I Built an eCommerce Site in 2 Months for $99!
My dream for the past five years was to launch an Internet portal that would aggregate up-to-date information technology news and some of the best articles and resources for value added resellers: VARs. I’d been providing content for numerous other sites. Now I thought it was time to start investing in myself.
Planning and Preparation
Although I was a highly-experienced Internet researcher, I knew little about designing, launching, and promoting an ecommerce Website. However, I knew which sites I researched repeatedly, so the first thing I did was analyze how they kept me coming back. Good content was the primary incentive, but what else?
A Little Research
I bookmarked and printed pages from many sites that illustrated what I thought was the "best" navigation, colors, layout, topic categories, terminology describing those categories, etc. I also noted the use of add-on features such as forums, polls, newsletters, and fee-based content. My task list grew dramatically as I added the need for content for:
- About Us
- Contact Us
- Link to Us
- Site and Newsletter Registration
- Auto-response Letters
…and so forth.
I also documented characteristics that I found annoying, like not being able to click on the logo to return to the home page. While this seems like a small detail, it was only one of hundreds that had to be addressed before I felt our site would provide a comprehensive and user-friendly interface to our visitors: some of the most technology-savvy surfers on the Internet.
After a few days of surfing my favorite haunts and examining sites I’d let fall by the wayside, I came up with a laundry list of characteristics I liked:
If the name was easy to remember, I could just type it in instead of scanning through my Favorites. The best names were simple and descriptive of the subject matter, e.g., internet.com, TechWeb.com, ITtoolbox.com, and so forth. Cute also worked, as in the case of AngryCoder.com. After weeks of playing with name combinations and dog-earing my synonym finder, I settled on DoctorVAR.com.
If the site stated its purpose clearly and delivered on that promise, then I knew right away whether the site would be a valuable resource for me. Even if it wasn’t the subject I was looking for at the time, I would bookmark it for a future project. Searching through sites that meander from topic to topic is often a waste of time. So I put our statement of purpose at the top of our home page.
In the early days, navigation was often crude. Frequently, I’d turn to the site map to steer me quickly to the resources I sought: white papers, press releases, etc. I appreciate clear, well organized navigation and a site search function. Sites that make me navigate through multiple menu levels and pages before delivering any substance drive me crazy. As a result, I avoided multiple layers as best I could.
If the site made me sign up to get meaty content, I usually left as fast as a mouse click! There are so many great sites that don’t require such an investment of time and effort — why would I bother with the ones that do? I decided that on my site, all content would be free.
I really appreciate links to additional sources, as they make my research job easier. However, if I click on two or three broken links, I start to lose confidence in how up-to-date the site is. Plus, broken links waste my time. So I made a note to regularly use a link checker on my site, to keep the content fresh.
What Others Were Saying
Once I’d identified the characteristics I look for in a Website, I went one step further and read numerous articles on what other people look for. I was surprised to find that so many people are concerned about their privacy. Surveys showed that people:
- want a clear privacy statement
- want to know what will happen to their information if they sign up for a forum or newsletter
- want to be able to contact a real person at a real company having a real postal address, not a P.O. Box number
So I spent several weeks crafting my own About Us, Privacy and Terms of Service statements — in simple terms instead of legalese — to reassure our visitors.
I also discovered that the best designed sites are sticky. The more often you can get visitors to return — and the longer you can keep them on your site — the more quickly you can develop traffic. So we expanded our site plan to include ways for people to participate and become part of a community through a forum, polls, contributing content, free classifieds and a job bank. I also redesigned my enewsletter to make the tone more personal, as well as to make subscribers come to the site to "read the full story", or fill out an opinion poll.
To make money, I needed a banner/ad manager, log analyzer, and shopping cart. I planned to sell ebooks, shareware, and other items to generate revenue. Eventually we may charge for premium content, but for now, it’s free. To develop traffic, I feel that I must give much, much more than I plan to receive.
My developer, Scott Kroeger, the owner of Hudson Avenue Technologies in Omaha NE, says the first and most important task of designing a new Website is developing a comprehensive plan.
"Before writing a single line of code, the site owner and developer should have a clear idea of the scope of the project," Scott says. "Because Linda had a clear idea of all of the components and capabilities she wanted, I was able to recommend a comprehensive solution that would address all the issues her specifications raised. This saved a lot of time and expense, and made my job much less frustrating."
Educating myself on Website design was tedious but essential for a good outcome. Even though I was very Web savvy, if I hadn’t read extensively about site design, I would have overlooked many features my site should offer. Also, I wouldn’t have been able to ask technical questions and communicate as effectively with my developer.
After documenting the site specifications, I began searching online for a developer. I knew I was shopping for champagne on a beer pocketbook, but I didn’t want to compromise unless I had to.
Soon, one of the people I contacted emailed me a slew of probing questions:
- What kind of site do you need developed?
- How did you choose php?
- Is an admin interface required?
- Do you need to manage banner ads?
- What are your support requirements after implementation?
I felt like I was taking a test. But the quality of his inquiries gave me confidence that this person wanted to clearly understand the scope of the project, as well as my level of expertise to manage the site.
The Developer Says…
Soon I scheduled a meeting with Scott Kroeger, owner of Hudson Avenue Technologies in Omaha NE, to discuss the challenges of launching such a complex site on a limited budget. After I reviewed my site map and specifications with him, he recommended a proven and supported open source content management system (CMS): PostNuke.
I was excited about integrating supported public domain software that could be maintained by a multitude of providers, should Scott and I part for whatever reason. Plus, no software debugging would be needed.
Many developers start coding right away. However, Scott believes that first of all, developers should survey what open source software is available and determine if it’s possible to piece it together to provide a solution. "Because my background is in integration, I get more excited about finding open source software, figuring out how the code works, and then using my technical skills and coding to make the modules work together," Scott says. "This way I don’t have to spend a lot of time programming from scratch and debugging code."
After reading the PostNuke documentation, though, I became concerned because it doesn’t support unique block/page configuration for multiple pages. As I had over 20 unique subtopics or categories, I didn’t see how PostNuke would work. Also, I didn’t like the article layout restrictions. I preferred the flexibility of designing html pages. So I tossed these problems back into Scott’s lap.
"By examining other PostNuke site installations and reading forum discussions, I quickly figured out that multiple PostNuke installs would work around the page layout problem and provide complete control over the subsite blocks," Scott says. "So my challenge was to figure out how to make all 28 installs talk to each other by modifying what database tables each subsite looked at."
"Linda wanted to use html blocks to handle the bulk of the content," Scott said. "However, PostNuke only searches major modules, not html pages. So I integrated Content Express — a PostNuke module that provides the site with a very friendly admin interface for adding html pages and controlling the site navigation, as well as a search engine for html pages. Unfortunately, Content Express wasn’t built for multi-site configuration, so I also had to figure out what it was doing to know how to integrate it for the multi-site installation."
Two Week Success!
Within two weeks, I was laying out pages and uploading data. To complete the site, Scott integrated free PostNuke modules to provide an ezine, forum, job bank, and banner/ad management. The only software I had to purchase was a classified ads module and shopping cart for $59, plus a $30 theme. The rest of the modules were free.
Because I had educated myself on Website design and defined the site specifications so well, Scott knew clearly from the start what was expected. This made his job much easier, and, combined with his open source integration strategy, saved a lot of time and money. By the end of two months, the site I’d dreamed about was up – within my budget and without sacrificing one feature or requirement.
Web Marketing and eCommerce http://www.wilsonweb.com/
Apromotionguide.com — free Website promotion tutorial http://apromotionguide.com/
PostNuke.com — open source Weblog/content management system http://www.postnuke.com/
Content Express — open source Web content management system http://pn.arising.net/ce/
WhatsNews — open source ezine module http://nuke-modules.gading.de/
phpAdsNew — open source ad server http://www.phpadsnew.com/one/
phpBB — open-source bulletin board package http://www.phpbb.com/
phProfession — open source job bank http://www.phpsolutions.co.uk/index.php