How to make an online store - a detailed guide

How to make an online store - picture of a computer and a shopping cart

In this article, we show you how to make an online store - and, perhaps more importantly, how to drive traffic to it and generate sales. 

You're probably reading this post because you're looking for some e-commerce software to help you get an online store up and running. Finding this software is the easy bit (we have some suggestions below); but getting your store to make money is the tricky part. In this post, we look at all the things you need to do not just to get an online store live, but attracting traffic – and thus sales – too.

1. Pick the right product to sell

This sounds so obvious that it’s barely worth saying, but picking the ‘right’ product to sell is absolutely essential to the success of your store. However, by ‘right’ I’m not talking about quality – you should obviously avoid selling tat – I’m talking about the ‘uniqueness’ of your product.

This is because when you set up an online store, you are competing with a large number of hugely popular sites selling everything under the sun: just think of the Amazons and the E-bays of this world to get a flavour of the level of competition. Generally, you are going to have a tough time shifting products if you are simply selling stuff that is already widely available on those kinds of sites.

To run a successful online store, what you really need to do is ‘find your niche’ – identify (or make) a product that is not being sold by every online retailer going, but for which there is enough demand to sustain an online business. For example, instead of selling a guitar that is commonly available on Amazon, you might consider selling an instrument that is harder to find online, but for which you know there is a decent enough customer base.

2. Use Google’s keyword tool to help you find your niche

To help you find the niche discussed above, you are going to need to do some research. The simplest way of identifying a niche is to 1) use a keyword research tool (like Moz Keyword Explorer, SERPs or Google's Keyword Planner) to find niche markets and 2) perform online searches to see how many retailers are operating in those markets.

Keyword research tools allow you to find out how many searches per month are performed for various keywords. For example, it will tell you that there are 246,000 searches per month for the search term ‘buy guitar’ and only 1,600 for ‘buy ukulele’. This might make you think “whoa, there’s a much bigger market for guitars, I’m going to sell guitars” but stop right there: think of the number of guitar stores you will be competing with. The numbers that the keyword tool has just given us tell us that ukuleles are definitely much more of a niche product, but one with a decent enough number of people interested in buying them (nearly 20,000 a year worldwide, enough to arguably sustain an online ukulele-selling business) .

The question is whether there are already a lot of retailers selling this niche product: people might have beaten you to this niche already. To find out, you now need to look at keyword difficulty - this is a score given (in one format or another) by keyword research tools. The higher the keyword difficulty score, the harder it will be to rank for searches for that product name.

It's also a good idea to perform some of searches in Google to see how many stores specialising in selling ukuleles online are already out there. If you find that there are already loads of online ukulele stores in existence, it might be time to think about selling a different product. But if there’s clearly only one or two online stores flogging ukuleles…well, maybe it’s time to think about going into the ukulele-selling business.

This is quite a basic example; you can go much further with niches. You may find during your research that there are quite a lot of ukulele sellers out there, but not many soprano ukulele sellers (but still enough demand to justify the setting up of an online store selling soprano ukuleles)…you get the idea. The trick is generally to find products for which there is a reasonably strong level of demand but with relatively few online stores selling them (or, ideally, none at all!). Or to tailor your product descriptions, once you set up your store, to match particular keywords.

3. Creating your online store

Once you’ve identified your niche product and market, it’s time to think about getting your online store off the ground. You could hire an agency or freelancer to design your store for you, but if you go down that route, make sure that they implement a solution that lets you manage your store without them after it’s live – i.e., they need to provide you with a ‘content management system’ (CMS) that lets you edit your site and add/remove products. This is usually (but not always) better than paying a webmaster or developer to do it every time.

Example of a Shopify theme

Another option is to use an online store builder and just create your online store yourself – you may find this more cost-effective. There are lots of e-commerce solutions to choose from – popular ones include Shopify, Bigcommerce and Volusion. Of the ones I have road tested to date, I have found Shopify and Bigcommerce to be the most straightforward for users without a lot of experience of building websites – they are definitely the most user-friendly of the bunch. Shopify also comes with a blogging tool built in, which is very useful (I’ll explain why this is important below). The good news is that all these solutions offer free trials and support to help you get going – just follow the links below:

If you already have a website (for example, a Wordpress site) and want to add an online store to it, tools such as Ecwid will come in handy – it allows you to plug a ‘widget’ into your site (or anywhere else you can insert some HTML code – for example, a Facebook page or blog) and users will see a fully-functional online store at that location.

4. Optimise your site for search

Once you’ve found your niche market and designed your online store to cater for it, it is now crucial to optimise it correctly for search. You can use keyword research tools again to find out exactly what kind of searches are performed for your type of product, and ensure that your site contains all these keywords in all the right places – page titles, product descriptions, headings, meta data and URLs. All the solutions mentioned above – Shopify,  Bigcommerce and Volusion – give you a lot of control over SEO. If you plump for one of those products, make use of this functionality! (You'll find more detailed information on how to make a site visible in Google here).

Getting a high placement in Google search results is vital for the success of any online store.

Getting a high placement in Google search results is vital for the success of any online store.

5. Blog

A hugely important part of attracting traffic to an online store is to blog regularly about topics related to what you are selling. For example, on your ukulele site, you could blog about playing techniques, or your favourite type of ukulele strings, or that bit in Some Like It Hot where Marilyn Monroe plays a ukulele on a train. This type of activity is basically known as ‘inbound marketing’ and if you don’t engage in it, you are potentially missing out on a huge number of sales. By posting high-quality, keyword-rich blog posts related to your area of business, you are doing two things: one, maximising the chances of your site appearing in relevant search results, and two, showing you are an authority on the area of business you are operating in (potential ukulele buyers will have greater confidence in ukulele vendors who clearly have a passion for, and understanding of, all things ukulele).

Returning to particular store builders for a moment, it's worth pointing out a key reason why I'm keen on Shopify and Bigcommerce solutions for building e-commerce sites: both products come with blogging functionality built in (which, for the reasons outlined above, is very important for building an audience for your store). You can add blogs to a Volusion site too but it involves setting up subdomains and is a bit of a fiddly process.

6. Consider a Google Adwords campaign

Depending on what you’re selling, you can consider running an Adwords campaign to drive traffic to your store. This involves identifying (and paying for) relevant search phrases that will display adverts for your store/products alongside ‘organic’ Google search results. In my experience, Adwords campaigns generally work well when you are selling relatively expensive products. For example, you might be able to live with an Adwords ‘cost per acquisition’ of £50 (i.e., where you spend £50 on ads to generate one sale) to sell one product if that product – let’s say a TV – retails at £1000, but if you are spending £50 on ads to sell one CD that retails at £10…well, it’s a no brainer really: stop wasting your cash. It’s a question of looking at your margins, trying out different keyword strategies and so on to ensure that the cost of advertising doesn't eat into your profit margin too much. But before you even contemplate an Adwords campaign you should definitely ensure that you’ve sorted out all your search engine optimisation first. You may find, with niche products in particular, that if your site is optimised correctly, there is no huge need for spending money on Adwords.

Right, I'm off to sell some ukuleles.  

Any thoughts on how to set up an online store?

If you've set up your own online store, or have any queries about doing so, we'd love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Useful links