SEO in 2017: It isn’t just about keywords and backlinks

SEO in 2017

One of the most confusing subjects for many of our clients is Search Engine Optimization or SEO.  To some, it is a black art that only a select few have the skills necessary to practice.  To others, it is a complete waste of time, energy and money.  Some people aren’t even aware of it at all, and can’t understand why that beautiful site they just built isn’t getting any traffic.  This is compounded by the fact that there is so much misinformation out there, along with hundreds of so-called SEO experts who take advantage of their clients lack of knowledge to fleece them.  I can certainly understand why many people throw their arms up in frustration at even the mere mention of SEO!

A lot has changed over the years, especially in the last year.  Many of the techniques that used to be required to rank well in Google are no longer relevant.  That has helped weed out a lot of the ‘bad guys’, as their techniques no longer work.  In fact, Google has become so smart, that it is nearly impossible to ‘game the system’ like you once could. In this article I’ll try to dispel some of the myths and explain exactly what it is that Google is looking for these days.

Beware the impossible promise

I hate hearing that some SEO firm promised to get a clients’ site listed on page one in Google.  Let me be perfectly clear here: No one can guarantee that they will get your site on page one of Google. The only way to do that is to pay a massive amount of money for the top ad spot, which usually isn’t even worth it. While it was technically possible to quickly get someone on page one organically years ago, it is no longer the case.  Any SEO consultant who promises you that is either using black hat (illegal) techniques that will get you banned from Google, or they are just trying to get you to write them a big fat check.  Ranking well in Google takes time and energy, there is no quick fix.

So is SEO still necessary?  Yes, but SEO Firms are much more than just keyword guys these days.  A good SEO firm not only helps you with the technical aspect of optimizing your site, but they can also provide paid advertising management (Facebook, Google), backlink creation, keyword analysis, competition analysis, and help creating the appropriate content for your brand, both on and off your site. Finding a good firm is like finding a good Doctor – get a referral.  You wouldn’t just pick a doctor from a Google search, you’d ask around for people who have used them to find out how good they are. Same goes for SEO firms, the results will speak for themselves and their clients will speak highly of them.

So what does Google really want to see?

Google is all about relevancy – how relevant it thinks your site is to what the user is searching for.  This used to be just about how many keywords you had vs your competitor, but that was a LONG time ago.  While no one except Google knows the exact details of their algorithm, we do know that they use hundreds of factors to determine relevancy.  Here are a few of the most important in no particular order.

Quality Content

Say you are searching for a pair of binoculars.  Google will almost always return a page that has a large amount of quality content on it vs a page that has little content (i.e. a product page). Here’s Google’s search result for the term ‘Best Binoculars’:

SEO in 2017

You’ll notice that the top of the page is taken up by paid links – either AdWords or Google Shopping.  Then you get the lucky site that was selected as the featured snippet which is selected by Google as the ‘best answer’ to the question posed by the user. No, unfortunately you can’t buy this, it is selected by Google.

So after all of that, you get down to the actual organic results.  The key thing to notice here is not a product page in sight, these are all either review sites or category pages that have a LOT of content in them. The bottom line is that Google isn’t going to show your product here, no matter how many times you add ‘best binoculars’ to your copy.

So as a general rule, you should have at least one paragraph of keyword-rich, well-written copy on EVERY page of your site. Don’t stuff the keywords and make it unreadable, but work them in as best you can will still writing for an actual human. The more copy you add the better, as pages thin on copy will never do well in Google, even if it isn’t as big a factor as it used to be.

META title & META description

These two little gems have always been at the core of any SEO strategy.  META Keywords were once part of it too until SEO firms abused them so badly that Google simply started ignoring them.  See the example below:

 

 

The purple text at the top (blue if you haven’t visited it yet) is called the META Title.  As a general rule, you want to keep this to about 60 characters. There’s no exact character limit, because characters can vary in width and Google’s display titles max out (currently) at 600 pixels.  You’ll want to make this as clear as possible for users, and try to get as many keywords/phrases in there as you can.  You’ll notice I also added by company name, as we get a lot of searches for our brand.  This is especially important for companies who are in extremely competitive industries such as soap makers, bath and body companies, etc. Often your brand will be more important for search than keywords.

The block of text below the url is called the META Description. Meta descriptions can be any length, but search engines generally truncate them if they are longer than 160 characters. It is best to keep them between 150 and 160 characters.  You will also want to use keywords here, but what is more important is writing a description that is relevant to the user.  You want to describe your product/service/company in a way that entices the user to click on that link.  That is much more important than getting that extra keyword in there!

Any good Shopping Cart software will allow you to edit both of these for every page on the site, as they also have to be unique which I will discuss next.

Speed

Google now ranks on how quickly your page loads, which you can test using Google’s Tool, but I also like the Pingdom site to really get down to the details. You’ll never get a 100 in Google’s test, but you definitely want to shoot for the high 80s or low 90s if possible.  Most e-commerce platforms come with optimization tools, but your webmaster should also be helping you with this. Optimize your images for the web, compress your css/javascript files and use a Content Delivery Network (CDN) like MaxCDN. I can’t stress how important it is, both from an SEO perspective, and customer retention. No one likes to wait, and if your page hasn’t loaded in 5 seconds, most people will move on.

HTTPS

Your site absolutely HAS to be running in full-time https these days, both for Google and to prevent the ugly ‘insecure’ warning in Chrome and Firefox.  See this article for a more detailed explanation. Yes, it slows your site down (which contradicts the previous point) but it is a necessary evil.

Mobile Friendly

At this point, if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you are in big trouble.  Not only does Google heavily factor this into their algorithm, but over 50% of users are now browsing sites on their mobile device. When they come to your site and can’t navigate on their phone, you can bet they will never come back.

Bounce Rate

If you use Google Analytics (hint: you should be), you’ll see a metric called bounce rate. This is the percentage of users who come to your site and ‘bounce’, or leave within 10 seconds. Generally this means that they didn’t find what they were looking for, and use the back button to go back to the search results. Google sees high bounce rates as a negative, as it appears as though your site wasn’t relative to the search result.  If you aren’t relevant, Google isn’t going to keep your site in that index for very long.  So how do you prevent a high bounce rate?

  • Make sure all of the content you are posting is relevant to your site.  I.E. Don’t be posting cake recipes on your blog if you sell perfume.  You’ll get a ton of people looking for a cake site, and when they find perfume, they will obviously leave.
  • Make sure your site is loading quickly. Nothing makes someone leave faster than a site that never loads.
  • Make sure your site is 100% optimized for mobile. Mobile users won’t stick around if they have to squint to see where to click on the menu.

Duplicate Content

This is one of those terms that is completely misunderstood, as people often refer to a ‘duplicate content penalty’ in Google. Duplicate content occurs when two web pages have content that is almost exactly similar.  A good example (which happens often) is when a web site sells another company’s products. Typically the manufacturer provides their distributors with a standard image, product title and description, and everyone selling that product has exactly the same thing on their web site. Google sees all of these product pages, and picks which one they feel is the most relevant and only shows that one. 99% of the time this is the manufacturer’s product, as they are obviously the most relevant of the bunch.  So it isn’t really a ‘penalty’, your page will just never rank well.  The same thing can happen if you have different colors of the same product and list them as separate products. To Google, they all look exactly the same, so only one gets listed.  The general rule of thumb to avoid this is to make sure that everything you add to your site is at least 25% different than anything similar to it. That includes the description/text, META title and META description.

You also need to make sure that there are not duplicate copies of your SITE being listed in Google.  For example, www.yoursite.com is NOT the same as yoursite.com.  You need to add a rewrite rule to your .htaccess file to make sure that all traffic goes to the correct version of your site.  Your webmaster will be able to help you with this.

Urls

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but I still see people doing it wrong.  The urls of your pages should be clean and optimized, with keywords in them.  Example:

Bad Url:  yoursite.com/product.php?productid=1223

Good Url:  yoursite.com/organic-cranberry-sugar-scrub/

The first one has no keywords and a bunch of special characters. The second one has keywords and is ‘clean’ and easy to read. Most shopping carts will automatically create clean urls for you, and let you edit them as well.

H tags

These are heading tags that help break your content up and make it more readable for people.  The title above is an h3 tag for example, and the main page title is an h1.  Google wants to see exactly one h1 tag on a page, which is typically the page/category/product title.  Keywords are of course important here as well.  Use h2, h3, etc for sub-headings in your copy.

What about keywords in your domain name?

I get this question a lot:

“Should I buy keyword.com and forward it to my main site”?  

No, you most definitely should not, as it provides ZERO value.  Google not only doesn’t care about keywords in a domain name, they don’t value any domains that point to your site unless they have content on them.  I also get this one:

“Should I buy keyword.com and use that instead of my brand name”?

Unless you own a domain with a major keyword (makeup.com, binoculars.com, etc) it is more important to establish your brand name in the url, not a keyword.

If you are thinking about creating a ‘micro site’ with some copy on it that then points to your main site, that is just creating 10x the work for you, and you’ll be competing with your own micro site for the same keywords.

Fresh Content via Blogging for SEO

Lets face it, no one likes stale anything.  Google likes fresh content, as that is always difficult to do with an e-commerce site unless you are adding new products every week.  This is where blogging comes in. I can hear the groans from some of you reading this, but it is a necessary evil for a number of reasons.

First, blogs give you the ability to add fresh copy to your site on a weekly basis.  Yes weekly, not every 6 months people!

Second, blogs help build authority on the products you sell, both for you as the owner, and for your brand.  The more information you post about how you make your products, what is new in your industry, or the success of your brand, the more loyalty you will gain from your customers.  Blogs give your customers a reason to come back to the site often, and while they are there, why not sell them some new product?

Finally, Blogs provide valuable content that you can then use to post in social media to gain even more traffic.

So what should you be posting about?  Your posts should be related to your industry/product 9 times out of 10.  For example, posting a new recipe every week or your latest vacation photos if you sell jewelry is NOT relevant content.  It should be about your products themselves, how you make your products, new trends in your industry, etc.  Try to avoid making the posts all about selling, as that will turn your customers off quickly.  It is always good to try and upsell a product or two within the blog post, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of the post.

Make sure your blog is either on your domain (yourdomain.com/blog) or as a subdomain (blog.yourdomain.com).  Having a blog on wordpress.com or blogger.com is not going to do a thing for your main site as far as SEO goes.

The Social factor

Social media has changed just about everything in the last few years. If you aren’t active on social media regularly, you are never going to make it in e-commerce.  How active you are plays into the whole ‘relevancy’ thing in Google. In short, if Google doesn’t see you on the major social media platforms, they think you are much less relevant than businesses who are.  So what should you actually be doing?

You need to be 100% active on Facebook, there is no way around it.  People often ask questions or leave comments on a business Facebook page, and if you don’t respond quickly, you look bad.   You need to be posting at least once a week if not more, and it should be good content, not just ‘Happy Friday!’.  A good example of ‘good’ content would be a link to your latest blog post.  Try not to post links directly to products on your site that often, as Facebook can tell pages that are sales pages vs content pages, and will always show content pages more frequently on people’s walls.  Remember, not everything you post will be seen by everyone who ‘likes’ your page.  Facebook also has an excellent advertising platform, but that is a topic for another day.

Twitter is also a necessary evil, and that is a daily thing.  Luckily here you CAN say ‘Happy Friday’ here as short posts are what Twitter is all about.

Both Pinterest and Instagram are extremely useful if you are selling bath and body products, fashion, jewelry, or anything that has a visual factor to it.  You should be as active there as possible, as a simple photo of your product can reach thousands of people easily. What doesn’t work well on Pinterest or Instagram? Products like pool supplies, motors, office supplies, tools, etc. No one wants to see giant photos of that kind of stuff!

Backlinks

I saved the best for last, as this one is the most difficult by far.  Backlinks are links TO your site from other sites, and the more quality backlinks you have, the more relevant you appear to Google. Here’s a specific example:

Site A sells red widgets, and so does site B.  They both have similar content, keyword-rich copy, similar keywords and a good site structure.  But site A has 500 quality backlinks, while site B only has 5. To Google, site A is much more important, because there are so many more relevant sites that link to them.  So site A will always rank better than site B for that keyword.

While that is a very simplistic explanation, you get the point. Now before you go off and try to get your site listed everywhere, there is one more factor at play here.  The links to your site must be from sites that are good quality, and relevant to your industry.  Let me explain.

A good quality site is determined by a number of factors including the number of backlinks THEY have, the quality of their content, the age of the domain, etc.  There are a number of ranking systems that different companies use to determine how ‘valuable’ a site is.  ahrefs.com uses a domain rank and a url quality score, while moz.com uses a domain authority number.  The higher the number, the better the site.  Sites like Facebook, Youtube and google score 100, while your Grandmother’s quilting blog is probably more like a 5 or 10.  You obviously want your incoming links to come from the ones with the higher numbers.

You also want to make sure that you avoid getting links from ‘spammy’ sites, or sites that are just pages full of links.  Google HATES those and will penalize you if your site is listed on one of them. In general you want to avoid links from low-tier sites, no matter what kinds of sites they are.  It’s like hanging out with the bad kids at school, eventually you get a reputation as being one of them no matter how good you are.

Now let’s say your Grandmother’s quilting blog was more like a 50, you’d think a link from that would be HUGE right?  Unless you are selling quilts, not so much.  You want links that are relevant to your keyword.  The exception to this is links from REALLY high value sites.  If you have a chance to get a link from somewhere like wikipedia.com or apple.com, take it!

So how do you go about getting links?  Good question, it isn’t easy!  One of the best ways to get a ton of links is via forums related to your industry. Do you make soap?  Then get involved with some soap making forums and post advice, feedback, questions, etc.  Make sure you add your web site to your forum signature, so that every time you post, you get another backlink.  A few words of caution about doing this:

  1. Don’t spam the forum just to get links.  You’ll end up getting kicked out and you’ll lose ALL of your links.
  2. Try to post valuable content, as this helps build you as an authority, which is also important
  3. Make sure the forum content is not password protected.  Google can’t see past that, and your posting will be for naught.

Guest posting on blogs in your industry is also a great way to get your name out there.

Are you a member of an industry trade group like indiebusinessnetwork.com or soapguild.org?  Great, those are very valuable links to have.  Make sure you pay your dues so your listing doesn’t get axed!

Consider trading links with someone, it will help you both.  Don’t create a page of links, but somehow work their link into your blog for example.

Backlinks are definitely difficult to get, and you have to constantly monitor them for broken links, defunct pages they are linking to, etc.  They are essential to get your site ranking well though, so keep at it not matter how frustrating it is!

Overwhelmed?

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if you are.  How can you find time to handle all of this stuff while still focusing on making and marketing your products?  The short answer is, you can’t.  There are just some cases where time is money, and what will take you hundreds of hours can be done by a professional in a fraction of that.  Here are the things that you should be ‘farming out’ to a consultant:

  • Keyword research – figuruing out exactly what keywords to optimize your copy for
  • Backlink monitoring
  • The ‘tech’ stuff – speed, https, mobile-friendly display, etc

Partnering with a good E-Commerce and SEO firm may cost more money than you had hoped to spend.  Keep in mind that they will also pay for themselves relatively fast in increased traffic and sales, so it is a smart investment.

The content itself really needs to be written by you or someone intimately familiar with your business.  You can always tell when a site was over-optimized by an SEO firm, as the content reads like it was written by a robot (and sometimes it is!).  The ‘voice’ you give your brand needs to have your ‘feel’ to it to make it personal, that is just one more thing that gives your site its own personality.  SEO firms can provide the guidance for the keywords, but how those are written into the copy is your job.

Blogging and Social Media posting can also be done by a third party, but ideally it should be someone on your staff.  Again, it comes down to giving the correct ‘voice’ to your company.

We Can Help!

We offer a number of service which can take some of this off your plate.  From Keyword Research and Backlink Monitoring to Monthly Analytics Reporting and 404 Monitoring, we can handle just about any aspect of SEO you need.  Contact us today if you have any questions!

Why your credit card processor may drop you without warning

The other day I received an urgent email from a client telling me that PayPal Pro just froze her account without any warning. They said she was in ‘violation of their acceptable use policy’ and gave her no choice but to find another payment gateway.  In the meantime, her customers could not pay via credit card on her site, which of course cost her sales.  Setting up a new payment gateway isn’t usually a quick process, so it took almost a week to get the matter resolved.  You can imagine what kind of impact that had on her sales, and how much money it cost her.

She runs a legitimate business selling bath and body products, so I started doing some research on the topic to see exactly what is going on.  It turns out, this has happened to quite a number of businesses recently, many of them using Stripe as their payment gateway.  The issue seems to stem from products being deemed ‘pseudo pharmaceuticals’ by the payment gateway.

Per Stripe’s ‘Prohibited Businesses‘ page:

 

Pseudo Pharaceuticals:

Pharmaceuticals and other products that make health claims that have not been approved or verified by the applicable local and/or national regulatory body

 

So essentially, this classification could apply to any business selling skin care, makeup, acne treatments, or just about any bath and body product that claims to improve someones skin/appearance/life without having proof.  Who provides this proof is unclear – is is the FDA?  If so, this really throws a wrench in the works for small business who can’t afford to go through FDA approval.

If the products you are selling could be classified as a pseudo pharmaceutical, I would strongly suggest having a backup payment gateway ready to go. Right now I have only seen Stripe and PayPal drop customers, but I would also suggest reading your gateway’s terms of service and see what their policies are on these types of products. Here are some of the more popular alternate gateways. Take a look at their pricing/terms and see if you can get pre-approved.  Don’t activate it unless you need it, as you’ll need to pay the monthly fee:

 

Authorize.net

Orbital (Chase)

USAePay

Braintree (a PayPal Company)

First Data

 

Hopefully nothing you sell will be classified as a pseudo pharmaceutical, but it always pays to have a backup plan! This may be a good time to look at alternate payment gateways anyway, as you can sometimes save a lot of money in fees by switching. Always negotiate as well, as you don’t always have to pay the top rate, especially if you have a high volume of transactions.

Questions? Feel free to contact us.

E-Commerce Shopping Cart Software

Choosing the Right Shopping Cart – Our Top 3

E-Commerce Shopping Cart SoftwareOne of the biggest decisions you have to make when starting an e-commerce site is which shopping cart to choose.  You need a cart that will grow with you, has all of the features you need, and won’t bankrupt you with monthly fees once you start making a good number of sales.

First, let’s talk about the different types of carts available.  There are two main types of shopping carts – hosted and self-hosted.  There are pros and cons of each approach.

Hosted Carts

Hosted carts, or Software as a Service (SaaS) carts, are companies that charge you a monthly fee to use the software on their server.  You don’t actually own the license, and they perform all of the upgrades and maintenance for you.  This is a fairly new type of cart, and there are new ones popping up all of the time.

Pros – easy to get started, no technical knowledge needed, secure, feature-rich, no need for PA-DSS compliance (click here to learn more about PA-DSS compliance)

Cons – can get EXTREMELY expensive the busier you get, as many of them charge a percentage fee on transactions.  If the company goes out of business you are out of luck.  You usually can’t get into the source code to perform complex changes and custom features, some don’t allow you to have your own SSL certificate.

Popular SaaS Carts:  Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion

Self-Hosted Carts

With self-hosted carts you purchase the license from the cart company then install the software on the server of your choice.  Even if the company goes out of business, you still own the license and continue to use the software for as long as you want.

Pros – the biggest benefit to this type of cart is that you own it and you can do anything you want with it.  The lifetime costs are also much lower.  They are much more flexible, as you can edit the code and manipulate it any way you want.  No need to wait for the cart company to develop a new feature when you can just build it yourself.

Cons – many of these carts require a higher technical knowledge, and may even require a professional to install and customize for you.  They also have to be PA-DSS compliant in order to accept credit cards online (click here to learn more about PA-DSS compliance).  Upgrades need to be done by you or your developer and are not automatic like the hosted carts.

Popular Self-Hosted Carts:  Pinnacle Cart, Magento, WooCommerce

So, which cart?

There are more than 100 carts out there, so which one do you choose for your business?  The first thing you need to do is determine what features and functions you will need both for your customer and as the store owner.  Will you be selling to wholesale customers as well as retail?  Will you offer free shipping?  Do you need to integrate your cart with Quickbooks?  Do you want to send out abandoned cart email reminders?  Once you have a list of features, go through each of the carts and see which ones have everything you need.  Also pay attention to which ones are included and which ones cost extra.  Remember to plan ahead and think about what your business may need 5 years down the road.  Pick the cart that addresses 75% of your needs and don’t just pick one based on what your friend/family member recommends!

Below are the top three choices currently available, as well as some to avoid.

 

Pinnacle Cart E-Commerce

Our personal favorite, so it gets first billing.  We’ve built over 150 sites using this platform, and our clients love it.

Cart type: Self-Hosted

Cost: $1500 (included for free as part of sites we build) license, plus $25/month

Pros: Easy upgrades, search-engine friendly, always on top of the latest trends and technology, easily integrates with many of the third party applications such as Stamps.com, Mailchimp and Webgility.  One click upgrades ensure you are always on the latest version.

Cons: the default templates aren’t great so you’ll want a pro to design one for you. No reward points or complex promotions, and there really isn’t a template or developer market here, meaning if it doesn’t exist you have to have it customized. Luckily we have already made quite a few of those ourselves!

Best for: Customers who want full-control over their store, the ability to customize as much as they want, will scale with their business and have all of the latest bells and whistles.  In short, if you are a professional company and want a self-hosted cart to match, this one is for you.

 

Spark Pay E-Commerce

Spark Pay is a rather unknown cart still, but they were acquired by Capital One not log ago, so expect that to change. Quite simply, this cart has the best features out of the box that I have seen.  Their system is well-coded, easy to understand and extremely robust.   This is by far our favorite as far as hosted carts go.

Cart type: Hosted

Cost: $24-$300/month

Pros: Features, features, features!  Spark Pay has a ton of them right out of the box.  Easily customizable templates, tons of support in the form of videos and how-tos. Their tech support is friendly and easy to use, and you won’t feel like just a number.

Cons: The only real con is that you can’t customize features.  If it doesn’t exist, you can’t have it without spending some big money with their developers.  Not a ton of free templates to choose from yet as they are still growing.  Not nearly as robust a community as Shopify.

Best for: If you prefer hosted carts vs self-hosted carts, this one is a great choice for anyone who wants to sell online.  It will scale with your business, has tons of features and the design can be customized however you like.

 

Shopify E-Commerce

The #1 cart out there, they have a lot of capital and a very robust ecosystem.

Cart type: Hosted
Cost: $29-$2500/month plus a transaction fee of up to 2%

Pros: Extremely easy to set up.  Clean and well-designed templates, with thousands of paid templates to choose from.  Lots of add-on modules and features available from hundreds of active mod developers.  CDN to help speed up page load times.

Cons: The biggest issue with Shopify is the monthly cost (see our Why Not Shopify post).  The busier you get, the more expensive your monthly plan gets.  When you get REALLY busy, they not only charge you over $2000/month, but they also take a portion of your sales.  That can wind up costing you tens of thousands of dollars a year.  Wholesale functionality is extremely limited, although they are apparently working on that.  The built-in blog is weak compared to WordPress.

Best for: A great place for makers or creatives who are looking to get started quickly or move away from Etsy and don’t plan on a large monthly sales volume.

 

Still on the fence about recommending…..

 

WooCommerce E-Commerce

This used to be a cart I would recommend avoiding like the plague, but a lot has changed in a year.  First, the company that owns WordPress now owns Woo as well, so it looks like they will eventually combine into one platform.  Currently Woo exists as a plug-in to WordPress.

Cart type: Self-Hosted
Cost: Free

Pros: Free and easy to install.  If you already have a WordPress site, you just need to install the free plug-in.  Many hosting platforms come with WordPress as a one-click install, so setup couldn’t be easier.  Hundreds of thousands of free and paid themes available.

Cons: Requires a hosting account and a developer to maintain WordPress and the plug-ins.  Security is a huge issue, as WordPress is the most hacked platform on the planet.  Plugin updates can break other plugins, or the cart all together.  Not PA-DSS compliant, so your choices of credit card gateways are limited.  Support is weak, they ‘may respond in 24 hours’, but that is what you get with a free cart.

Best for: Right now I wouldn’t recommend this cart unless you have a full-time developer or are very tech savvy yourself.  Even then I would advise caution, as credit card security is no joke. A great cart to watch in the coming months/year.  See our Why Not WooCommerce post for more info.

 

Carts to Avoid

There are some carts you should just avoid all together, either because they are not PA-DSS compliant (meaning you can’t accept credit cards on your site), or they are just dated and lack core features.  As a general rule, avoid any free cart as they just won’t have the support or security you need and won’t be able to grow with your business. The ‘avoid’ list:

  • X-Cart – dated, buggy, lack of tech support and features, they don’t keep up with the latest technology and trends
  • osCommerce – dated, not PA-DSS compliant, insecure, difficult to edit
  • BigCommerce – awful customer service, a habit of increasing fees exponentially without notice
  • Volusion – Haven’t kept up with the times and it appears very dated
  • Zen Cart – a relic
  • Magento – requires a PHD in computer science to edit, their Enterprise version costs more than a new Tesla
  • Magento GO – discontinued
  • PrestaShop – Not PA-DSS compliant
  • Yahoo Stores – just not suited for a professional e-commerce site, no mobile support
  • CS-Cart – basically just X-Cart with another name
  • OpenCart – not PA-DSS compliant
  • CubeCart – a nightmare
  • Weebly – not a professional platform, not PA-DSS compliant, not a lot of features
  • Wix – see Weebly

Of course this list will change regularly as carts come and go all of the time.  As an example, osCommerce use to be ‘it’ for e-commerce sites, and now I have it on my ‘avoid’ list.  No one really  knows what the future will bring in e-commerce, but hopefully if you chose the right cart to start, it will grow and adapt with your business and the ever-changing landscape.

Is your cart not on the list or do you have questions about a particular cart?  Drop me an email and let me know, I’ll let you know!

Sitewide HTTPS – The Time Has Come to Switch

Back in 2014, Google announced that their Chrome browser would start showing regular ‘http’ sites as ‘insecure’.  Google has been pushing site-wide https for a while now, as they also started giving sites running in full https mode a little boost in their ranking algorithm as well.  With the release of Chrome version 53, you will now see this on a site that is called in normal http:

E-Commerce and https

Obviously this is not what you want your customers to see, as many of them don’t even understand the difference between http and https.  All they will see is ‘not private’ and they will either abandon the site, or hesitate to purchase. This will get even worse in January, as this is how an insecure page will look:

Chrome https

Eventually, Google will be displaying this for http, although the exact dates haven’t been given yet:

Chrome Not Secure

As much as I have been resistant to this change due to the fact that https slows down the site (which Google also factors into its algorithm), but this change to Chrome has pretty much forced our hand.

How to Implement site-wide HTTPS

First, you need to make sure you have an SSL certificate installed on your server.  If you are running an e-commerce site, this should already be in place.  If not, get one ASAP as there is absolutely no way you should be collecting private info (especially credit card data) over an insecure connection.  Your host will be able to help you with this.

Next, you need to configure your shopping cart software to run in https.  On some carts there is a checkbox, on others you need to change a configuration in the settings, and on some you need to actually change a value in the database.  Contact your shopping cart provider or developer to find out which one applies to your site.

After you switch to https, you need to tell Google that your site is running in https and to ignore the http version.  This is to prevent duplicate content penalties – you don’t want two copies of your site indexed by Google.  Again, some shopping carts will do this for you, while others will require you to edit your .htaccess file.  This is not something you should attempt yourself, as you could cause irreparable harm if done correctly.

You will also need to update your Google Analytics account to use the https version of the site, and submit your https site to Google Webmaster tools. Unfortunately you can’t change your existing webmaster tools account to use https, you have to submit a new site and a new sitemap.  Your developer may handle this for you as well.

Once you do switch to https, make sure all pages are actually being called in https.  You will see the ‘insecure’ icon if there are any items on the page being called insecurely.  You can view those by clicking on the insecure icon, which will show you any problems:

8411i

Sound a bit too complicated to do yourself?  Not to worry, we’ll handle this for all of our clients.  Please feel free to drop me a line to schedule the transition for your site.  If I don’t hear from you before mid-December, I’ll be contacting you to update your site.  Questions?  Feel free to Contact Us!

 

Why Not WooCommerce?

Why Not WooCommerce?Next to Shopify, WooCommerce is the cart that we get the most questions about.  Many store owners start out with a simple WordPress site, and when it comes time to get into E-Commerce, adding WooCommerce looks like a simple solution.  Just click a button and it is installed, and hey, it’s FREE!  Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? Well, it is and here’s why.

Security

WordPress is the most hacked platform on the planet, mainly because it is one of the most popular platforms on the planet.  Even a lousy hacker knows exactly how the login system works in WordPress, and how to exploit known security holes in the platform.   All it takes is one missed upgrade or one insecure password and a hacker has full control over your entire site, as WooCommerce resides in the same database.  The more add-ons you have in WordPress and WooCommerce, the more potential security holes you have.  Hosting also plays into this, which I’ll cover more below.

The big problem with a hacked e-commerce site is that  you most likely won’t know you have been hacked until your customers start calling and complaining that their credit cards have been stolen.  A hacker typically installs some malicious code that cc’s them on all credit card transactions, and then collects credit cards for weeks or even months.  When they have a nice collection of cards, they either sell them on the dark web, or start racking up charges themselves.  By the time you are aware that there is a problem, it is way too late.

PCI Compliance

One of the ways the credit card companies protect both themselves and their customers from hackers is by requiring that e-commerce sites be PCI Compliant.  Essentially this means that you are operating your site according to a strict set of guidelines, from how the server is configured to how the cart itself is built.  Since WooCommerce is a self-hosted cart as opposed to an SaaS cart like Shopify, it falls into the scope of PA-DSS compliance, the strictest component of the PCI Compliance guidelines.  To save some time, I’m not going to explain all of the ins and outs of PA-DSS compliance, but you can read more about it in our article here.

The problem with WooCommerce is that the core software is NOT PA-DSS compliant. This means that you can not collect credit card data ON your site in Woo, at least not without risking heavy fines (up to $50k) and penalties if you are hacked.  There are of course workarounds – you can send the customer off-site to pay (never a good choice), or you can use one of the PA-DSS compliant gateways like Braintree or Stripe.  If you want to use a gateway of your choice like Authorize.net or PayPal Pro, you are out of luck.

Updating/Conflicts

For those of you who have worked with WordPress before, you know one of the biggest headaches is keeping the site and various plugins up to date.  With each upgrade of WordPress you run the risk of crashing your entire site if the various plugins you have installed aren’t also upgraded by their respective developers.  I can’t tell you how many times I have run into conflicts and have had to manually disable the plugin directly in the database.  When you add WooCommerce, you are adding yet another level of complexity, and that isn’t even counting the numerous plugins you need for WooCommerce!  As you can see, this requires quite a bit of your time each month to ensure that your site is up to date and everything plays nice together.

Hosting

Unlike carts like Shopify and Spark Pay, the hosting isn’t included with WooCommerce.  You need to pick your own hosting account, and with that comes quite a bit of responsibility.  First, you have to ensure that the host you choose is PCI-Compliant.  Are they running the correct version of PHP?  Is the firewall configured properly?  Is SSH access disabled?  Is the core software being updated regularly?  Will it pass quarterly PCI-Compliance scans?

Next, what happens if the server crashes?  Do they have an automated backup system? 24/7 support?

Maintaining you own hosting account is yet another thing that an e-commerce store owner shouldn’t have to deal with, as it just takes time away from what really matters, selling your products!

Support

Let’s face it, E-Commerce is not a simple business, and problems happen.  Do you really want to rely on a company that only provides support through a ticket system that ‘may respond in 24 hours’?  You get what you pay for here for sure.  You need 24/7 support if you are in the e-commerce business.

Summary

You’ll notice that I didn’t talk about the actual features and functions of the cart at all.  That’s because out of the box, WooCommerce is just a basic shopping cart.  It does some things better than other carts, and some things worse than other carts.  Some functionality is built-in, some will require third party add-ons to get it to do what you need.   The reason so many people use WooCommerce is because it is free, and because it can be installed in a WordPress site with the click of a button.  But that is also the biggest reason NOT to use WooCommerce.  It would be like building your high end boutique on the bad side of town.  Sure it is cheap, but you run the risk every day of someone walking in and stealing all of your stuff.  Yes there are police available, but they might not show up for 24 hours.

WooCommerce is a great cart if you have a dedicated developer on staff to set it up and maintain it for you, but it just isn’t worth the headache if you plan on running it yourself.

 

 

PCI Compliance

PCI/PA-DSS Compliance in E-Commerce

PCI CompliancePCI and PA-DSS compliance seem to be one of the most misunderstood subjects in E-Commerce, so I’ll attempt to explain it as simply as I can as it relates to your business.

PA-DSS vs PCI

PCI Compliance is the overall regulation governing credit card handling and processing on the web.  PA-DSS has to deal with the shopping cart software itself, and it is part of being PCI Compliant.  If you are using an SaaS cart like Shopify, Spark Pay or Big Commerce, your cart is exempted from this rule.  Why?  Because SaaS companies limit your access to certain areas of the code, thus ensuring that security holes can’t be left open by incompetent developers 🙂  So if you are on one of those platforms, you don’t have to worry about it!

PA-DSS compliance regulates how a merchant (store) handles customer credit card data.  While there are many parts to the regulation, what matters most in this discussion is that a store can no longer store data on a server connected to the internet, and that data cannot be transmitted through an application (shopping cart) that is not certified.  Certification is not a cheap process, and as of the writing of this article, there are not many shopping cart platforms under $1000 that have been certified (you can check the list here).  This regulation is the reason we switched to Pinnacle Cart – it is a fully PA-DSS compliant cart.

How can you comply?

You basically have 3 options:

1. Migrate to a PA-DSS compliant shopping cart.
2. Switch to an off-site payment gateway (one that handle the credit card data on their site) such as PayPal or Authorize.NET SIM
3. Use a system like Authorize.net DPM or X-Payments

Keep in mind that any option that adds a step to the checkout process or sends the customer off your site will impact your conversion rate.  Using a fully PA-DSS compliant cart is the best solution if it is not cost prohibitive for you.

What else is required to be PCI Compliant?

PCI Compliant Hosting Account

If you are on a self-hosted platform, you need to be on a PCI Compliant hosting account.  This means that the server is routinely scanned (more on that in a minute) for security holes, outdated software and potential threats from hackers.  Cheap hosting accounts like GoDaddy or Hostgator will generally fail these scans, so they are not recommended. You’ll pay a bit more for a good, compliant host, but trust me when I tell you that it is definitely worth it.

PCI Compliance SAQMonthly Scans

Many merchant banks will require you to run a monthly scan on your e-commerce web site.  This will check the software for any security issues, as well as the hosting account.  There are many companies that do this sort of thing, including Trustwave, Control Scan, McAffee, etc.  Your merchant bank will usually tell you which one they require.

Self Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ)

Your merchant bank will also require you to fill out a quarterly/yearly SAQ.  These forms can get extremely complex depending on what type of business you are running, and how you are handling credit card data. In the chart to the right you can determine which type of form you will need to fill out.  They get more complex the further down the list you get.

What if I am not compliant?

Well if you are not using a PA-DSS compliant cart, you can be subject to fines and penalties.  Worse, if your store is hacked and credit card data is stolen, you can be held liable for the fraudulent charges passed through your cart.  If your merchant account has not yet enforced this certification, they most certainly will be calling soon.

Visit the PCI Security Standards Council for much more in-depth info on all of these topics.  We can also help you with a lot of the tech stuff if you are running Pinnacle Cart, just drop us a line!

Why Not Shopify?

shopify-green

Shopify is hands-down the #1 shopping cart software out there right now, both in number of users and in buzz. They have beautiful templates, tons of apps, a huge amount of cash to invest into the platform, and a robust community of developers and designers. So why don’t you see it as a supported cart here at Ryan Design Studio? Quite simply, it just isn’t a good fit for most of our clients. Here’s why.

 

Shopify Pricing

While it may seem like a great deal at $29/month, that number can be deceiving as it doesn’t include everything. There are some very basic and important e-commerce functions missing in the base version including:

  • Real-time USPS, FedEx and UPS shipping rates. If you want those, you need to go with the Advanced plan at $299/month
  • Abandoned Cart reminders – you need to upgrade to the Shopify plan at $79/month to get those
  • Gift Cards – also only in the Shopify plan and above
  • Sales reports – no reporting until you get to the Advanced plan

You also have to factor in the cost of credit card processing. Shopify has their own payment processing system that uses Stripe.  While Stripe is great, it isn’t the processor many people want to use. Gateways like PayPal Pro, Braintree and Authorize.net offer things like tokenization and more robust anti-fraud tools, as well as negotiable rates.  However, if you want to use your own processor, Shopify will take up to 2% of your sales as a ‘transaction fee’. That is in ADDITION to the actual credit card processing fees, which are typically 2.9% or so. If you are selling $100,000 worth of goods a year, that’s an additional $2000/year just to use the processor of your choice.

Shopify has a TON of apps you can add to your store, everything from reward points and third party shipping vendors.  But many of those can cost over $100/month to use. Notice a trend here? The monthly costs of the site can easily go over $1000 before you even start selling anything.  Here’s a quick cost comparison of Shopify vs Pinnacle Cart assuming $100,000 in yearly sales:

 

Pinnacle Cart

Initial cost: +/- $4000 (includes a custom design, not a template)

Monthly Hosting Cost: $35

Monthly License Fee: $25

SSL Certificate: $75/year

Payment Gateway: $30/month

Transaction fees (other than what your gateway charges): $0

First Year cost: $5155

Recurring Yearly cost after the first year: $1155


Shopify

Initial Cost: $150 (a premium template from their store)

Monthly Cost: $299 (to get all the base functionality Pinnacle has such as real-time shipping, reporting, abandoned cart reminders)

SSL Certificate: $0

Payment Gateway: $30/month

Transaction fees: $500

First Year Cost: $4598

Recurring Yearly Cost after the first year: $4448

 

While Pinnacle Cart may seem more expensive at first, just look at those recurring costs after year one.  By year three you are saving over $3000/year, and that is just comparing the $299/month plan with no-add-ons! You also get a custom design with Pinnacle, whereas you are using a stock template with Shopify.  Adding a custom design to Shopify would add $1000 to $5000 in initial cost depending on who you hire.  Also keep in mind that SaaS platforms can, and do, raise their prices at will.  What costs you $29/month today may suddenly cost you $100/month tomorrow.  You have no control over this as they control your data.  With a self-hosted cart like Pinnacle Cart and no monthly fees, you can rest assured that your operating costs won’t suddenly double out of the blue.

 

Shopify and Wholesale

The biggest hurdle for most of our clients though is the lack of wholesale functionality in Shopify. Want to offer different payment methods for your wholesale customers like PO or Net 30? Sorry, can’t do that. Want to offer free shipping to retail but not wholesale? No can do. Want to offer freight or LTL shipping methods for your large wholesale orders?  Nope.  Want to have different order minimums for your wholesale customers? Can’t do that either.  Need quantity break pricing or tiered pricing for your wholesale members?  You’ll need an app for that.  Want to sell different products for different membership types (pro sizes, case packs, etc)?  Guess what, you can’t.

If wholesale is a big part of your business, your only option with Shopify is to run a completely separate storefront which is far from ideal.  The rumor is that they are working on adding wholesale functionality, but it sounds like it will only be for their Plus plans, which are insanely expensive.

 

Custom Functionality

One of the limitations with SaaS carts like Shopify is the inability to access some areas of the code.  This is done so that Shopify can easily upgrade and maintain the software and maintain PCI compliance, so it is a good thing.  However, if you want to do anything custom with the checkout or tie in third party systems using Shopify’s API, you will need to upgrade to their Plus plan which starts at a whopping $2000/month.  That’s $24,000/year!  In addition, if you start selling more than $800k/month, they will start charging you .25% of your revenue.  That is just too big of an operating cost to justify.  With Pinnacle Cart, we can easily custom-program any functionality you need.  Just take a look at our add-ons page to see some of the features and functions you can add to your store.  There is no additional monthly cost to add these, just a one-time programming fee.  Why would you want to spend thousands of dollars a month when the EXACT SAME functionality can be had for under $100/month?  It just doesn’t make sense.

 

Third Party Apps

One of the big selling points of Shopify is the robust ecosystem of apps and app developers.  Many of the features and functions that are not part of the core Shopify platform can be added by installing an app.  Sounds great right?  Not so fast.

First, many of the apps in the store are poorly coded, or even malicious.  There was a story not too long ago about a third party app that was harvesting user information from the stores it was installed on, and then using that information to market directly to those customers.  Scary right?  While Shopify does a pretty good job of policing their app store, there is always the risk that you’ll end up with a rogue app, or one that causes major problems with your site.  There are plenty of crappy developers out there looking to make a quick buck by selling their app to thousands of Shopify users, so you always run the risk of installing something that causes harm to your store, or worse, your customers.

Then there is the cost factor.  Looking through the app store you can probably find 10 or 20 apps that look like something you really need for your store.  When you start adding up the monthly costs of all of those apps, your monthly bill suddenly starts looking like your mortgage payment.

 

So Why Not Shopify?

Don’t get me wrong, Shopify can be a great platform for many businesses.  We often recommend it if Pinnacle Cart or Spark Pay are not good fits for our clients.  It is also great for businesses who are just starting out as the lower-tier plans are inexpensive and the start-up cost is very small.  A typical Shopify customer is a bath and body company or ‘maker’ who has been selling on Etsy or at trade shows for a while and wants to get serious about selling online.  However, I always caution store owner to plan ahead and think about where their business will be in 1 year, 5 years and 10 years.  Will Shopify still be a good fit for you then?  Are you planning on selling wholesale?  Do you envision needing the features of Shopify Plus?  For large stores, or stores planning on doing a lot of wholesale business, Shopify just isn’t a good solution from an economic or functional standpoint.

Is Your Google Analytics Account Configured Properly?

I just completed the first round of Monthly Tune-Ups, and I was surprised at how many people had their Analytics accounts configured improperly, or not at all.  Google Analytics is an incredible source of data for your site, but if you don’t have it set up properly it will give you skewed data, over-inflated stats and bogus conversion rates.  Here are the most common problems I found:

Goals Not Defined

Analytics lets you set goals, such as ‘order received’ as well as the pages that lead up to the goal completion. This is called the goal funnel, and it lets you see how many people start a checkout vs how many complete it.  This can identify choke points in your checkout which may be preventing people from completing the sale.  The most common issues are too many steps, not clearly outlining shipping costs, or having shipping costs that are too high.  Without the funnel and goal completion data though, you can’t examine any of this.

E-Commerce Tracking Not Enabled

Most shopping carts have an e-commerce conversion script built-in to the cart, which will pass along the value of the completed order.  In Analytics, you can then determine which traffic spends the most money, what the average order volume is for a certain demographic, etc.  However, if you don’t have e-commerce reporting turned on in Analytics, you can’t collect any of this data.

Filters Not Defined

Google lets you filter out traffic that you don’t want to include in your reporting.  The most common filter is an IP filter, as you don’t want your own site visits to count towards your monthly traffic. You can filter out as many ip addresses as you want, so be sure to set up one for each staff member and office/home location.  You’ll also want to add your SEO team and Developers on to the filter as well.  I know I spend a ton of time on my clients’ sites, and could easily botch up their analytics data!

Another common filter is one to eliminate spam referral traffic.  You may see things like buttons-for-seo.com in your referring sites.  These aren’t actually sites that sent you traffic, they are a tactic used by spammers to get you to visit that site.  Sometimes that site is selling a product they want you to buy, but as often as not it is some sort of hacker or virus trying to destroy your livelihood. While the referrer links are harmless by themselves (don’t click on the links!), they usually have 100% bounce rate which really messes with your traffic, bounce rate and conversion data.  These are a bit tricky to set up, but there are a ton of resources out there that will give you step by step guides.  One site will even automatically add the filters to your account for you with one click of a button!

One note on filters, they won’t apply to historical data, only data moving forward after you implement the filter. So it may take you a few months to get some valid, clean data after you set them up.

Need Help?

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming to you,  you are not alone and we’d love to help!  One of the main reasons we set up our Monthly Tune-Up service was to help our clients get Analytics set up properly and then really dig into the data that it is collecting.  You can either visit our Monthly Tune-Up page and purchase directly using the buttons you find there, or drop us a line and we’ll walk you through each option and send you a sign-up link.

PCI Compliance Issues and Solutions

I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I have spent in the last 2 months on PCI Compliance issues.  From server settings to SSL certificate formats, there is a lot to keep up with.  If you are having trouble passing your quarterly PCI compliance scans or don’t have a clue what to do, perhaps this will help.

How to be Compliant

First, let me explain a bit about PCI compliance, as I have found that many people simply don’t have a clue about it.  If you accept credit cards on your site (i.e. don’t send the customer off-site to pay), you are required to be PCI-DSS compliant.   In a nutshell, this requires having your site/server scanned quarterly by an approved scanning company (complete list here) and filling out a yearly Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) (full documentation here).  These SAQs can get extremely complex, but most of you will be able to file the ‘A’ form, which is the least complex. However, if you have a brick and mortar store along with your e-commerce store, life will get more difficult as you’ll most likely fall into the ‘D’ category.  There are a lot of very technical questions on the SAQ, so you will probably need the help of your developer/cart provider.

Let me caution you that simply checking ‘yes’ to the questions without understanding them is not a good idea, as you could be subject to fines and/or loss of your merchant account all together. For example, if you are using a cart like Magento and you answer ‘Yes’ to the PA-DSS question, you will be wrong and will likely be dropped by your merchant bank.  The odd thing is that some merchant banks don’t seem to care, while others take this to an extreme.  I’m betting that as the security measures are enforced more, there will be fewer and fewer free passes.

The quarterly PCI scans will typically cause the biggest headache, particularly if your hosting company isn’t top notch.  Below are some of the issues we’ve run into over the last few months, along with some solutions.

PHP 5.4

The biggest issue right now is that PHP 5.4 reached ‘end of life’ about 2 weeks ago.  What that means is PHP is no longer supporting version 5.4 or releasing updates for it, so if there is a security vulnerability that is uncovered there will be no way to fix it.  So if you are running PHP 5.4 or below in your server, this will automatically fail your PCI compliance scan.  Unfortunately upgrading to PHP 5.5 isn’t as easy as it seems, as many older shopping cart platforms and plugins won’t work on PHP 5.5.  If you are running Pinnacle Cart 3.8.x, you are good to go, but if you are on 3.7.15 or below, please contact us and we’ll evaluate your specific site and see what the options for upgrading PHP are.   This is a critical issue that needs to be solved sooner rather than later, as if you fail your PCI compliance scan, your merchant bank will drop you.

TLS V1

For those of you who aren’t server experts, TLS is an encryption protocol used to secure data being transferred over the network.  Recently, TLS V1 was deemed a security risk and if it is enabled on your server, it will fail a PCI scan.  Here’s the problem – if you disable it, Microsoft Outlook will no longer be able to communicate with the server.  For this reason, it is impossible to disable for most hosting companies as Outlook is a very popular email client.  We were able to obtain a waiver form that can be presented to your scanning company informing them that TLS V1 needs to be present for Outlook to function, and that it is not used for any other reason.  So if you are in this predicament, feel free to contact me and I’ll give you a copy of the form.

Plaintext Transmissions

Related to the above issue, scanning companies are now requiring that all communication with the server (other than the web browser) is done via a secure protocol.  That means you need to be sure to check the ‘my server requires a secure connection’ when setting up your email in Outlook, and all insecure protocols on the server such as standard FTP on Port 21 are disabled.  Your host will need to help you with this.

SSL Certificate Encryption

Yet another issue that has come up recently is the security of security certificates.  For the longest time, SSL certificates were issued with an SHA-1 algorithm.  Recently though, that algorithm has been deemed too weak to be effective, so you’ll now see these certificates showing as insecure in Chrome (a yellow padlock instead of a green one).  Obviously this is not ideal to present to your customers, so you’ll want to have your SSL certificate re-issued in SHA-2 format.  Your SSL vendor shouldn’t charge for this, and your hosting company will be able to help you update the certificate on the server.

Insecure Forms

This is a more recent development, but the scanning companies are now picking up forms that collect personal data and are not in https mode.  Make sure your registration, login and of course checkout are all delivered in secure (https) mode.

Backup files kept on the server

Many shopping carts give you the ability to create a backup file right from the admin area.  The problem is, this file is stored on the server, so if a hacker get in they have one file to download and your whole store is compromised.  Make sure all of your backups are kept off-site, preferably via an hourly automatic backup system.

Get help

While this process has become easier with the advent of Hosted Carts like Shopify (they handle the scanning for you), it is still no fun to fill out the SAQs yourself.  I always recommend partnering with an expert to help you navigate the maze of PCI compliance, especially if you are hosting the cart yourself.  Of course if we built your cart, we’ll always be there to help keep you compliant!

Questions?  Feel free to Contact Us!

What is Responsive Web Design?

Responsive Web Design

Our web site shown on multiple devices. See how the site ‘responds’ to the device? That is responsive design.

If you follow web design/e-commerce trends, you have probably been hearing a lot about Responsive Web Design or Mobile First design. In a nutshell, this is a method of building a site that provides an optimal viewing experience for users on ALL devices – from desktop computers to smart phones. The site ‘responds’ or scales to each device, giving each use the same experience albeit at a different scale (see the image to the right as an example).

Why is this important? 

First, mobile use on the web is at an all time high, and if you aren’t designing your site to be mobile-friendly your chances of converting visitors into sales is slim. If you have ever tried to navigate a site that isn’t mobile-friendly on your smartphone you will know exactly what I’m talking about.  Your mobile users expect the same experience as the desktop visitors, and that is either achieved by providing a different version of your site to mobile, or using responsive techniques. The advantage of responsive web design is that you only have to maintain one site instead of two, and your mobile/tablet customers will get the same rich experience as your desktop customers.

Perhaps most importantly, Google is now using mobile friendliness as a ranking factor in their algorithm. That means that if you aren’t taking your mobile users into consideration, you are hurting yourself in the rankings. Google provides a little ‘Mobile Friendly’ tag on corresponding sites in their search results, so there is a good chance the potential customer is going to click on a mobile friendly link as opposed to one that isn’t.

So what does this mean to you as a store owner?

The answer really depends on which shopping cart platform you are using.  The big hosted carts like Shopify, Bigcommerce and Spark Pay all have responsive templates that you can select, some are even free.  If you are currently using a template that is NOT responsive I would strongly suggest that you switch to one that is.  If you have a template that was custom designed, it is time to redesign it as responsive.

If you are using Pinnacle Cart, the good news is that their new version (3.8) is responsive by default rather than using a two template method like they have done in the past.  So if you are working with us to build a site on the new platform, we are already building it as a responsive template for you.  The bad news is that due to the complete overhaul of the template system and admin area, you can’t upgrade to this version from an older version.  The store will have to be completely rebuilt.  Your order, customer and product data can all be migrated, but the template will have to be completely redone.

If you are on an older version of Pinnacle Cart (3.7 and below), you don’t have to upgrade to 3.8 in order to have a responsive template.  We can convert that template into a responsive template for you, just drop us a line for a free consult!

What does it cost to get a responsive template?

The cost of upgrading to 3.8 or rebuilding your template on 3.7 will really depend on the complexity of the design layout.  Stores with left hand navigation are more difficult to convert than stores that use a top menu.  Stores that use videos or slideshows will be more difficult to convert than stores that use static images.  It may make sense in some stores to stick with 3.7 if there are a number of complex mods in place, but some stores may be better off upgrading to get to the latest version.  We’ll be happy to look at your stores on a case by case basis and give you the best options for your particular store.

As Pinnacle Cart already has a built-in mobile version of the site, you aren’t being penalized by Google. However, responsive design is clearly the direction the industry is heading, so this is something you should definitely put on the radar in the next year or two.

Questions?  Feel free to contact us!

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