Choosing a website platform for your business website is a big decision. But, what is a website platform?
A website platform can also be called 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 Mangement 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. This difference has a major impact on the long term outlook of managing your store’s website. After you understand the two types of available platforms, this section will introduce important criteria to help you choose the right platform for your business. 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 an open source website platform. This means that lots of different developers from all different organizations contribute to the platform. The code that powers the platform is publicly accessible.
Open Source & Hosting
To use an open source software such as WordPress. You download the source files or code that powers the platform and you upload it to a server to host your website. When choosing to use an open source system, you should also plan to use a hosting system.
Website hosting for an open source website platform include companies like WP Engine and Host Gator. Some of the domain registrars we discussed in the previous section also offer web hosting solutions for open source web platforms. These web hosting solutions will typically be priced in terms of a monthly or annual cost for hosting.
When choosing a hosting provider for your website be sure to consider the uptime, load time and support available from each provider.
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 and 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.
Retailers who desire to “own” their website should consider open source solution. However, the line of thinking for “owning” a website is typically due to a false desire to reduce monthly fees and expenses. Consider that websites built on open source software such as WordPress will need to be manually updated as the software updates.
As of April 2018, WordPress is now on version 4.9.5 and a new version as been released almost every month since 2003. When new versions of WordPress are released the plugins that provide functionality to WordPress sites also change.
If you plan to use an open source hosting solution, plan to pay for annual hosting as well as the development costs associated with continual updates to your system.
Closed Source (Proprietary)
Closed source or proprietary systems are those websites platforms that are controlled by a single person, company or organization. Companies like Wix, Shopify and Squarespace are examples of closed source systems
When choosing a closed source system to host your website you’re essentially outsourcing the cost of software updates, security and web hosting to your chosen vendor.
A major advantage of a closed source provider for retailers is that the major technical considerations are already addressed for you. Closed source systems are already hosted and 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 and you will always need to pay the licensing fee in order to keep your business website.
Important Factors for Choosing a Website Platform
The website platform you choose to use for your business is a big decision. This decision has big implications for how successful your website is over the long term. Let’s explore the key aspects you need to consider before selecting the appropriate platform for your business.
Ease of use
Who is going to update your website? Likely, the person responsible for updating your store website is not going to be a web developer by trade. In most instances, the person responsible for keeping the website up to date is the store owner, a store manager or an associate. It is important that the person you designate to manage your website is able to make changes easily and quickly on an ongoing basis.
For this reason, ease of use is essential. Before selecting a platform, research how easy it is to update pages on the website, post blogs, upload a template or 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 you’re working with a developer to build you a website on an open source system, ask them to provide you with a guided webinar so you can familiarize yourself with the CMS. 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 something as simple as Shopify vs BigCommerce and you’ll find articles the pros and cons of each platform.
Additionally, consider searching for this industry specific or feedback about using a platform for a specific purpose. For instance, you may consider searching for review of people who have used Shopify to set up a business that sells products on a subscription online. 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 really 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.
Firstly, software changes over time. Software companies change their software to meet the changing demands on technology and the needs of customers. If you choose a website platform only to find out that you’re one of very few retailers using the 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 might not even be a good fit for retailers anymore, but it may be the very best one for coffee shops.
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 integrations to help store owners compete online.
In the hardware industry, Orgill Inc. built an integration with the website software platform Volusion in order to create a drop ship program for retailers. In the apparel industry it’s not uncommon that manufacturers integrate with a platform called Magento. In the pet industry, Phillips Pet Food & Supplies built a major 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 to find out what platforms your vendors are familiar with and plan to build integrations with to support your store’s digital presence.
Websites are rarely built completely custom from scratch for retailers anymore. The ecosystem for web development is built around installing and customizing templates on a website platform.
The reason? Completely custom websites are extremely 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. However, it is more likely around 20 hours of writing code and setting up software versus 100 (or more!) hours.
For retailers, that means picking a website platform with a strong library of customizable templates is important.
Most website platforms have their own template libraries. You can select the template that best fits your business and pay for it through your account with the website platform provider. If you’re not satisfied with the templates available by your provider consider a template company.
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 big file with all the code. This file is referred to as a zip file. Be forewarned, you’ll likely need the assistance of a web developer to organize and upload the zip file to your website platform. However, 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. Almost every other digital marketing service will need to be connected to your website.
Before selecting a platform research how easy and smooth it will be to connect your other digital marketing services to your new website. 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 is a list of the most popular website platforms.
Informational website platforms
Ecommerce Website Platforms
The website platform you choose may be the biggest decision you make in the entire process of creating a strong digital presence for your business. Choose wisely. The criteria outlined in this chapter provides a starting point. I recommend you put serious time into researching options and costs. The platform you choose will have the big impact on the overall success of your website. Choose correctly, and you will be building a valuable asset for your business.