. Several ecommerce platforms come with a limited tax center, such as WooCommerce:

 best practices

Item 5: Create scarcity.

This means alerting your customers to the fact that certain products may be soon sold out (you can embellish a bit too).

This has an appeal for a couple of reasons: it makes the visitor feel concerned or fear that they may not be able to get the product they’re interested in. It also validates the product by indicating other people like it too.

There are different ways of doing this. Some sites have very ostentatious methods, like a big banner on the top of the page or a pop-up in the center.

Other sites do it more subtly. This is how Amazon usually does it:

blackberry android cell phone

Right there on the right is the scarcity warning. It’s noticeable enough that you’ll see it if you’re already looking at the checkout area, but not going to bother you if you’re uninterested.

Here’s another ecommerce hack for you: you can create scarcity for more than just products.

You can create scarcity for discounts and coupons as well. Typically, the scarce resource in this instance isn’t a number of items—though it can be—but an amount of time.

Item 6: Have featured products on the front page.

This is useful for two main reasons:

First and most obviously, lends weight to your product and increases the chances of sales for it.

But secondly, experimenting with having different featured products allows you to get useful information on what your visitors and customers like.

As you’d expect, there are quite a few ways you can implement this strategy. You can confidently feature one product on your home page or product page and then replace it later.

You can also create landing pages to draw in visitors and convert them. You can even create multiple landing pages to test different featured products side by side.

As with creating scarcity, you can also go at this with different levels of confidence.

Some ecommerce sites have smaller banners featuring pictures of their products at the top of the page.

Others have large pictures that take up a lot of space and attention, but still leave room for other parts of the page.

And then there’s Tesla’s very heavy-handed approach.

When you visit Tesla’s site, you’re immediately greeted with a picture of several cars next to each other.

tesla

But without you doing anything, in the span of a second, the page automatically zooms in on one car, and the order button fades into view:

tesla homepage

I’m not saying you need to be this strong with your featured product. Just that if Tesla can sell entire CARS online with this strategy, you can use it too.

Item 7: Enhance your checkout process.

checkout

Checkout processes warrant their own article, so this is just an overview.

First, simplifying (as I mentioned above) is good. Essentially, you want to make sure your customers have as few barriers to checkout as possible.

The checkout, after all, is the part where customers place significant trust in you: not just their time, but their money. And if you’re a smaller business online, they’re taking even greater risk trusting you.

The checkout forms have got to be as clear as possible and unobstructed by any other page elements, pop-ups, etc.

You also should not force your customers to create an account to make a purchase—it’s one of the best ways to dispel potential buyers.

You should, however, ENCOURAGE them to make an account. You will have to judge how aggressive this encouragement should be.

However, I find it’s good to provide very easy-to-understand incentives for creating an account, and to highlight these without burdening the checkout.

You should also accept as many payment methods as possible. It’s true that accepting Mastercard, and Visa means accepting most visitors’ cards.

But some don’t have those two, and often prefer to pay with specific cards. Heck, many want to use PayPal, Google Wallet, or Apple Pay when purchasing online.

Depending on the platform you’re using for your site, you may have these options included.

You may have to pay extra to include them, but if budget allows, you should probably pay extra to include what you can.

Lastly, you should obtain the following features: an abandoned shopping cart saver, and automatic abandoned shopping cart emails.

An abandoned shopping cart saver saves the most recent info of your would-be customer when they return to that page. And the emails remind them they have an unfinished checkout.

You can get these features one way or another on most platforms.

Item 8: Focus on content to keep them coming.

You know I write about web hosting most of the time, right?

Well, just about every web host I’ve reviewed has a blog. Not just web hosts:

Just about every software-as-a-service company has a blog, as a matter of fact. This isn’t purely a cultural trend.

It’s grounded in business and basic internet sense:

How many of your visitors are going to be on your site all the time if the ONLY thing you have is products?

Very few. People will come to your site, at best purchase every few weeks consistently if they love your brand, and at worst leave once they realize they don’t want to purchase.

You need visitors, and you need them to stick around.

And the best way to do that? Provide content that appears and IS useful or interesting.

A blog is a great way of both attracting visitors who could then become customers, and building a following of people who check your site more regularly (who are also more likely to purchase).

According to a 2018 Hubspot report, more than half of businesses surveyed considered blog content creation a top marketing priority.

best practices - blogging as marketing priority

There are a few other things related to this:

You can create an ebook. Don’t be too scared off—you can make one from your existing blog posts and other writings, once you have enough of them.

You can create a podcast or series of videos, either in place of a blog or in addition to it. You can make a weekly newsletter with some highlights of recent posts and new products.

There are a lot of ways of doing it, but you get the idea: make your ecommerce site useful beyond the bare minimum of whatever you’re selling.

If you want to see more quality statistics on content marketing, like the one above, check this list out.

Item 9: Use email marketing.

email marketing

Just now I touched on using an email as a form of content marketing.

Email marketing is so big that it can warrant its own book. So this is also a pretty simple overview.

First: yes, people still use email—in fact, services helping you market via email are booming because of this.

Second: it helps to have a specific email marketing plan in mind before beginning.

Usually email marketing is also referred to as using email campaigns. In marketing, campaigns are specific sequences of marketing efforts that hope to lead to certain actions.

Email marketing campaigns are supposed to reach out to subscribers at the right time with good content and good offers.

One of the advantages of email marketing is that it allows you to target your more interested visitors and customers—those who have given you their email—more precisely.

Even the most basic email marketing software will have features that let you pre-plan emails to be sent out at certain times, draft campaigns, and segment your contact list specifically.

Being able to target more precisely is why email marketing turns prospective buyers into real buyers, and one-time buyers into regular customers.

The platform you’re using may have a built-in email marketing feature. It may have plugins or extensions for this, or you may need to get a software and do the connecting on your own.

If you want to invest in email marketing software—and there’s a fair chance you will—check out my list on the best email marketing services.

Item 10: Master SEO

seo

Focusing on SEO is absolutely essential to ecommerce: your ability to rank in a search engine for certain terms is just about the best way of bringing in traffic and thus sales.

As with the previous items, SEO is a big topic, so consider this an overview.

SEO involves more than just keywords. It also means editing and maintaining things about your site that will help Google (and Bing, Yahoo, etc) prioritize it.

Here’s a short list of ways of improving SEO:

  • Consistently target keywords in content and pages
  • Examine competitors’ keyword strategy to improve your own
  • Edit title tags—meaning what your page’s title will show in a browser
  • Avoid duplicate content on your website, including landing pages, title tags, ecommerce product pages, meta description tags
  • Good page/site loading speed
  • Optimize images with good file names and alt text
  • Use internal linking (link from one page on your site to another page on your site)
  • Build backlinks/inbound links: links from one site to another site. Search engines treat these like “votes” on the ORGANIC popularity of the clicked-on site
  • Make sure site has no security/health issues
  • Use software to see if your site has been penalized by a search engine for anything

Some of this can be done manually, but to fully get the hang of these you’ll usually need software—even just for information on where your attention is needed.

Luckily, most platforms you’ll run your site on will include free, if limited, SEO tools that do the basics.

There may also be free extensions/apps/plugins for your main site platform (Yoast SEO is the most popular free one on WordPress, for example).

Check out this article for a comprehensive list of the best SEO tools at a range of prices (including some that are free).

Item 11: Analytics

Analytics

Having good site analytics is another fundamental to running a successful online store.

Whatever platform you’re using will likely have its own limited version of site analytics, or there will be free extensions available.

The main question many of you will face, as small-to-medium sized businesses, is how much to invest in analytics software.

Obviously I can’t answer that for you, but here’s a point to consider:

The issue of how much analytics you want for the strategies and practices you’re employing.

For instance: you’ll need basic site analytics. This should cover the gist of your traffic, perhaps where people are clicking, what they’re buying, and how they got to your site.

But will you have analytics for your email campaign? Will you be able to tell if your SEO strategy is working? If your landing page is part of a separate microsite, do you have analytics for it?

So keep in mind that the amount of resources you invest in analytics will relate to the strategies you’re employing.

Luckily, a lot of software for employing such strategies will come with their own analytics, so it’s not as expensive as you may fear.

Email marketing software will usually have analytics included. Same with SEO software, same with your landing page builder, and so on.

Bonus item: Understand funnels

funnels

Funnels are relevant to most of the practices here, which is why it’s a bonus. It’s more of a general marketing concept that gets employed in different practices.

A funnel in marketing terms is essentially the practice of “funneling” your visitors down a certain path to lead to certain action, usually a purchase.

Here’s an example, with landing pages:

If you use a landing page, you’re getting people to the page from an advertisement or search result. That’s the first part of the funnel.

When they arrive on the landing page, you’ll have designed it specially to keep them scrolling until they get to your call to action. They’ll add a product to cart or fill out a form.

The completion of the action concludes the end of the funnel.

In email marketing:

You send X number of past customers an email promoting your current sale. Out of X number of recipients, a fraction opens the email.

Of the fraction that opens, a fraction clicks on a product link in the email. Of them, a fraction checks out with the product.

You’ll have designed everything to enhance that conversion rate, the amount of people who do what you want them to do. And that’s your funnel in email.

And like I said, analytics are CRITICAL to understanding how successful your funnels are.

Conclusion

Well, there ya go—the 11 best practices for running a successful online store.

While it can be overwhelming at first, it’s important to remember that these all tie in together:

On day 1, you may be scrambling to understand how to set up your SEO and your landing pages and your product pages and your—you get the idea.

But give yourself some time, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how comprehensive your strategy is. Your tactics will feed into each other and inform the next ones, and so on.

Until then…happy building!