Friday, September 28, 2007

Tips & Tricks: Using a custom Google search engine on your Web store

Google recently started marketing a pretty interesting tool called "Custom Search Business Edition". Let's take a look at what it is and how it could help your e-commerce store.

What is it?

It'a a Google-powered search engine for your Web site. What does this mean? In a nutshell:

  • You can add a search form anywhere on your Web site (e.g. on every page, at the top)
  • The results come from Google's index (fast, good results)
  • You can define the "portion" of the Google index that the results come from
  • The search results can be an integral part of your Web site, with no ads

For example, here is a search for "Google Checkout" on our Early Impact Web site. Notice that the results include both static content (e.g. Web pages, PDF files) and dynamic content (Knowledge Base articles). The results are framed within our Web site interface.


This service has been part of Google for a while. What's new is that now you can get an ad-free, cheap version of Google, seamlessly blended into your Web site design. Pricing right now is as follows, based on the number of pages that are being searched:

  • Up to 5,000 web pages: $100 per year
  • Up to 50,000 web pages: $500 per year
  • Up to 100,000 web pages: $850 per year
  • Up to 300,000 web pages: $2250 per year

About the search index

A custom Google search engine is a subset of the whole system. Results in the custom search engine exist in Google. You cannot "add" content to the index. You can only filter it so that results that exist in the Google search engine do not come up in your custom version of it. In other words: your custom version of Google is a filtered version of the Google index. Filtered so that it only returns results that you want to show (e.g. only pages that contain your Web site URL).

Getting your store pages to come up in the results

Your store catalog pages (e.g. categories and products) will come up in the results only if they have been indexed by Google. So make sure that Google is building a good index of your store pages.

This article is not the right place to talk about good search engine optimization for your Web site. That said, the approach to getting your store properly indexed is probably known to you by now: use a store map, a Google sitemap, and lots of Well-designed, text-rich static pages to link to your catalog.

In fancier terms: build a lot of link popularity for your category and product pages within your Web site. If you do, you can be almost positive that all of those pages will be found and indexed by a search engine spider.

Why it can help your e-commerce store

Your shopping cart software already has a search feature. I'm sure that's the case. It could be more or less sophisticated, but it's there. The issue is that the search feature included in your e-commerce system typically only searches your store catalog, not the rest of your Web site. What about your forum, knowledge base, regular HTML pages, blogs, etc. etc.?

Could a search that includes those documents help? Could you convert more sales if customers were able to search all of that content? Search is king, they say. That's true on your Web site too. Many studies show that a majority of visitors to a Web site are likely to use the search feature, if it's there.

Since the cost of adding this Google service to your online business is rather low, I would give it a try.

But how can you easily combined the custom Google search engine with your other search feature? Here is a simple suggestion for quick implementation. I'm sure that a much fancier integration of the two could be done, but let's keep things simple and "non-technical" for now.

Combining a Custom Google Search Engine with your e-commerce search form

Again, this is just a suggestion for quick implementation. If you have access to a good developer, they can probably use the API that Google has made available for the custom search service to get a much fancier integration implemented on your Web store.

What I am suggesting is that you alter the advanced search page provided by your e-commerce software to include both the Google Custom Search form and the rest of the search filters. That way you can offer your store visitors a way to either perform a generic Web site search or a more specific store search. The latter will typically have more search filters available (more or less advanced based on how sophisticated your shopping cart software is).

Here is a visual example of this approach. The search form for the Custom Google Search engine is at the top. Technically speaking, the page contains 2 HTML forms.

I hope this helps you convert more store visitors into customers!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Licensed vs. Hosted Shopping Carts

Should you buy a licensed shopping cart or rent a hosted e-commerce solution? It's a big decision. There are clear advantages and disadvantages with both approaches. Practical eCommerce just ran two interviews on the topic.

It's an interesting debate, with no winner. There's no winner simply because both solutions have reasons to exist and businesses for which they represent the right fit.

The important part is that - if you are in the process of deciding how to build your estore - you understand the good and not-so-good aspects of both solutions.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tips & Tricks: Optimizing your "Search Box"

Search is a key feature for any e-commerce store. According to recent studies, half of visitors to an online store begin their visit by typing a keyword in the search box. And consumers that use the search feature appear more likely to buy than others. If that is the case, then...

  1. Search Box
    Make sure that you estore layout does contain a "quick search" form in a place that makes sense. If it's not there, some customers may be turned off and walk away. Below we're going to spend a bit of time looking at where that search box should go.

  2. Search Results
    Make sure that your search feature returns relevant search results, offers ways to narrow the search, and provides a friendly way to browse the results. I still see a lot of small business e-commerce tools pay little or no attention to their search feature. Technologies like AJAX can be very helpful in enhancing the search experience (at Early Impact we did a lot of work in this area: try a search on this demo store).

Even if your shopping cart does not have a strong-enough search feature, there are a lot of third-party tools that you can employ to improve the search capabilities of your online store. This will be the topic of another post.

For now, let's focus on the search box. It's such an important piece of your store layout (again, likely 50% of your visitors will use it!), that it deserves a lot of attention. Specifically, where should it go? On the left? On the right? How should it look?

I'm a big, big advocate of learning from people that are very good at what they do. So let's look at how the Top 5 online retailers (according to US online sales) position the search box on their store layouts. You'll see that the result of this bit of research is not what you might have expected.



Office Depot


HP Shopping

Just by looking at these 5, leading retailers, there are a few things that we can learn and apply to all of our stores:

  • Search is definitely key. Each store puts the search box in an extremely visible location. Office Depot even highlights the "Search" button in red.
  • The Search Box is at the TOP. Not in a left or right-side column. It's always at the top.
  • The Search Box can be right at the CENTER. The search box is so key that the top 3 online retailers put it right at the top center. You can't miss it.
  • It's a good idea to write what type of search customers can run (e.g. "Keyword Search" vs. "Keyword and SKU search") right in the input field. That way there are no surprises. You can use simple JavaScript to remove that default text "onFocus" (useful links for this task)

Time to update many of our store layouts :-)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Should you use Google Analytics?

Is Google's free Web statistics service worth your time? We've been using it on our Web site and Web store for quite some time now, and have integrated it in our shopping carts. Here's my opinion based on the experience.


If your shopping cart can provide order information to Google Analytics, then the e-commerce reports generated by GA can help you understand where your sales are coming from and make it a good choice for your business.

The report that you can view by selecting "Traffic Sources > Keywords > E-commerce (tab)" will trigger a "wow" for many Internet merchants that have not seen something like this before (it details exactly how many orders each keyword phrase used in a search engine triggered in a given date range - see example below from our own Early Impact account). Since it's free, I'd give it a try if I were you.

What we like in Google Analytics (here I'm focusing on the most unique aspects of the system as there are many other services that offer good Web stats).

  • E-commerce Reporting
    For an e-commerce store, this is without a doubt where the biggest value is. If your shopping cart program passes order information to Google Analytics, you will be able to see reports that merge sales and traffic data. What this means is that you can look up which keywords customers used to find your Web site, and whether they ended up generating any orders. This information is powerful as it can help you fine-tune your landing pages (and your Web store overall) to focus on revenue-generating keywords.

    For a list of e-commerce applications that have been integrated with Google Analytics, see the "e-commerce integrations" area of the GA forums.

  • Shopping Cart Abandonment "goal"
    GA allows you to monitor specific behaviors on your Web site. The call this feature "goals", which is a somewhat confusing name. The idea is that your "goal" might be to get people to register, and you can track the "visit to registration" conversion by telling Google Analytics which pages (URLs) are used in the process. For an e-commerce store, this becomes quite interesting if you apply it to your checkout process. Rather than a goal, you'll be keeping an eye on your shopping cart abandonment rate. By telling GA which steps customers take during checkout, you can monitor the drop-off at each step (GA has some pretty neat visual reports for this). For instance: view cart -> login -> billing -> shipping -> payment. If you saw at high drop-off at the "shipping" step, it might indicate that your shipping rates are too high.

  • Interface
    GA just released an updated interface. Tons of flash-based reports that look quite nice and that make changing the date range on reports quick and easy. The customizable "Dashboard" (your start page) is useful too.

  • Email Reporting
    There are many options for receiving regular reports from your GA account, without having to log in. I like the fact that you can have the system send you a PDF copy of your customized "dashboard": it's a quick way to get a summary of your Web stats, and you're saving a hard copy of some of your statistics for your records (in case Google goes belly up and your Web site stats with it... but that's not going to happen anytime soon anyway :-)

  • Cost
    GA is free, and that's hard to complain about. But, your Web hosting company probably offers you free stats too. Again, the real value for a Web store is in the e-commerce reports.

Things that could be improved.

  • Refunds and Cancellations
    There is no way to "remove" a transaction (e.g. an order was cancelled). What you can do is post a negative transaction that offsets the original one. This is tricky to do unless your shopping cart software has a built-in feature to help you with it. Ask you e-commerce software provider about it (the screen shot below shows you what we did in ProductCart). Bug GA could make things easier in this area by providing some functionality right into their console.

    Missing Transactions: A by-product of this issue is that when you post a negative transaction that completely offsets another one, the two transactions "disappear" when you view a report for a date rage that includes both, but they are shown when the date range does not include both. This creates confusion as some orders are shown in some reports and not others. I have already notified the Google Analytics team on this, and hopefully they'll post a fix.

  • E-commerce Reports
    I'd like to see more options to organize and save custom e-commerce reports. For example, even simple features like the ability to sort by order number or order date is missing (you can sort by order amount and you can specify different date ranges, but you can't easily sort within a date range).
  • Reliability
    I should also note that some people recently complained of reliability problems. Google was quick to point out that no data was lost: the issue was just that the Google Analytics console could not be accessed. I don't see that as a big issue, and I'm sure that with Google's deep pockets, more powerful data centers will reduce the chances of that happening again.

I'm always interested in hearing your thoughts. By the way: if you end up using Google Analytics, keep an eye on the Analytics blog as the GA team postd there pretty frequently.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Google Analytics and Spry

I haven't posted much lately because I've been spending time reading and learning about a couple of interesting technologies and solutions that will definitely affect small business e-commerce in the upcoming months.
  1. Google Analytics
    A good, free Web statistics solution (from Google's purchase of Urchin). It's easy to track statistics on your Web site (and Web store) using Google Analytics. And the price is hard to beat. Look into it if you haven't yet. But... where things get really interesting is when you can tie your e-commerce store to your GA account so that sales data is fed to the system. Then Google Analytics can output some really neat reports about where your sales are coming from. There are a couple of issues with handling refunds and cancellations, which is one of the things we are working on at Early Impact. Check with your shopping cart provider to see where they are with Google Analytics integration. You might be able to turn it on already.
  2. Spry
    Adobe (ex Macromedia) is working on a framework for AJAX that will make it easier for an ecommerce development company to add more, cool interface elements to our applications. For example, you could have your ecommerce store tell you which customers exist in the database as you type the customer name, facilitating and speeding up searches. You can read about Spry and play with some of their demos at: - Spry can also help you add some cutting-edge looking navigation to your storefront.

I'll blog more about both things in the upcoming weeks.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Understanding the new PayPal

PayPal: one of the most recognized brands in ecommerce. It used to be synonymous with the ability to exchange payments in a peer-to-peer world of PayPal users (there are over 50 million of them), where payment notifications are sent via e-mail.

You can still do e-mail payments with PayPal, but PayPal today is not a payment system: it's a suite of many different payment systems.
What are they? How do they differ from each other? Which ones should you use, if any? Let's take a look.

Website Payments Standard
Customers pay on the PayPal Web site. When you activate this payment option on your store (if supported), customers will temporarily leave the store, pay at the PayPal Website (with or without having a PayPal account), and come back to your Web site at the end of the transaction.

Website Payments Pro
This is a combination of two payment systems:
  • Direct payments: customers pay by credit card, without leaving your store, and without knowing that PayPal is involved at all (no PayPal branding on the payment page)
  • Express Checkout: in a nutshell, this is PayPal's answer to Google Checkout (actually, they came up with it first, so maybe Google copied them :-)
    It works very similarly to Google Checkout in terms of the user experience: it's an alternative checkout process. That is: no registering/logging in on your store, but rather off to PayPal where the same login information can be used for any store that supports Express Checkout.
Payflow Payment Gateway
PayPal bought the Payflow payment systems from Verisign in November of 2005. There are two options:
  • Payflow Pro: this is your standard payment gateway: there is a payment form on your Web site (if your shopping cart supports this payment system), customers don't leave your store, you need an Internet merchant account.
  • Payflow Link: customers leave your store and pay for the order on the Payflow Link payment page.
Are you confused? I was. For example, take Website Payments Pro's Direct Payments and Payflow Pro: they both allow credit card payments, on your Web site, without any PayPal branding. What's the difference?

I asked Matt Watts, business development manager at PayPal. Here are some of the things he said.

What are the main differences between Website Payments Pro and PayFlow Pro, in terms of features?

Website Payments Pro combines a gateway and merchant account into a single solution. Merchants intending to use this service open a PayPal business account, submit an application, and are vetted accordingly. The reporting functionality is limited with Website Payments Pro, so for any merchants who are transacting over about two-hundred orders monthly, they’d most likely want to use PayFlow Pro. PayFlow Pro is a gateway only and requires the merchant to find their own banking relationship for the Internet Merchant Account. PayFlow’s functionality is more advanced from a reporting standpoint, so reconciliation of transactions is much easier.

When would you advise a company to adopt WPP vs PayFlow Pro? What are the elements that should trigger a decision towards one solution versus the other?

If the merchant is new to the e-commerce landscape, they’re probably better off working with WPP for processing, simply because it’s an all-in-one solution that is inexpensive. However, for merchants who are established, process numerous orders daily and need more advanced reporting, then PayFlow Pro is the better solution.

[Massimo's note: getting an Internet Merchant Account for Payflow Pro is probably harder than getting approved for Paypal Website Payments Pro, especially if you have a brand new business].

Could a store have both PayPal Website Payments Pro and PayFlow Pro active ( e.g. to use PayPal Express)?

It would be possible for a merchant to have PayFlow Pro and WPP active on their site. However, merchants typically have one gateway and one merchant account for direct credit card payments. When Express Checkout has been integrated into a shopping cart like ProductCart, then it can be used with any gateway the merchant wants to use (ie. If the merchant is using, PayFlow, or WPP, they’ll be able to add Express Checkout).

[Massimo's note: assuming your shopping cart supports both, you would not activate Direct Payments and PayFlow Pro on the same store, since to the user they look the same = a credit card form on your Web store. But you might indeed want to have Express Checkout active together with another payment option (e.g. or another payment gateway). If you enable WPP Direct Payments, then Express Checkout is enabled automatically].

When would you advise a company to adopt PayFlow Link?

PayFlow Link merchants typically don’t have much experience with e-commerce and they want a solution where they can cut and paste HTML into their website to post payments to our secure form. Since most shopping carts have other payment gateways integrated and merchants don’t need to worry about the integration, PayFlow Link becomes irrelevant since the primary market it serves is lower-level, new merchants who can’t integrate API-based solutions.

[Massimo's note: Back in the old days when SSL certificates cost hundreds of dollars a year, a payment system like Payflow Link was a popular option as you would send customers to a secure page, outside of your Web site, and didn't have to buy an SSL certificate. But... it's 2007 and the cost of SSL certs has come down dramatically, so having your own SSL certificate should be a no-brainer if you are serious about running a professional ecommerce store.]

All right, so, here is how I see it.
  • Express Checkout (WPP): Activate it on your store if you want to provide an alternative checkout option, similar to Google Checkout. When you activate Direct Payments, Express Checkout is also enabled automatically (this is a PayPal requirement)
  • Direct Payments (WPP): an easy way to support credit card payments on your store, without having to get an Internet Merchant Account through your bank.
  • PayFlow Pro: a more robust payment gateway that is the way to go if your store gets/is busy (several hundred orders a day). You do need an Internet Merchant Account.
  • PayFlow Link: if you use a professional shopping cart, you don't need it.
(WPP) = this is part of PayPal Website Payments Pro.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tips & Tricks: getting creative with coupons

Electronic coupons are a great marketing tool.

Most (good) small biz e-commerce software includes a bunch of features to create and manage electronic coupons (or "discount codes").

You can use them in a variety of ways to promote higher and more frequent purchases on your online store. Remember, there are two great ways to increase sales without acquiring new customers (i.e. without incurring customer acquisition costs):
  • increasing repeat purchases
  • increasing the average purchase amount
A quick example that takes little time to setup: promote a repeat purchase by adding an electronic coupon to the Order Confirmation or Order Shipped email. The idea is obvious: "hey, come back to our store! Here's a 10% discount for your next purchase."

For a more targeted marketing campaign, you could restrict the coupon to a certain order amount and/or a certain category of products (e.g. "Come back to our store and buy at least $50, and here is $10 off" or "Come back and get 20% off our winter jackets!").

On my company's Web site we have a page that contains more examples of how to use electronic coupons creatively on your online store. You shopping cart provider might have done the same.

To do list:
  • Review your shopping cart software's User Guide for details on electronic coupons
  • Figure out what you can and cannot do and... push those features to the limit!
  • Write down at least 5 ways to use an electronic coupon on your store
  • Turn each idea into a marketing campaign!

Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Build online sales... offline

More and more companies are finding that one way to grow online sales is go back... offline. Should you? It's worth taking a look.

The buzz word these days is "multi-channel" retailing, which is the idea that to maximize sales, you need to put your products in front of potential customers using different channels.

The talented writers at Internet Retailers have written several great articles on this. I do encourage you to get a subscription to the magazine (it's free). There's definitely a lot to learn from reading what other businesses are doing.

What does multi-channel retailing mean to you? If you have a retail shop, you're already a multi-channel retailer: is that a fancy title or what?

One way to become a multi-channel retailer is to try out printed catalogs. Wait... weren't printed catalogs dead? Apparently not. In fact, there have been several case studies written about the fact that printed catalogs can help drive Web sales. For example, here are a couple of Internet Retailer articles on using print catalogs to do just that:
Printing out a catalog does not cost a fortune: tons of companies compete like crazy on this kind of service. Try it out and see what happens. For example:
  • Pick a few hundred customers that have already placed an order on your store
  • Send them a catalog
  • Track the conversion
How can you track the conversion?
  • Use your ecommerce software to create an electronic coupon that can be redeemed on your online store (e.g. one time coupon for 10% off).
  • Include the coupon only in the printed catalog
  • Make sure that you can get a sales report based on the coupon. Good shopping cart software like our ProductCart (and many of our competitors' as well) can do that.

Let us know how it went!

Friday, March 2, 2007

Ecommerce Features and Cash Flow

I can't tell you how many times I see businesses make this mistake:
  • They want to create an ecommerce store
  • They have in mind a certain set of features
  • Some of those features are not supported "out of the box" by any popular ecommerce system
  • They spend time and money adding them to the shopping cart software that they decide to buy.

Wrong way to go...

Of course, if one or more of those new features are crucial to your business, then you have no choice. But in the vast majority of cases... don't start developing before you start selling!

In most cases, the right way to go is...

  • Phase 1: Open your online store and start generating some positive cash flow
  • Phase 2: Based on your experience running the store, develop a Wish List of new features that you want to add and set priorities for all of them
  • Phase 3: Start devoting time and money to implementing the new features based on those priorities.

There are always exceptions, but being successful online normally takes time: don't run out of money before you get there!

On another note: My friends at BAIA recently published an interview with me on their BLOG, in case you want to know more about what I'm up to :-)

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tips & Tricks: Using dynamic 301 redirects to avoid a drop in search engine rankings

Be careful when moving your Web store: it could cause a major drop in your search engine rankings.

Take this example. Company XYZ decides to move their Web store. For instance, they want to switch to a new ecommerce platform (other reasons might be moving to a new host, or a new dedicated server, or a new Web site design, etc.). To minimize downtime, Company XYZ sets up the new store at, whereas the current store is still running at

When they are done with testing, they shut down their old store by placing some links on some of the old store pages and a message on the home page that says that customers should visit to purchase from now on.

A couple of weeks later they turn off the old store since they no longer need it.

Their sales start dropping. Why? Are customers not liking the new store?

No, it's traffic that dropped.

The fact that CompanyXYZ switched domain name was a strategic mistake. In Google's index, the ".net" domain represents a completely new Web site. It doesn't matter that the rest of the domain name is the same. Google views the store as a brand new store, with no history.

How can you avoid this problem? You do need to test the new store using a real domain name. You can't just use an IP address since testing the checkout process with SSL, for example, is not possible with just an IP address.

So what can you do when you do the switch?

Here are the steps you need to take:
  • Point the old domain name to the new store. Of course, this is number 1 on the list. If this is NOT possible, then unless you can use 301 redirects on the old domain name, you are in big trouble and there is not much you can do to avoid the drop in rankings. If this IS possible, you still need to use 301 redirects if some of the old pages are no longer being used. For example, if you switch ecommerce system, the old dynamic URLs need to point to the new ones. (e.g. might need to point to a page that looks different now that you are using a new system, such as You can do this by using dynamic 301 redirects. See below.

  • Understand what 301 Permanent Redirects are. Redirecting is normally a big "no, no" when you talk about search engine optimization, but 301 redirects are search engine friendly, and endorsed officially by search engines. The Web Master FAQs area of the Google Web site contains an article on 301 redirects.

  • Use dynamic 301 redirects. Ask your Web master to help you on this. You can dynamically generate the 301 redirects so that they are product-, category-, or page-specific. When you do that, specific product, category, or other dynamic pages that had been indexed by the search engine will permanently redirect to the corresponding pages on your new store. For example, the page on the old store that described a certain product, will permanently redirect to the corresponding page on the new store. This will help you maintain intact the popularity of individual pages.

This happened to a store that recently moved from Yahoo! Stores to using our ProductCart shopping cart software. They were in the top 10 on Google on some of their most relevant keyword phrases, and now they are nowhere to be found.

Be careful and take full advantage of 301 Permanent Redirects!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Tips & Tricks: avoid security warnings

Does your store use SSL? Probably so. If the answer is "yes", then here is something that you should really try to avoid: security warnings. I see them way, way too often. And they are quite easy to avoid.

What's a security warning? It's an alert window shown to your customers whenever the browser detects that something on the page is not secure, but the URL is a secure one (https). I'm sure you've seen a security warning many times. It looks like this:

It bugs you (and maybe scares you) when you see it... and it bugs your customers too.

How can you make sure your store is free of security warnings? It's actually rather simple. You need to ensure that your Web site does not load any element over the HTTP protocol. If you are loading a page element (e.g. images, CSS and JavaScript files, etc.) using an absolute location (i.e. full URL), you must use the HTTPS protocol. For example, there should be no src="http://... on your page, but rather only src="https://

Where to look? Here are the common culprits:
  • Google Analytics (or another, remotely hosted Web statistics service)
    Make sure that the code snippet that you grab from your Google Analytics account is the HTTPS version, and not the HTTP one. I've seen a lot of store owners make this mistake, because Google by default gives you the HTTP version. The same is true if you are using a service other than Google Analytics. They pretty much always allows you obtain a secure version of the piece of code to be placed on your page.

  • Google AdWords or Yahoo! Search Marketing conversion tracking
    Same thing here. Make sure you get the HTTPS version of your Pay-Per-Click conversion tracking code. Typically this code ends up on the last page of the checkout process, so the bugging security alert won't prevent customers from ordering (they've already placed the order). Still, it just doesn't look good :-)

  • CSS and JS files
    If you are loading an external stylesheet or a JavaScript file, which happens pretty often, make sure that the URL that points to the file uses HTTPS. If you use relative links, you're never wrong (i.e. place those files in a folder on your Web server so that you can just point to them using a link such as src="styles/myStyle.css" instead of src="")

  • Flash elements
    If you have any Adobe (Macromedia) Flash elements on your page, make sure that the code that is added to the page by Dreamweaver or another HTML editor to handle the Flash file does not contain HTTP URLs. It often does.

So check your site (or have your Web designer double-check his/her work). Remove those security warnings: no reason to give your customers one more reason not to stay on your Web store!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Google Checkout: should you add it to your store as a payment option?

Well... yes. Here is why.

By now you're probably familiar with Google Checkout. If not, read the intro on Google, and buy something using this service to really see first-hand how it works.

As an Internet shopper, it makes sense to me to be able to just log into my Google account and shop at different stores without having to re-register. It also makes sense to me to be able to hide my e-mail address from the merchant. On the other side, I don't like the idea that the folks at Google know about every product that I have purchased and where. Hey, good and bad like with anything else.

Why do you need to add it to your store as a payment option? The reason is that this is not the right question. The right question is... why not?

Google has huge pockets, so they are marketing their new payment system in a way that is as aggressive as you could ever imagine. They are paying ecommerce software developers to include it in their products (which we at Early Impact did in the fall), they are paying customers to use it (rebates on first purchase available at many stores), and they are giving merchants free transaction processing for 2007 (so you save around 2% * sales, compared with the same sales processed via another payment gateway).

PayPal is reacting to this by more aggressively marketing their competing service, called PayPal Express. Still, Google Checkout is quickly gaining marketshare (see JP Morgan study that says that it had around 6% in 2006, but it's probably much higher now).

Note, the service has many limitations: no batch processing, limited functionality when it comes to shipping calculations, not available outside of the US, and many others. Check with your shopping cart software publisher to see the exact limitations that apply to your software (if you are a ProductCart user, see Using Google Checkout with ProductCart).

If you are looking for a shopping cart that is compatible with Google Checkout, here is the current list.

My suggestion: activate it on your store. If it doesn't work for you, you can always turn it off. But why give customers a reason to shop elsewhere if they want to earn their bonus (currently $10) by using Google Checkout on your store?

And I'm sure that later in 2007 there will be many more customers that will want to use Google Checkout for all sorts of other creative reasons that Google will come up with. If I were you, I'd add it to the payment options.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The niche is the trick (second part)

In the first part of The niche is the trick I started making my point about why I strongly believe that small businesses should target a very specific market when embarking on an ecommerce project.

I talked about the first reason why I think this makes sense: when you build a store that goes after a niche market that you're an expert in, you're almost automatically gearing yourself up for better search engine rankings (and therefore more visits, customers, and sales). Go back to ONE: Niche = SEO to see if you agree.

Let's keep going. Here is the second reason why I think targeting a niche is key.

TWO: Niche = Your Budget
That is: targeting a niche is likely more compatible with your ecommerce budget. Ok, are we done with these cryptic paragraph titles? Not yet: I like them because they're easy to remember.

Anyway, here the point is that if you are a small business, you typically have a small business budget for your ecommerce store (if your uncle is a billionaire you can stop reading). So don't try to compete with Office Depot,, or Macy's. It's much better (and more profitable) to sell 20 products and do it right, than trying to sell 20,000 products and do it poorly.

Why is this a budget matter? Because quite honestly running a store that features 20,000 products can require technology and human resources that are beyond your budget. Don't get me wrong: it can be done. There are many store that use our ProductCart shopping cart software or competing systems like X-Cart, MonsterCommerce, Storefront, etc. to sell thousands of products online. The businesses that do it right typically have years of experience in selling stuff online and find their way around technical limitations. But generally speaking, less is more!

You typically have $10,000 to spend on your online store (maybe less), not $1,000,000. There are many reasons why a small biz ecommerce Web site doesn't cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and "scalability" (big buzz word) is one of them.

Here are a few thoughts on why targeting a niche (and therefore a limited number of products) is more compatible with your budget:
  • Content, content, content
    If you are a small business it's typically easier to compete on service than on price. Service on the Internet means - among other things - lots of good information for people to make good purchasing decisions. That's what your store visitors are looking for. It's hard for you to have the best price out there... and you don't have to be the cheapest guy around. As mentioned in Part 1, one of the ways to get people to come back to your store is definitely to have great content that they love to read. That is: become the "go to" Web site in your niche. And it's much more doable to write detailed product descriptions, articles, and "how-to's" when you're dealing with a manageable amount of products, rather than with 50,000 SKUs.
  • Store management tools
    At Early Impact we have spent (and keep spending) a ton of time building into our ecommerce software tools that help businesses cut down on repeat tasks and be more productive. For example, in the latest version of our software we added AJAX-driven product search tools to most of the store management features, so you are rarely faced with ugly, long lists of products to sort through (e.g. adding quantity discounts to a product: search -> add discounts; adding product options to 5 products at once: search -> add options; etc.). Many of our competitors have done the same. Still, you should not expect from a small business ecommerce system the same scalability that you find in tools that cost 100 times as much (otherwise we'd charge the big bucks too!). Will your system help you effectively setup and manage cross-selling relationships among 20,000 products? Probably not. Keep that in mind.
  • Performance
    Many small businesses don't have the budget to run their Web store on powerful, dedicated servers. The cost of doing so is coming down (which is great), but we still see the majority of our customers running their stores on shared Web hosting accounts. And, more importantly, on shared database servers where their store database is hanging out with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of other databases. Well, a storefront search against a database of 1,000 products is less demanding on the server than a search against the same database with 30,000 items.
  • Expectations
    Your customers don't expect you to have the inventory found on a huge ecommerce store. If they need Staples, they're going to Staples, they're not coming to your store. They come to your store for other reasons: content, customer service, unique products (not in order of importance). They don't expect you to be Amazon, but they do expect you to be an expert in your field: good information, good advice, good products. It's like when I go buy wine at a small wine shop vs. a big grocery store. I'm looking for a good suggestion on a Napa Valley zinfandel (hey, we're in California), not a huge selection of 100 zinfandels: I don't care that they carry 100, but I do expect them to have picked a few good ones, and know all sorts of interesting details about them.

If you focus on a niche market, typically that means that you are focusing on a somewhat limited amount of products (not outdoor gear, but kayaking gear; not electronics, but smartphone accessories; not furniture, but teak patio furniture; etc.).

A store that carries a manageable amount of products is likely more compatible with the ecommerce tools you can afford and the human resources you can dedicate to running the shop. What "manageable" translates to depends on your experience running an online store and on the kind of products you are selling. My suggestion: start small (up to a few hundred products), then expand your product selection as your sales grow.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The niche is the trick (first part)

Small business ecommerce: it's amazing how literally hundreds of thousands of businesses all over the world, every day, sell their products and services using a tool that a decade ago virtually didn't exist. At Early Impact - the company that I co-founded several years ago - we have the privilege of seeing companies start from scratch and grow an online business, in a ton of different industries, selling all kinds of stuff, every day. It's truly fascinating... if you care at all about this ecommerce thing, that is.

This is my first post here. So let's not waste time and get right to it. The trick to being successful selling online is focusing on a niche. That's it. Focus on a niche market, and you chances of being successful go way up. Interested? Read on.

Targeting a niche means you don't sell office supplies: you sell sexy office supplies for women (in case you are wondering, that's a "real" target market: I didn't come up with it, the ladies at SeeJaneWork did - and they sell a ton of those pink binders!).

Focus, focus, focus. Narrow the list of products (or services) you want to sell. Become the expert. Become one of the gurus in your market. It'll pay off big time.

Let's dig deeper. Why is focusing on a niche so important? I'll give you 5 great reasons. Let's start with number one. Then I'm going to shut down the computer and read a book. And I'll add the other 4 (or maybe more) in future posts. No marketing trick to have you come back to this blog. I just can't write all that in one post.

ONE: Niche = SEO
What the heck is that? Target a niche, and - believe me - it'll help tremendously with your SEO efforts. SEO is an Internet buzzword that many of you know already. If you don't, it stands for Search Engine Optimization. That is: you'd better get your Web store to show up on search engines if you want to be successful.

Well, guess what? Focusing on a niche can be a crucial part of your search engine optimization strategy. Why? Because when you focus, you focus on something you know and care about.

So you'll write articles, product reviews, how-to guides, tips & tricks, frequently asked questions, maybe even a blog! And when you do that, you're working on the most important element of your SEO strategy: lots of quality, keyword-rich text for your Web pages.

Of course good search engine rankings are the result of a lot of other things. The structure of your Web site, the way your Web pages are written, the external (links from other domains) and internal (links within your site) popularity of your pages, etc. etc. But the truth is: good content triggers interest, which triggers links, which triggers visits, which trigger sales. I've seen it so many times. And even if you stop at the "trigger links" step, that's crucial, as you well know: get good quality incoming links, and your Web store will start climbing up in the search engine rankings.

Selling baby products is tough. That industry is crazy competitive. What about organic baby stuff? That sounds more doable if you are a small business with a limited marketing budget. The nice folks at Better For Babies really care about organic baby products: look at all the stuff they write on their Web site. Search for "organic diapers" on Google and they're in the top 10 results (at least when I checked :-). Can people read there and then shop elsewhere? Sure. But many will stay and shop. And the online store is very likely to grow and prosper. And that's exactly what we see happen over and over here at Early Impact.

So to recap: you are a small business, you've got an online store (or starting one) and a limited marketing budget. You've got to focus on a niche. One reason is that...
  • You're likely going to focus on stuff you know and care about
  • You've got the knowledge to add lots of good information to your Web store
  • You'll naturally spend time adding all kinds of content that shows you know your stuff
  • Your store visitors will like what they see... and search engines too!
  • Niche = SEO

What do you think?

Number 2 comes in a few days...