Here are nine common (and serious) e-commerce errors that Web businesses new and old routinely commit:

Making Hasty (And Costly) Decisions

Putting together a Web site capable of taking an order online, the simplest definition of an e-commerce site, is the result of a set of complex decisions. It’s true there is a serious shortage of impartial, accurate, and up-to-date information on e-commerce, but these decisions are really too important, and potentially too costly, to make without researching your options. The decisions you must make include:

  • Who will build your site?
  • Who will perform the custom programming when needed?
  • Who will host your site?
  • Who will process your credit card orders?
  • How will you transmit your credit card orders to your merchant account provider?
  • How will you get your order and fulfillment information into your accounting system?

You don’t need to be able to do all these tasks yourself, but you should learn the basics so that you can evaluate products and services. A useful rule of thumb: Contact at least five different vendors before making a major purchase or signing a contract.

Neglecting Customer Service

If you sell on the Web, you’re likely to do a lot of business with people you’ll never meet. As too many e-commerce consumers have discovered, this lack of personal contact can often translate into impersonal and unsatisfactory customer service. If you don’t plan to work with your customers ever again, perhaps you can get by this way. But if you’d like to see repeat customers at your site, take active measures to deliver quality online customer service:

* Send e-mail to customers when an order is received and when it is shipped. E-mail them again after they have received their order to make sure the products meet their expectations.
* Answer e-mail promptly and personally. Avoid using canned responses, or at least try to insert some personal detail into each e-mail message.
* List your physical business address and telephone number on your site. Give your customers the sense that you are a “real” business with an established presence.

Forgetting to Use META and TITLE Tags

Search engines matter: Most e-commerce sites receive 30 percent to 50 percent of their traffic from Web searches. Yet a shocking number of site owners fail to include META and TITLE tags in their HTML code, tags that help search engines identify and categorize their sites.

Your META tags tell search engines what your page is about and how it should be described. Without them, search engines may incorrectly label your site or simply ignore it altogether. TITLE tags are also very important: They define how your page is labeled in customers’ browsers as a bookmark or in a “history” list, and can also influence how search engines index your site.

There are two META tags that every e-commerce Web site should include: “keywords” and “description.” Even if you don’t know any HTML, these tags, along with the TITLE tag, are simple to add or modify and shouldn’t take you (or your Web developer) more than 10 minutes to finish. All three tags belong inside of the “head” section of your Web page (most Web pages are divided into a small head section at the top and a larger “body” section below). Here’s an example of what these tags might look like written in HTML:

Forgetting to Integrate Your Web Site With Your Traditional Business

A lot of small-business people forget to mention their Web site in their traditional print advertising, press releases, and other business documents. Make better use of these opportunities by including your Web site address (URL) on every business-related document you create: stationery, business cards, newspaper ads, and so on. Here’s a short list of places to include your Web address:

* Direct marketing materials, including direct mail pieces, point-of-sale packaging, and trade show displays.
* Advertising, including display or classified ads, resource guides, directory listings, or Yellow Pages.
* Collateral material, including all your company’s literature, traditional stationery, brochures, spec sheets, and any other materials you might send to customers.

Neglecting to Test (And Re-Test) Your Site

Much of Web site development is simple and requires only a little study time and effort to master. Other elements, however, can still be fairly complex, including “dynamic” page elements such as online databases, e-commerce transaction processing, and order fulfillment systems. You don’t want customers who have already decided to buy to lose interest and surf away due to an error-prone ordering process. Not only will they not make a purchase, they probably won’t return.

Avoid these hazards by systematically testing and re-testing all the pages and elements on your site. Here are some suggestions:

* Test your order form while browsing with Internet Explorer and again while browsing with Netscape Navigator. Use different versions of each.
* Cancel and restart an order to see what happens in both the customer’s browser and your order processing software.
* See how your site looks at various monitor settings . 640×480, 800×600, and 1024×768 pixels.
* Think up and try anything that your customers might try, and make sure your site can handle it. Provide lots of opportunities on your site for customers to let you know when things aren’t working.

Failing to Prepare for Success

Successful online businesses grow at phenomenal rates. Yet many new Web site owners fail to consider future growth when assembling their sites. When success and business growth arrive, these businesses can face far greater expansion costs than they might have faced had they done some growth planning.

No matter how modest your initial plans may be, map out in advance how you’ll add additional capacity to your site and Web business. Common areas of e-commerce gridlock include:

Traffic Jams

If you don’t respond to traffic pressures, your customers’ ability to access pages on your site will slow to a crawl as more people use what limited capacity you have. Slow surfing is no fun. Your customers will migrate elsewhere. Consider contracting for additional bandwidth from your Web hosting service, or even buying your own server and high-speed connection.

E-commerce Overload

The machines and software that make up your shopping cart and the rest of your e-commerce system can become overburdened with orders. Installing high-capacity e-commerce components may be more expensive in the short term but can save time and money by delaying or eliminating expansion costs later on.

Faulty Fulfillment

Rising e-commerce stars have faltered and or even failed when their business operations bogged down. Delayed orders and poor customer service won’t help you beat tight Web competition.

Underestimating Marketing Needs

The Web is swarming with new buyers and new merchants coming online every week. Getting your message out over the electronic din won’t be easy, and you should prepare in advance for a difficult marketing challenge.

Regardless of the products or services offered, all e-commerce sites compete for “eyeballs” . time spent by Web surfers perusing products, ads, and content. Even getting listed on search engines and directories is no simple feat and can involve significant costs in dollars and time. Yahoo! now offers an option for bypassing the long wait (weeks or even months) to get listed after submitting your site, for a $199 (U.S.) fee.

Prepare an aggressive marketing plan in advance, before you begin assembling your site. Here are some suggestions:

Participate in banner ad exchange networks. Organizations such as Link Exchange help their members trade banner ads to increase market awareness at no cost.

Pursue linking opportunities. Many sites claim that more than 60 percent of their traffic comes from links to their sites from other sites. Seek out sites that are aimed at your target market (but are not direct competitors) and ask them to link to your site. Consider creating an affiliate program (similar to the one offered by Amazon.com) that lets other sites earn commissions by placing formal links to your site on theirs.

Use the search engines. Identify those search engines that consistently drive traffic to your site, and the keywords people type into search engines to find you, and work to increase your position on the search returns page.

Track prospects through your site. Tracking programs such as WebTrends help you identify where your customers are coming from and what they are doing while they are exploring your site. Use this information to create marketing efforts that can increase traffic and increase the percentage of visitors who actually make a purchase, know as the click-to-buy ratio.

Submitting Customers to Overlong Download Times

There is plenty of cutting-edge technology available for use on the Web: Java, XML, and Flash all do amazing things. But many visitors won’t be able to enjoy the show. Outdated browsers, restrictive security settings, and lack of bandwidth can all act to restrict the number of potential customers who can actually see your site. High-tech elements such as these also increase the strain on your own Web server and Internet connection, and can further degrade your site’s performance.

To keep your site speedy and efficient, set a maximum size for your pages, such as 30 kilobytes, and stick to it. Easy and efficient surfing on your site will bring back repeat customers and help generate positive comments about your business.

Serving Up Aging and Out-of-Date Content

Stale or old content costs you sales. If surfers notice old or expired content on a site, they leave for a site that cares about its presentation. If surfers don’t notice that a site is stale, they may sign up for offers and prices that the business can’t meet. One site’s business declined 30 percent when it failed to update a Valentine’s Day offer for two weeks after the holiday.

Avoid these dangers and improve your visitor-to-sales ratio by updating your site content on a daily or weekly basis. Frequent updates can also bring repeat visitors back more often: Serious fans may keep track of your update schedule to catch what’s new. If you plan your updating procedures in advance, you and your Web developers can set up templates and tools to make refreshing your content simple.

This summary of common mistakes in setting up e-commerce Web sites should help you avoid joining the list of Internet failures. Web success is hard work, but thoughtful planning and preparation in the early phases of your online business can boost your sales earnings.

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