Building an eCommerce website is a complicated, multi-faceted affair that takes time and energy to get right and can prove to be a demanding task for even the most talented and experienced developers. It is essential to get this process right, as it ultimately determines the quality of the experience your customers receive when they browse your online store, which directly affects your conversion rate and total revenue. It also determines whether you stand out to customers in today’s crowded online marketplace, and whether customers are willing to return to your site to shop.
There are a number of excellent eCommerce platforms out there that provide a comprehensive set of tools for assisting you in building the ultimate eCommerce site. Coalition Technologies has built over a hundred eCommerce stores across multiple platforms using different approaches. We’ve had ample time to dig into multiple eCommerce platforms and form opinions on choosing the best platform for different sites. Of course, different platforms have their strengths and weaknesses depending on what you are trying to do. Let’ s talk about what you are trying to do, what features you should look for in an eCommerce platform, and then move onto the programs themselves.
An eCommerce Primer – What to Look for in an eCommerce Platform
Each eCommerce platform has its share of unique features, and each one has different characteristics that suit certain people with specific aims. Are you looking for a completely integrated system that handles everything for you, or are you just looking to build up a shop for an already-existing website? Do you want to spend time and energy digging into a complex system that allows you to produce a unique, custom site, or do you want a program that offers a quick and easy template that gets you up and running right away? How big of an operation do you intend to run, and how much control do you require over the customization process? Answers to these questions will narrow down the list of eCommerce software you should go with.
There are certain features to look for in all eCommerce platforms however. Here are some considerations that I think every eCommerce platform should perform on. If you want to skip to the actual platform recommendations, scroll down to the “Top eCommerce Platforms” section.
Ease of use and customization: Is the program easy to use and intuitive? Or is it confusing and frustrating? Of course, there is always a balance between simplicity and customization. Some people want a simple template to plug in and start selling with, while others want to dig into a deeper program and provide a customized experience that is going to stand out in the marketplace. The latter option obviously takes more time and effort, but is it worth putting in all this effort on a program that just confuses you? Even complicated programs should be well-designed. Make sure to test a program’s daily features (features that you are going to use all the time), such as product updating, customer service, performance analysis, and promotion generation. Make sure it is a platform that you are going to be comfortable with using every day. Otherwise, there is higher probability of error and reduced sales. Look for basic, attractive templates to get you started with, with deeper customization options available if you want to dig deeper later.
SEO functionality: How well does the program handle search engine optimization? You can sell the finest products in the world, but if people can’t find them, how are you going to make the sales? Make sure your platform of choice can handle valuable SEO functions, such as custom URLs, title tags, meta tags, meta descriptions, page titles, alt image attributes, etc.
Marketing tools: Similar to the point brought up above, you need some solid marketing tools if you are going to be running a store that actually makes sales. Does the shopping cart provide convenient email marketing options and other tools, like promotions, coupons, and newsletters? Also, look for SEO tools mentioned above, pay per click options, social media functionality, and product export to other stores, such as eBay, Amazon, and Google Shopping.
Conversion Tools: You want your store to have a high conversion rate right? Otherwise, why even bother with a store? Look for important conversion-optimizing tools, such as product reviews, social network sharing, product recommendations, and a one-page checkout, so you can make the sale.
Price: Don’t rush out and buy the cheapest eCommerce software, since it is often true that you get what you pay for. However, don’t fall for extravagant payment schemes that don’t guarantee you success either. You are paying for good features, usability, and effective customer service for the most part. Be wary of transaction fees. These fees can add up fast and you can get a really good program that doesn’t charge this.
Technology: This has more to do with the eCommerce software company’s servers. Do they have up-to-date server technology that performs? Otherwise, you might be risking slower response times, spotty operation and downtime, and security breaches.
Feature availability: Does your platform of choice offer a good selection of solid features for the subscription price, or is your company of choice dangling a carrot in front of your face and demanding more money for features that should be basic? Among the other features I’ve mentioned, the software should offer search-optimized internal navigation, a powerful backend store, comprehensive reporting, and integration with 3rd party software, like Google Analytics, Website Optimizer, and Live Chat for starters.
Company outlook: The platforms at the top of this list are hosted eCommerce platforms, which means you are basically renting online space for your online shop. Make sure the long term prospects of the company you choose are favorable. Do they commit to their product and update it with new features to be competitive? Are they keeping up on their hardware? Do they provide excellent customer and technical support?
The software rankings presented below reflect years of experience in professional web design, SEO tech, and conversion optimization. These eCommerce platforms have been the most impressive and demonstrated most of the positive considerations mentioned above. Remember, not all eCommerce programs are equal; some are definitely better at a wider range of tasks than others. The following list is ranked according to what has worked best for the Coalition team over the years.
The Top eCommerce Platforms
BigCommerce is a go-to platform for all things eCommerce. BigCommerce is easy to set up and gets your store up and running as soon as possible. It also has substantial customization options for those looking to dig deeper. Its interface is easy to navigate, and it includes the best SEO configurations of all the major platforms.
You get a lot of solid features for a fair payment scheme. Its customer support is excellent, and due to the company’s solid international presence, you can ship to customers around the world.
The program does have minor drawbacks. Its basic templates are pretty plain, and it takes more than a beginner’s knowledge to get a customized layout going. Its design integration isn’t the best either, but that’s about it. For taking care of all your shopping cart needs, building a great-looking and highly functional online store, and marketing your product with brilliant tools, ot doesn’t get much better than using a program like BigCommerce.
- Completely integrated with Google Website Optimizer & Google Analytics and many other available third party plugins
- Great SEO options: easy to customize title tags and meta tags.
- Great conversion tools: 1 page super simple checkout, multiple payment options, Abandoned Cart Saver system
- Email marketing: iContact integration and MailChimp support
- Automated photo gallery creation and a great photo zoom feature that makes your site look great
- Social media support. You can also sell your products on Facebook and eBay
- Mobile support for Android and iPad shopping
- Automated inventory control and flexible returns system
- Easy coupons, discount banners, and gift certificates
- Many basic design templates, which can easily be customized
- Fully hosted: no need to worry about IT issues with hosting
- Import/export thousands of products at once
- Accounting system syncs with Quickbooks, MYOB, Peachtree, StoneEdge, and custom formats
- Shipping is simple and easy
- Full business intelligence reports: 25+ performance reports (best keywords, revenue breakdowns)
- Great product search functionality
Magento is a platform that keeps developers and designers in mind. It has a high degree of customizability, and you can do really cool things with it if you have the technical knowledge, which includes intermediate to advanced understanding of HTML/CSS/PHP. If you’re a beginner, and you just want to get your store online, you might find yourself lost. It also takes more time and energy to maintain your shopping cart.
Magento Go is a more accessible program that is built to compete with BigCommerce and Shopify, but it has limited template and customization options. If you choose Magento, it is better to go with the more comprehensive and technical Community and Enterprise editions.
The great thing about Magento is that if you do have the technical experience, you can download the community version for free and start building your store. The free version has very limited support, so you’re on your own, and if you want a little more help and more convenient features, you have to shell out $15,000 a year or more for the Enterprise edition. Magento is incredibly advanced and customizable, so if you have an army of developers and programmers or a boatload of time and technical knowledge, you can do something really cool with it.
- Multi-store capabilities
- Rapid bug fixes and code updates
- Large library of templates, including third party options
- Advanced and highly customizable
- Excellent reporting and inventory management options
- Large library of plugins, including third party options
- SEO tools: SEO-friendly URLs, meta titles and descriptions
- Marketing tools: email campaigns, targeted pricing and suggested items, integrated email marketing, product reviews
- Conversion tools: Powerful product search, intuitive shopping menus, multiple payment and shipment options
- Mobile device enabled; shopping cart carries over multiple devices
- International shipping, pricing, taxing, etc.
Shopify is one of the easiest-to-use eCommerce platforms on the market. This program is user-friendly and versatile; you can get your shop up and running right away without any trouble. With Shopify, you can easily build a great-looking website that looks excellent across devices, whether it is viewed on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smart phone. If you are looking for a simple solution where you don’t have to know a lot of code or put too much time into designing your online store, Shopify is a great choice.
Shopify has some huge disadvantages however. With simplicity, you have some limitations in terms of customization. The basic templates are great, but if you want to go any further and start customizing your store, you are going to run into constraints pretty fast. One of the worst things about Shopify is that it uses its own programming language, “Liquid,” that has to be learned in order to customize its templates. This can be frustrating for even seasoned programmers and can put serious limits on what you can do with your shopping cart.
Plus, Shopify can get pretty expensive. With the cheapest packages – which are comparable to competitors’ packages with the same features or better – Shopify requires a 2% fee from all of your revenues unless you pay for a higher-tier service which takes off this limitation. You can get far better software, like BigCommerce, with far more features for prices lower than this. However, when it comes to building a simple store in a short amount of time for the business that is short on time and technical know-how, Shopify is a great program.
- Takes away hosting, SSL & security worries
- CMS capability: it can publish articles and blog posts
- Very easy to set up; drag-and-drop product page and collection page creations
- Easy to make limited customization (beyond that though, watch out for limitations and “Liquid” issues)
- Store automatically updates with new software
- Conversion tools: multiple payment options, Free Shipping coupon tool
- Marketing tools: SEO keyword tag suggestions, SEO meta tags, Google Analytics, email marketing
- Incredibly simple to setup products (customization requires knowledge of “Liquid” so beware)
- A little under 200 templates to choose from
- Conversion tools: Discount codes
- Great customer support, excellent community forums
Volusion is a really popular platform that has been around for a long time, with the company constantly adding and improving features. This platform offers an easy store set up, good SEO tools, one-page checkout to improve those conversions, and decent pricing. Keep in mind though that BigCommerce offers more data and the same basic features as Volusion for the same price.
Also, Volusion’s interface isn’t as slick as other platforms, and their templates aren’t as stylish or appealing either. Though Volusion is really easy to use, their customer service is notoriously bad as well, which is something to keep in mind.
- Site administration made easy; back end code abstracted away
- Product zooms for a great-looking product gallery
- Conversion tools: one-page checkout, product comparison tool for easy shopping and decision-making
- Marketing tools: plenty of SEO tools, advanced analytics, newsletters, Deal of the Day, YouTube video embedding, social media
- Easy to set up
- Improve functionality with apps
3DCart is not nearly as versatile or customizable as the other platforms. The program offers fewer shipping providers and its content management system is sub-par. The company offers a 15 day demo if you are interested in trying out as many platforms as possible.
- 50 templates to choose from
- Marketing tools: YouTube video embedding, SEO tools, social media, coupons and promotions
- Image zoom product viewer, image editing
- Easy to use with quick store set ups
ZenCart is an older eCommerce platform that is open source. ZenCart has unwieldy architecture and a confusing admin area, and it is difficult to make changes with. You also have to do the hosting, SSL certificates, and payment systems yourself.
This program doesn’t offer a whole lot of support outside of the community forum. There is no integration with third party accounting systems. The multi-page checkout process is not great for conversion rates either. It also takes a lot of work and technical know-how to set up SEO and get a good design down. This is mainly a good platform to download for free and learn a thing or two about building an online store on.
- Free to use
- Good for beginners to learn on
- Open source
NopCommerce is probably the best open source eCommerce software solution available on the market. It has a really easy setup and can be customized more quickly than ZenCart or Magento.
The downsides to this program are the following: it is still buggy, you have to do your own hosting, there’s not a whole lot of support available, and you have to use Microsoft licenses. Other than that, it is a solid open source program that is free to download and tinker around with.
- Easy to set up
- Live Chat integration
- Sends out text messages with new sales and contacts
- Great sales reports
- Free to download
- Open source
- Conversion tool: one page checkout
- Built-in forum for support
BigCommerce, Magento, Shopify, Volusion, 3DCart, ZenCart and NopCommerce are all great shopping cart programs. I have researched many other eCommerce platforms, such as goEmerchant, Fortune3, CoreCommerce, Yahoo Merchant, ProStores, Godaddy Quick Shopping Cart, goEcart, genXpros, and many others, but I haven’t found any of these programs to be as good as the ones I have mentioned. If you are the hands-on type, it wouldn’t hurt to give all of those eCommerce platforms a spin to get a feel for the one that works the best for your purposes.
However, if you want to cut to the chase and get your shop up and running with the best eCommerce platform on the market, you won’t be disappointed by BigCommerce. BigCommerce is a one-stop solution that allows you to set up a website, domain name, shopping cart, email account, payment gateway, product catalog and much more in one easy to use, highly customizable process.
BigCommerce’s SEO tools are the best in the industry, and today, SEO prowess is crucial for succeeding with Internet commerce. With BigCommerce’s superb marketing tools, you can build your brand along with your website. All of this is available at a competitive price without the pesky transaction fees.
Whatever your business’ needs, hopefully, this guide will be useful for finding the eCommerce platform that is right for you. With the assistance of one of these platforms, you can be well on your way to building a great website and online store, helping your business grow and achieve new heights of success.