Updated: Apr 11, 2022
In this guide, I'm going to give you all the information you need to start building an eCommerce website from scratch, with no advanced knowledge required.
It will probably help if you don't know anything at all because once you start learning and assimilating information from many different sources, it is easy to become confused and drown in an ocean of conflicting advice.
This guide will act as a roadmap for building your very first website. The main thing to understand is that it is more important to get started and make mistakes along the way than to not start at all.
Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die as they say in the Marines. Everyone wants to build fantastic money-making websites, but few are prepared to put in the amount of work that will make a dream come true. This guide will help you understand the steps you need to take to build your website and eliminate costly mistakes that put so many people off.
Never compare your starting point with someone else's middle. It's good to look at other sites and get inspiration for what you would like your website to become, but it's not good to compare where you are now at the beginning of the journey with someone else who has been trading for several years or more.
Have patience and be consistent over the long term to succeed at this. It is much better to work an hour a day over a long period than to burn out after a month.
Begin With The Basics
Don't spend copious amounts of time viewing website builder comparison charts and comparing features before thinking about what type of business you are going to build. Feature comparison is good, but it will only take you so far. At some point, you have to dip your toe in the water, take the temperature and plunge in!
The first item you are going to need is a domain name:
1. Register A Domain Name
A domain name is the starting point for everything else you do online. It is the digital address that people will use to visit your website, and it can also serve as your email address. Owning a domain name gives your business a professional gloss rather than using email addresses from familiar broadband providers.
Many of the best domain names are unavailable but as domain names are rented and not purchased outright many names find their way back into circulation after the original owner failed to renew it for whatever reason.
Finding That Elusive "Perfect Domain Name."
So you've spent an eternity planning your eCommerce website project. Everything is falling into place, except for that one all-important item: your domain name. That damn "whois" search box always comes back with the same reply: "registered". Isn't that so frustrating!
Are you looking for a great business name? Business Name Generator is a fantastic free tool for your next project.
How are you going to find anything useful that will give your project status and connect with your customers?
As your desperation increases, you try more combinations of hyphens or different domain name extensions. Still, even if they are available, they just don't seem right, and you end up going back to the drawing board. Here is my guide to finding brilliant domain names. When you finish this article, you will be able to find great domain names ln minutes, not hours.
Dealing With Social Media Name Squatters
Before I show you how to use advanced searching techniques, I should make you aware that even if you manage to find a great name that you are happy with, the chances are that all of its social media handles have already been taken.
To discover an unregistered nugget sitting there and then purchasing it only to find out that you have to make up completely different names on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can make you want to poke yourself in the eye hard with your index finger.
The first step then is to use a website like namechk.com, which will check the availability of usernames across all of the top social media sites. Social media handle availability is crucial if you are planning on using social media to promote your site, and you can use this in tandem with your domain searching efforts.
The awkward combination of trying to find a good domain name and its social media counterparts is why the first method I recommend you investigate is to make up a name. If you make something up, then you are almost guaranteed to get all the names you want.
1. Making Up A Domain Name
There are several ways of inventing a name.
Xerox, Yahoo and Zoopla are names that you might immediately associate with the industry that they serve, but when they started, the names were meaningless.
Making up a name like this means you will dominate the search engine results for that identity, but as a strategy for gaining search engine traffic, it's not a good one. If no one knows your company exists then its company name is not going to be searched for in a search engine.
Only when a tremendous amount of work has been done building the companies products and promoting them does this type of name begin to work for itself. It's the best way to get a memorable name for yourself but also the hardest to achieve.
Choose an infrequent consonant like X to follow with a vowel-like O, consonant, vowel, consonant, and you'll get a name in no time at all. That's how Kodak was invented.
Dropping vowels has also become a popular method. Flickr and Tumblr are two that spring to mind. I don't recommend this method; if it's difficult to explain to someone over the phone, then it's probably a bad name.
My preferred way is to combine words. You stand a chance of gaining some valuable search engine traffic, and there are plenty of .com names still available if you are prepared to spend a bit of time and be creative.
Namestation.com is one of the best resources for generating new domain name ideas using this method. You'll find something very quickly here. Also try namemesh.com, nameboy.com, panabee.com, bustaname.com, domainnamesoup.com and namefresh.com
2. Purchasing A Domain Name
Buying a domain name is a frequently overlooked method, but if you can find the contact details for the domain you want that isn't being used, you may be able to get a reasonable price for it.
There are between 90k and 100k new domain name registrations every single day, and roughly the same amount get deleted from the registry. People may buy domain names with the best of intentions to get down and do some serious work, but for one reason or another, it never happens.
There are over fifty times more people with domain names for sale than there are people who put them to use.
Hunting Down The Unloved Domain Name
If the domain name you want is registered but leads to a blank "page not found" server error, then the domain has not been set up on the server. Find the owner contact details from the whois information and shoot them an email asking if it is for sale.
Domain owners who are serious about making a profit on their domain name investment will either set up a page displaying the price and contact details or have the domain listed for auction, so if the domain does not resolve anywhere, it could just be that the owner lost interest after buying it.
Sending an email will cost you nothing. If you don't get a reply from the owner, try asking the hosting company for a contact email. The ownership information for a domain is freely available unless the person who registered it requested ownership privacy, in which case they are unlikely to sell anyway.
As a last resort try typing their domain ownership details into Google to see if they own any other active domains.
Try Domain Name Auction Sites
Trawl through the many domain name auction sites to see if you can find something that relates to your business at a reasonable price. Sedo is the biggest auction site, but there is no time limit on many sales, so many great names sit there attracting offers without being sold. Also try namejet.com, namecheap.com, domainlore.co.uk, bido.com
Another way of finding a valuable domain name that is underpriced is to buy the entire website on flippa.com. It may seem strange, but sometimes a domain name can be sold for more money without anything built on it because people focus on the value of the name itself.
A complete website that includes the domain name can be sold for less than just the value of the name.
Try posting your requirements on one of the domain name forums with the market you want to serve and your budget. Try Acorn domains for UK domains or Domain name forum for other main .tld's. Also, try namepros.com
"Domainers" on these boards are very knowledgeable about the subject and have a good sense of what a domain name is worth. You may also come across names that people have stockpiled and just want to get rid of it.
3. Backordering A Domain Name
Sometimes you will type a domain name into whois and find that while it is still registered the domain status is "expired". When a domain is expired, this means that the domain has passed the date by which it should be renewed and has entered a "grace" period by the end of which the domain name will "drop" and become available once more.
Grabbing Soon To Expire Domain Names
Different domain registrars have differing policies on their grace periods, and you can never be sure of the exact day that a domain will drop. Besides which there is a considerable domain aftermarket that exists to "catch" domain names as they are made available.
Snapnames, Pool and Dropcatcher are dedicated domain catching services but many standard registrars like Godaddy.com now also provide back-ordering services so if you are dead set on a name and are prepared to wait it out you could try back-ordering a domain name that you think will not renew.
You might also like to set a monitor on a name by using a service like domain tools which will alert you via email when there is a status change to the domain you want to be watched.
In the UK the .co.uk extension is managed by Nominet, and anyone who has a Nominet Tag is allowed to interrogate the database of expiring names to find out what has recently dropped.
It may be surprising to learn that many valuable domain names expire on a regular basis either through the owner passing away; a company ceased trading or just an administrative oversight.
This domain aftermarket is fiercely competitive as you can imagine and sophisticated software solutions have been developed to catch domains within milliseconds of them expiring from the registry.
If you think domain catching would be an excellent business for you, then try Hubbard Media who can offer you a complete domain catching solution.
4. Lists Of Expired Domain Names
With close to 100,000 domain names expiring every day you would think that there is bound to be some low lying fruit just waiting to be snapped up, but anything that terminates and is not retained by the registrar, back-ordered, or caught by a specialist is generally not worth the registration fee in the first place.
There are exceptions though, and the value of a name is only seen by someone searching for it (The beauty lies with the beholder), so expired lists are worth a glance over.
The forum owner at Acorn domains often posts up long lists of UK expired domains as they are released from the Nominet registry, and it's worth registering on the site just to get access to those lists.
Take a bit of time to research the background of any potential expired domain because continuous Google updates (Penguin, Panda, etc.wayback) may have rendered it useless.
Many webmasters penalised in this way have merely ditched their old domain name and started up again with a new one. If you purchase one by accident to build your new project on you are in for a world of pain.
Aggressive link building techniques and directory spamming were all too familiar before Google began its crackdown and although you can use the disavow tool in Webmaster tools why not just start from scratch with a blank canvas and avoid any subsequent heartache?
Buying a domain that is listed in Dmoz is no guarantee that the site will remain there by the way. Dmoz editors are actively looking for sites in their directory that no longer serve the purpose that they were initially entered into the list for. (Update: Dmoz now ceases to exist, so that's another shortcut that has turned into the long way around!)
You can examine the history of a domain name by using Wayback machine at archive.org.
My advice is to avoid buying anything that has been used before because discovering that you are labouring against an algorithm that doesn't favour you will only occur after you have put in all the hard work.
5. Take Your Time
Choose Wisely Grasshopper.
Once you start gaining links, guest posting and building your website presence, it's not possible to move without starting over again.
Yes, you can use redirects to direct newly purchased domains to your primary offering, but you can't go the other way around. Not without losing all the goodwill you built up or doing a ton of work redirecting everything using your .htaccess file. If you are serious about building your business online, you'll start with a blank canvas.
Lastly, here are some useful resources and further reading:
Smashing Magazine has an excellent article on linguistics and what the difference is between a "discoverable" domain name and a "brandable" one.
Here's a timeless classic from Seth Godin on choosing your business name. Lemon pie – the easy way to learn Scuba.
Happy Domain Hunting!
2. Setup Your Business Email Address
Once you've purchased your domain name, you can put it to work by setting up your email address. Most domain name registrars allow you to set up an email address from within their control panel. I like to redirect all of my incoming emails to my Google mail account so that it captures all the email from all sources. That way if you don't want to let go of your current email address you don't have to.
3. Choose Your Website Building Software
For new websites that don't plan on using eCommerce functionality, there are three choices:
WordPress is the hardest to set up for beginners although many hosting plans have "one-click installers" to make the job of installation a breeze. WordPress is the most flexible option, but it is also the hardest to learn.
You would use WordPress for a blog with many pages or perhaps a corporate website. For people with limited technology skills, I would recommend that you avoid WordPress, to begin with, and try Wix first. Wix has a 24/7 support team, and if you use WordPress, you are left to your own devices.
Wix is easily the best website builder choice for beginners. Wix has the most straightforward interface with which to work and build your site as well as an excellent state of the art website template chooser. Everything is done via a simple drag and drop editor, and if you want to add simple eCommerce at a later date, you can do this too.
Read My In-Depth Wix Review
Weebly follows hot on the heels of Wix being a slightly cheaper website builder option but with loads of features available to expand your website. From a user interface point of view, Weebly is excellent as it doesn't come with so many confusing options in its default state, although you can add more features from the App library as you grow more confident.
Alternatively, for those of you that are going to be building an eCommerce website, there are two clear favourites for UK users:
Shopify is the best choice for those who want to get started with the minimum of fuss however on top of the $29 monthly fee you will also need to pay around $180 for an advanced theme and Apps in the marketplace that you bolt on can add up to a sizeable ongoing monthly payment.
Shopify supports the most channels and is a perfect choice if you are thinking of selling on Amazon and eBay as well as your website because there is plenty of third party software that supports Multi-channel selling. It all comes at an extra cost though so watch those mounting expenses!
Read My Shopify Review
EKM is my choice for UK users who want to build an eCommerce store and get handheld assistance if you require it via the dedicated account manager feature. There are no hidden extra costs to running a store, and all the latest responsive templates are free of charge.
There are plenty of additional features available via the App store, and you can take your time activating them at your leisure. For example, the abandoned cart saver routine which I covered recently is a great revenue saver and a feature for which many other eCommerce solutions will charge extra.
Read My EKM Review
Choose A Website Template And Logo
All of the website builders that I've included in the list above have a great selection of "ready to go" website templates that mean you click once and install.
In the beginning, it is best not to spend too much time trying to customise your design because you might quickly decide that you like the look of another template and you might want to change your look.
Install Google Analytics
Being able to track your daily visitors and how they interact with your website is an essential part of the marketing mix. You need to know if you are connecting with your customers and how they are interacting with your website.
Read my quick setup guide for Google analytics
You'll find the code to install Google analytics in your Google account, but many of the software packages I've mentioned above merely require you to enter the ID of the site you want to track.
Common Design Mistakes Business Owners Make
So you think you can do better than the professionals? Here are some of the most common design mistakes small business owners make and some tips for rectifying them.
1. You are not creating a customer profile.
Whilst this is not an obvious design mistake, you can't design your marketing campaign properly if you fail to identify your customer correctly.
It's much better to have a small, tightly focused website built around your subject matter rather than a sprawling mess that tries to cover every angle. Picture your ideal customer in your mind; perhaps it's someone you know, then proceed to build everything around that customer profile.
If you don't identify and create a customer profile, you can't make a brand identity.
2. Not Leaving Enough White Space On The Page
It's tempting to try and cram all your information into the space available, but this produces a messy, incoherent page that bombards the senses with too much information in one hit.
Great design works by making the white space break up information into chunks that are easily absorbed. Using white space in this way is an art and not easy for the layman. Less is more.
3. Poor Font Choices
Trying to be different by using an obscure font is a classic design faux pas. Leave the fancy font usage to the experts.
If your web page looks messy and unreadable, then changing the font to sans serif will instantly transform it. Make the font-size 12px for body text and the headings 18px or 20px. Use dark black for the font colour as the idea is to make the text easy to read.
4. Unclear Or Missing Calls To Action (CTA)
You've got the website and the traffic, but something is missing, and you are not getting the sales. Omitting a call to action (or having too many) is one of the amateur's most common design mistakes.
Designing a clear "Buy Now" or "Learn More" button for navigation is one of the essential website design features. If you build it, they will come, " is the old saying, but they will leave if you don't show them where to go.
Design your buttons and navigation to make your offer clear, and don't put several offers on one page unless they are related.
5. Copywriting and Grammatical Errors
Spelling mistakes are unforgivable as many tools are available to help you write correctly and eliminate bad grammar from your website copy.
You may not be the next Hemingway, but using a tool like Grammarly will elevate your writing to a higher plane.
6. Poor Graphic Design
Poorly designed visuals are something you can't quickly fix without recourse to a graphic designer. Stock photos can go some way to stave off that next yawn but be careful you aren't using stale or run-of-the-mill imagery.
A subscription to a service like Shutterstock will give you access to pay for images that haven't been copied a million times over for a small monthly fee.
7. Not Designing For Mobile Devices
Have you checked that your website displays correctly on a mobile device? Many business owners don't realise that a website can appear differently depending on its rendered device.
If you use Wix to build your website, for example, there is a separate editor for the mobile version of the website, and most WordPress themes have a mobile version. Spend time with a tablet and mobile phone to see what your website looks like when displayed on these devices.
Going through the above list will get you up and running in no time at all, and you should be able to get a website or an eCommerce store up and running in a day using this guide.
Some website builders may take a bit longer to "resolve" your newly purchased domain name, but at the maximum, you should be fully working in two days.
Have you got questions? Use the comments below, and as always, you are welcome to contact me if you need any assistance.