The guide to creating professional online stores

If you have a product to sell and an ounce of sticktoitiveness, the barrier for entry into the world of online sales is smaller than ever. Just pick a platform, select and tweak a template, take some product shots, and you’re up and running. But don’t let the bevy of simplified platforms make you lazy, there are plenty of decisions you still need to make to stand out from the crowd.

Let’s go through, step-by-step, the important things you need to cover:

  1. Does my domain name matter?
  2. A few brand naming exercises
  3. What are some domain name best practices?
  4. Which e-commerce platform is right for me?
  5. It’s time to think about stock images

Does my domain name matter?

Company naming is one of the hardest things anyone creating a website will have to do. Not because naming things is inherently hard (there really isn’t a wrong choice), but because the name is the single hardest thing to change in the future.

Just think about it. In 10 years, assuming your new shopping site becomes a success, your website will probably change once or twice (or more), your logo might go through countless small tweaks and revisions, and your brand tone could be completely reworked, but your name sticks. It’s on the tips of your customers’ tongues; it’s on all your social handles, your email addresses, your documentation. It’s hard to change a name (but it can be done).

In addition to your name, the internet adds a second layer of naming difficulty—the TLD (the part after the dot, like COM in .COM). The most popular TLD today is .COM, but finding a good, memorable name in the .COM namespace can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Today, many brands are looking outside the .COM sphere. Local ccTLDs (like New Zealand’s .NZ and Canada’s .CA) are good for local businesses, but not so good for international shopping. Some ccTLDs are thought of as generic now, though, like .IO, which stands for Indian Ocean Territories, but is now a trendy .COM alternative used by tech startups. .CO, for Columbia, is another very popular ccTLD being used by businesses all over the world. Then again, there are the new gTLDs like .SITE, .CLUB, and .FASHION that are very specific to certain industries and ideas, but are still unknown to much of the public (new can be good, but may lead to some confusion depending on the audience).

There are a ton of articles on the web about the plusses and minuses of using the new gTLDs, but here’s a good one from Annalisa Roger, CircleID:

The world’s largest advertising agencies and the most cutting edge businesses, as well as the world’s leading brands, serve their customers by locating themselves in the minds of people with informative descriptors. Marketing with photos and taglines is effective, but being able to also do this with diverse new Top Level Domain name extensions is new. Staking out new Internet property with a new gTLD is akin to joining a community, an industry market sector, or a geographically or otherwise focused audience for your business.

For new gTLDs that designate a community, the benefits to registrants are compounded. Community TLDs bring added values. Trust and loyalty come into play when brands align with the beliefs and goals of a targeted audience. Not all new gTLDs represent communities however, but those that do can offer brands a unique value proposition. The opportunity to co-brand with a community, provided the content is relevant, can lead to the valuable position of becoming a recognized member of the community.

A few brand naming exercises

Before we get too deep into which domain name you should choose, let’s make sure you have a brand name that will stand the test of time.

The best tip for starting the naming process is to come up with as many options as you possibly can. It can be a grind, and you’ll find names along the way you feel you can end the process with, but keep going. Professional naming companies come up with hundreds, even thousands, of names before they deliver the final selections to their clients. Just remember that options will provide inspiration for more options, and the process is what will give you the confidence to stick with your choice.

So first, set a goal. Say, by the end of the process, you want to have 500 naming options (it’ll take time, but long term solutions rarely get conjured up in a day). Instead of just coming up with 500 random names though, your best strategy will be dividing your effort into chunks.

For example, if your goal is 500 naming options, here’s process you could follow:

  • Write down 100 common words that pertain to your brand (real words can be brand names!)
  • From those 100 words, try combining some of them to get 100 more words
  • Now, get a little weird and invent 100 words
  • Get a Latin dictionary and come up with 100 words
  • Try combining the Latin words with some of your words above to get your final 100
  • From that list, come up with your top 10, then start looking for available domain names (if you’re aiming for a .COM, there’s a good chance some of your options will already be taken)

There are no rules to naming, so whatever your process is, as long as you stick with it, you’ll likely come up with something original and new. There are some things you should try to avoid though:

  • Don’t get caught up in trends. Brands that start with lowercase e’s and i’s and end in ly’s are always going to be seen as names from a very specific era. Shoot for timelessness.
  • Spelling is hard enough. Adding additional vowels to normal words for the sake of originality can be pretty tricky.
  • Avoid excessively long names unless you want to be the brand that ironically has an excessively long name.
  • Bad mouth shapes can be unexpectedly damaging. Some words, no matter who says them, force people into frowns and strange guttural noises. Be sure to pronounce your name a number of times before making a final decision.
  • Whatever you do, avoid bad connotations. If, hidden in your brand name, you accidentally sound out a hate group or a traditionally bad word, you have a problem.

What are some domain name best practices?

Now that you have some brand names in mind, it’s time to find your domain name. Instead of re-creating the wheel, Moz has a great guide to domain name SEO Best Practices. Here are their top tips:

  • Word Separators - Avoid hyphens. Hyphens detract from credibility and can act as a spam indicator.
  • Top-Level Domain (TLD) - Top-level domains (like .com) are the extensions associated with domain names. For best ranking results, avoid uncommon top-level domains (TLDs). Like hyphens, TLDs such as .info, .cc, .ws, and .name are spam indicators.
  • Length - Avoid domain names longer than 15 characters. Short domain names are easier to remember, easier to share, and have a smaller chance of resulting in typos.

The best practice of all though (you should see this coming) is to get your domain name right here at iwantmyname. High five!

Which e-commerce platform is right for me?

With your domain name now set, your final big decision is to pick an platform to build your site on. There are a ton out there, but our Marketplace has 12 of the most popular platforms available, and they can be added to your iwantmyname domain with just a few clicks (no confusing DNS setups FTW!). Here’s an overview.

Big Cartel: Big Cartel is one of the biggest e-commerce platforms on the web, primarily focusing on designers, artists, bands and other creative folks. Most notably, Big Cartel has some great templates you can tweak (no code needed, but you can use your own CSS/HTML if you want), and a host of analytics tools to track your activity and growth.

Squarespace: As far as customizability goes, Squarespace is one of the most intuitive platforms on the web. With its simple “Layout Engine” editing interface, you can make your sites, blogs and stores look just how you want them to, and with an impressive list of third-party integrations, your shops can be more flexible than ever.

Shopify: Like the storefronts of yesteryear, the best way to catch a customer’s eye is to look clean and fresh. And with more than 100 themes in the Theme Store (including plenty of great responsive options), you should be covered here. Tack on a full-featured CMS, tons of third-party integrations and advanced marketing tools and you have yourself quite a platform.

Tictail: While Tictail may not have the full site capabilities of a platform like Squarespace (although it isn’t that far off), it may just be the easiest platform for setting up a store. It’s so easy in fact, that you can sign up with your Facebook and Twitter account, pick a template (CSS and HTML customization is available), set some basic information up in the dashboard, and launch.

BigCommerce: Bigcommerce is an impressive platform for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the number of tools it gives you to succeed. Aside from having an easy to use site creator, you’ll get a host of marketing tools, reporting and analytics panels, and integrations—the works.

Flying Cart: Big stores, small stores—Flying Cart can handle them all with workmanlike efficiency. Take control of your code or use a template, then use a mass of backend tools and services, like social integration, inventory tracking and custom domain usage to get the job done.

Goodsie: Like Big Cartel and a few of the other platforms on the list, Goodsie is a platform designed for small-to-medium sized stores. But unlike some of the others, Goodsie makes design customizations incredibly easy with a visual CSS interface. And with a number of polished themes to make your own, it’s a great platform for beginners.

Jimdo: 10 million sites created. Easy store creation. A well-made iOS app for mobile access. There’s a lot to like about Jimdo, the Hamburg-based platform created for simple site building in 2007, but perhaps the nicest feature is the ability to create and launch a bare-bones store for free.

LightCMS: Unlike most platforms with big (often bloated) content management tools, LightCMS gives you the freedom to edit content directly on your site. And with a host of built-in e-commerce tools, there might not be an easier platform to use for your shopping site needs.

Selz: Selz sells itself on being “incredibly simple for you to sell what you do and get paid.” It’s easy to use, is constantly being updated (beautiful themes are regularly added to the mix), and only charges per transaction, meaning there’s no monthly/annual site fee to contend with.

Storenvy: Storenvy thrives on providing a large Etsy-like storefront for all its sites to feature their wares. But don’t fret, Storenvy also lets you set up your own site, complete with custom CSS/HTML (or templates), easy inventory tracking, and up to 500 products for free.

SupaDupa: Geared primarily towards clothing designers, SupaDupa offers more than 45 professionally designed themes, and all the stability and security you’d want with a professional store. And there’s something refreshingly honest about SupaDupa’s mission statement, “We didn’t set out to build something for everyone, our job is not to appeal to the most people, it’s to create a place for the people who care about the things we care about, like beauty, truth and making things to love, with love.”

Virb: Instead of giving you the built-in tools needed to set up your own store, Virb teamed up with Big Cartel and Etsy to allow for easy store/product imports. And given Virb’s do-it-all functionality, we’d recommend giving them a look.

The paradox of choice struggle is real. In all reality, there’s probably not a wrong answer when choosing a platform—but some will definitely be better for you than others. When browsing the individual sites for these platforms, the biggest things to look for are:

  • price (don’t forget to figure in transaction fees)
  • style (make sure it looks good on mobile as well)
  • ease-of-use (free trials are your friend)
  • trajectory (pick a platform that’s thriving… ideally the one you choose will grow with you throughout your brand’s existence)
  • features (things like shipping tools, inventory trackers, and reporting systems will save you a lot of time as you grow)

It's time to think about stock images

corporate high five

If you’re selling shoes online, do yourself a favor and get some real product shots of your own goods. But if your store is selling a service, you’re probably going to need some stock images to set the mood. To get the good stuff though, you have to do it the right way.

Yes, I know that dragging images from the web and dropping them into your posts is technically feasible, but without proper attributions and licensing, you’re playing on the wrong side of the field. I’ll spare you the legalese here. It comes down to this—people work really hard to produce quality photography and graphics. So please, don’t steal it.

If you’re interested, here are some tips to keep you out of moral grey areas:

  1. Paid stock photography doesn’t have to suck. Sure, there are thousands of terrible photos of corporate teams high fiving (see above), but sites like Shutterstock and Bigstock are filled with millions of great images, vectors and videos, with more added every day. Again, just don’t (EVER) use the corporate high five.

  2. In 2014, Getty Images dumped 35 million images into a royalty free section. That’s free images from arguably the biggest image collection on Earth.

  3. You can also find free stock photos. Good ones. Here’s a great list by Dustin Senos of the best free stock photo sites he’s found (and it looks like he’s updating it as he finds more).

  4. The Flickr Creative Commons is an awesome tool. Basically, users from all over the world upload photos for public use under the Creative Commons License. Just be sure to follow the rules. And no, adding a little “image from” blurb at the bottom of a post isn’t bothersome to readers at all. It just shows you care.

  5. Anything is possible if you ask nicely. If you see an image you love online, you can always ask the site owner if you can use it yourself. Yes, they have the right to say no (or not respond at all), but it can’t hurt to ask.

Questions? Comments?