Choosing a website platform for your business website is a big decision. But, what is a website platform?
A website platform is more simply understood as a website builder. This is the set up that gives you a place to build and make changes to your website. In technical terms this is referred to as a CMS or Content Management System. Your website platform will allow you to login and set up a website.
There are many different types and styles of website platforms or website builders. For reference, one of the most popular website platforms is WordPress.
In this section, we’ll identify the major technical difference between two types of website builders. There are open source and closed source platforms. This difference has a major impact on the long term outlook of managing your store’s website. Then, I’ll introduce important criteria to help you choose the right platform. We’ll discuss things like ease of use, integrations and industry relevance. Let’s begin.
Open Source versus Closed Source (Proprietary)
There are two main types of website platforms called open source and closed source. WordPress is the most popular open source website platform. This means that a lot of different developers contribute to the platform. These developers are all from different organizations. Some of them are freelancers. The code that powers the platform is publicly accessible.
Open Source & Hosting
WordPress requires some set up work. First, you need to download the source files or code that powers the platform. You upload these files to a server to host your website. When choosing to use an open source system, you should also plan to use a hosting system.
There are a lot of options when it comes to hosting a WordPress website. To host an open source website you’ll need a company like WP Engine or Host Gator. These companies offer hosting solutions for WordPress websites. There are domain registrars that offer web hosting solutions for open source web platforms as well. Most web hosting solutions will charge a monthly or annual cost for hosting.
You will also need to consider uptime, load time and support. Web hosting providers will vary.
Uptime is a measure of a hosting provider’s reliability. Can you trust the provider to keep your website online on a consistent basis? At this point, it is not unreasonable to find a provider with a track record of over 99.9% uptime.
Again, load times are crucial for the performance of your website. Keep in mind that 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less. Moreover, 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load. We’ll cover the importance of load times more in future chapters. For now, ensure that your chosen hosting provider offers load times below 700ms. Anything above that will likely set your website up to be too slow from the start.
Finally, ensure that you’ll receive high quality support. Technology changes and adjustments consistently need to be made. Be sure your web hosting solution provider is a quality partner in times of technical need.
Quick Note on Support
Why does support matter so much? Because websites and servers crash sometimes. Our company hosts some of our customer’s websites on WordPress. The company we use is WP Engine. One night I received an email from a customer that said, “Also, I’m getting this error below when I got to the site upload them. Maybe it’s an error on my end but can you confirm this is the site?” Immediately, I went to the site to check it out. The site was down. Instead of their website I saw this message:
Error Loading Site. 502 Bad Gateway.
I immediately contacted WP Engine. They spent an hour working with me to bring the website back online. It required some extensive support from their engineers. Long story short, the server had crashed. They helped me bring it back online within an hour. Even for someone like me with development experience these can be scary situations. Make sure you choose a vendor who prioritizes customer service.
Retailers who desire to “own” their website should consider open source solutions. However, the idea of “owning” a website is a bit flawed. Typically, retailers want to ‘own’ their websites to reduce monthly fees and expenses. In actuality this doesn’t happen. Consider that websites built on open source software will need to be manually updated as the software changes. Additionally, you’ll always need to pay for hosting somehow.
As of April 2018, WordPress is now on version 4.9.5 of the software. A new version was released almost every month since 2003. When WordPress releases new versions the plugins that provide functionality to WordPress sites also change. This is a lot to manage!
If you plan to use an open source hosting solution, plan for recurring expenses. You will need to pay for annual hosting as well as the development costs associated with continual updates to your system.
Closed Source (Proprietary)
Closed source systems are usually proprietary systems. This means that a single person, company or organization controls the system. Companies like Wix, Shopify and Squarespace are examples of closed source systems.
With a closed source system you’re outsourcing the cost of software updates, security and web hosting to your chosen vendor.
An advantage of using a closed source provider is that the major technical considerations are already addressed for you. Closed source systems include hosting in their fees. All you need to do is sign up and pay the monthly fee to access the platform and build your website.
The drawback is that you will always need to pay the software licensing fee. Websites built on closed source systems are non-transferable. You will always need to pay the licensing fee to keep your business website.
Deciding between open source and closed source is an important business decision. But it is not the only decision. There are a lot of features of a website platform to consider. In the next section we’ll discuss the features you need to evaluate before selecting a platform.
The website platform you choose to use for your business is a big decision. This decision has implications for how successful your website is over the long term. Let’s explore the key aspects you need to consider before selecting a platform for your business.
Ease of use
Who is going to update your website? Likely, they are not a web developer by trade. Sometimes it is you, the store owner. Or a store manager or an associate. It is important that the process for making changes is easy and quick.
For this reason, ease of use is essential. Before selecting a platform, research how easy it is to use each platform.
How easy is it to:
- update pages on the website?
- post new blogs?
- Upload a template?
- Add products to a catalog on the website?
If the platform you’re researching offers it, take advantage of a free trial. Many closed platforms like Volusion offer a free trial before you have to commit to their system.
If a developer is building your website on an open source system ask for help understanding the CMS. Ask your developer to provide you with a guided webinar. This will help you familiarize yourself with the back end of your website. Remember that the person responsible for the website will need an easy to use CMS. The CMS is the back-end of the website that the user sees when they enter their username and password. Your designated website manager could be logging into your website CMS daily. It’s important they have something they can easily use.
There are hundreds of blogs and review sites that will offer insights into web platforms. Google Shopify vs BigCommerce. You will find a bunch of articles outlining the pros and cons of each platform.
Additionally, consider conducting very specific searches. Search for information about others in your industry who have used a particular platform. For instance, try Shopify for Sporting Goods stores. Or search for specific use cases. If you plan to build a dropshipping website then search Volusion for dropshipping. There are hundreds of businesses that used Shopify to sell products via subscription. See what they have to say. Or you may look for a blog that reviews what it is likely to use WordPress for a jewelry store.
Although you will find a wealth of knowledge online, your research should not stop there. Seek out reviews from others in your industry. Within retail, each type of business has unique challenges and needs for a website. A jewelry store is much different from a sporting goods store. Look online for websites that you like within your industry. If the store is not competitive, give them a call and ask what website platform their using. Find out how it’s working for them.
If you own a hardware store in Raleigh, North Carolina try searching hardware store, Louisville, Kentucky. You may find a hardware store’s website that you like. Call the owner and find out about their experience.
Don’t overlook this crucial element to your website platform. How relevant is your selected website platform to your industry? A mistake business owners often make is to select a platform that doesn’t serve their industry very well. This is problematic in two main ways.
First, software changes over time. Software companies iterate over time. They need to respond to technology changes and the needs of customers. If you find out that you’re one of very few retailers using a certain platform, you may be in trouble.
Consider it from a business perspective. If I own the website software company and 90% of my customers are coffee shops and 10% are retailers. I will likely focus 90% of my efforts on building features and fixing bugs related to coffee shops. Over the long term, my website software will be perfect for coffee shops. But, it will not be a good fit for retailers anymore. Then you’re stuck.
An important question to ask before choosing a platform is – How many retailers like me are using this platform for their website? If the company isn’t focused on retailers in your industry, it’s probably not the right long term fit.
Second, find out what software platforms are building integrations within your industry. Many distributors, manufacturers and other vendors are building catalog integrations with website platforms. Their goal is to help store owners compete online.
In the hardware industry, Orgill Inc. built a dropship integration with the website software platform Volusion. Meanwhile, in the apparel industry it’s common for manufacturers to integrate with Magento. In the pet industry, Phillips Pet Food & Supplies built an integration with Shopify.
If you’re on a different platform, you may not be able to take advantage of the web programs available within your industry. It is important to do your research ahead of time. Find out what platforms your vendors are working with so you’re prepared. Plan to take advantage of the industry programs designed to support your store’s digital presence.
Websites are rarely built completely custom from scratch for retailers anymore. The web development industry revolves around templates. Web developers install and customize templates on different website platforms.
The reason? Completely custom websites are expensive. If your web developer has to write every single line of code for a website, it will take hours. That means you’ll be footing a five figure bill to pay for your website, at least!
When a web developer installs a template and customizes it. It still takes many hours of work. Yet, it is more likely around 20 hours of writing code and setting up software versus 100 (or more!) hours.
Retailers should pick a website platform with a strong library of customizable templates.
Most website platforms have their own template libraries. You can select the template that best fits your business. You pay for it through your account with the website platform provider. If you’re not satisfied with the templates available through your web platform there are other options. There are companies that sell website templates.
Companies like Theme Forest and Template Monster offer hundreds of different themes. Search their databases to see which themes are available for your website platform. After you select and pay for your theme you will receive a zip file with all the code. Be forewarned, you’ll likely need help from a web developer to organize and upload the zip file. The complexity of uploading a zip file to your platform varies from platform to platform.
How easy will it be to connect other digital marketing services to your website platform? For instance, if you use MailChimp for email marketing, is there a direct integration with your website platform? What about if have an ecommerce site and want to set up Google Shopping or a Facebook store? What about your loyalty program? How difficult is it to set up a connection to Google Ads or Google Adsense?
Your website is the hub of your digital marketing efforts online. Other services you choose for your business will need to connect to your website.
Before selecting a platform find out how it connects to other digital marketing services. Will you need a developer each time? Or are there apps or tools that will make it easy?
This can have a big impact on the total cost of running your new website over time.
Popular Website Platforms
Choosing a website platform is a big decision. Put the time and research in upfront to avoid costly headaches and changes in the future. If you use the criteria outlined above, it will help make your decision easier and accurate.
Here’s a list of the most popular website platforms. This will help you get started with your search for the best platform to help you reach your business goals.
Informational website platforms
Ecommerce Website Platforms
Your choice of website platform may be the most important decision in the entire process of creating a strong digital presence. Choose wisely. The criteria outlined in this chapter provides a starting point. I recommend you spend your own time researching options and costs. Your efforts will impact how strong of an asset your website becomes for your business. Further your knowledge by reading blogs and watching videos on YouTube. You will find a lot of great information about this topic. Use the resources available online to inform your final decision.