Choosing an eCommerce Platform

Below will help you make an informed decision when it comes to choosing a hosted or a self-hosted option.  We explain the pros and cons of each and the costs associated with them.

If you haven’t had to update your current e-commerce site for a few years or you’re a new business looking to add e-commerce to your website perhaps you aren’t familiar with the world of e-commerce but you start seeing the likes of ‘fully hosted’ e-commerce sites and ‘self-hosted’ e-commerce website terms.  Perhaps you’ve started looking at Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion and all the big companies that come up in the top ten results for ‘eCommerce website’ and all of it is leaving you overwhelmed and a bit confused.  Don’t feel bad, most small business owners are in your shoes.  You are busy running your business, you shouldn’t have to be a website expert to make this decision.   So below we’ll highlight the difference between the platforms, their pros and cons and who they are suited for.

E-COMMERCE HISTORY LESSON – HOW IT EVOLVED

Back in the early 2000’s e-commerce made its debut with a platform called osCommerce which then became the base code for X-Cart and a few other platforms and so e-commerce grew.  osCommerce was open source, another word for free, and others would add some code and sell their platform for a one time fee and a smaller charge to get updates as the code was improved and some were free but would charge for certain functions (like Woocomerce does now).

As this new industry evolved security and stability were the 2 forefront issues.  Many platforms were easy to compromise and steal credit card information, and because most code was contributed over a community type environment, they were prone to crashing.  Credit Card companies began to demand minimum security levels, now called PCI compliancy and companies started to code entire shopping cart platforms (Shopify and Pinnacle Cart to name a few) that were bought as a whole software solution instead of piecing them together with base code and add ons.  But then the likes of Volusion came out with the idea of providing their shopping cart for a monthly fee and they would host it and maintain it and update it.  The rest of the e-commerce companies slowly jumped on board as business owners began to accept this and the Fully Hosted e-commerce solution was born.

WHAT IS A FULLY HOSTED E-COMMERCE WEBSITE

A fully hosted e-commerce site, as described in the history lesson above has become the most popular option on the market today. Some examples are BigCommerce, Shopify, Pinnacle Cart, UltraCart and Volusion. Essentially as a business owner, you are leasing the use of their software and paying a monthly fee to do so.  For this fee, they will offer you support for the software and they will maintain and update the code to keep it current with PCI standards and security rules.  All of this means they must host the code on their servers to maintain this control over the software which is where the name fully hosted or hosted solutions comes in.  You will likely need a design company that can customize a template to look the way you want it to and set up your store unless you have the time to learn and do this yourself.

PROS OF A HOSTED E-COMMERCE WEBSITE

Security

The hosted software options manage their servers, security and software so it’s ultra-secure.  PCI compliancy has 3 levels where a self-hosted WordPress/Woocommerce site is a level 3 hosted solutions like Bigcommerce, Volusion and Shopify are a level 1.  You can’t get any more secure and trusted online.  This also boosts your SEO and trustworthiness with Google.

Support

Their 24/7 support is well known and advertised and a big feature of what you are paying for.  They can help you add a product, set up attributes, troubleshoot checkout issues and help with any technical issues you may have.  In addition to phone and chat support they usually have a large knowledge base where you can search for the answer you need.

Feature Rich

They usually come with a large number of features included in the pricing.  Everything from complex custom shipping to product variations and cross-selling opportunities. There is usually everything you need already available, but for the extra functions you want there are usually 3rd party add ons at various additional pricing.

Stability

A huge advantage of a hosted solution is that they give you a stable platform that is maintained and updated by the provider.  They aren’t infallible and they have had their outages and slowdowns but they a very far and few between compared to hosted solutions.  Plus if something isn’t working you have a phone number to call 24/7, unlike your designer.

CONS OF A HOSTED E-COMMERCE WEBSITE

Cost

Most charge in USD and start at $30 a month which doesn’t get you much.  For most you need to pay a minimum of $90 a month.  Depending on the platform they may also require you to use their merchant provider or charge a fee of 1-2% of everything you sell (Shopify) or the price will increase with the volume of sales you are incurring (Bigcommerce).  Either way it’s certainly more costly than a self-hosted option.

Hard to Change

Once on their platform switching platforms if you aren’t happy isn’t easy.  You can’t simply pick up your design and move it to another company as each has its own proprietary code so a template on Shopify won’t work on Bigcommerce.  Exported products also won’t easily import to the new site and all the settings for checkout, shipping and taxes can’t be transferred.

Rigid Cookie Cutter Designs

Although they are evolving the basic templates in most hosted platforms look a lot alike.  In addition. they can be more rigid in their designs where you can only have a slideshow on the home page and not a category page or you can only layout products one way or having a lot of informational pages is hard to create and manage.

Support

Yes, that isn’t an error.  The same pro can also be a con.  Some support departments don’t always help and simply find a quick answer that may or may not be the correct solution to simply get you off the call.  Some support departments may require 2 or 3 calls or trouble tickets to get an issue resolved.

WHAT IS A SELF HOSTED E-COMMERCE WEBSITE

Very simply it means you host the website.  Because most e-commerce providers won’t give you their software it means there aren’t a lot of options left for software you can host yourself.  Some examples are WordPress/Woocommerce, Pinnacle Cart, Prestacart, Magento and OpenCart.  As a business owner, it means you must have a hosting company and a design company who can install, design and set up your software for you.

PROS OF A SELF HOSTED E-COMMERCE WEBSITE

Control

Especially true for WordPress designs they are highly flexible for design and content.  You can control every element and function of your site depending on which plugins are added and how the template is created.  Page builders and backend editors allow for great control over your page and category layout and much more.

Flexibility

Self Hosted options typically allow you to have unlimited pages, categories and products.  In addition, they have plugins or add ons that can enhance functionality.  WordPress has over 50,000 plugins which can add pretty much any functionality you could ever imagine.

Cost

Most self-hosted software is free, the most popular being WordPress and Woocommerce which are both free, however for Woocommerce to work beyond accepting PayPal or some more advanced features typically found in Hosted platforms there may be yearly fee for the plugin.  Most range from $80 to $150 each.

Design

Self Hosted options allow you access to the source code and therefore greater customization abilities to the overall design, look and feel of your website.  With an option like WordPress/Woocommerce you imagination is your only limitation.

PROS OF A SELF HOSTED E-COMMERCE WEBSITE

Support

There is no support for self-hosted software.  It means your design company is all the more important to be there to support your site and help in emergencies, especially with the next item on this list.  However, design companies can be there 24/7 like self hosted options so you will need to accept that some downtime will be normal with a self-hosted option.

Stability

Self Hosted options like WordPress and Woocommerce are notorious for having stability issues.  Plugins don’t always play nice with other plugins or the template or the hosting server.  All can cause error messages when they break.  Updates from both your hosting server and the software and plugins can all cause the site to break.  It’s crucial to make sure you have a good design company you can call on and a good backup method that ensures you have backups to restore while things are being fixed.

Security

On the PCI scale of security self-hosted sites typically rank lowest because they hosted on shared hosting environments and sometimes shared SSL certificates.  But there are ways to ensure you are safe.  Installing top-level security plugins and having an SSL can help to boost your security.

Difficult To Manage

WordPress and Woocommerce stats have shown that most installations have at least 30 plugins to make their site work.  This could be everything from abandoned cart add ons to slideshows.  Every plugin typically adds another option in the side menu and means you have to go there to make changes.  Navigating the backend can be tricky and not intuitive, especially for those that aren’t super technical and used to online software.

SUMMARY

After reading all the pros and cons it’s probably easier for you as a small business owner to figure out what is your best option.  It will likely come down to cost and convenience.  If you don’t mind the monthly cost and want support then a hosted solution is for you.  If you want features that aren’t typically standard in an e-commerce site or worry about committing to a platform you can’t easily move away from and not sure what you really need then a hosted solution might be the better option.  Most small businesses start with self-hosted and eventually grow to a hosted solution unless they need features not typically available or need a very robust informational section of their site.

All in all, you also need a design company who can help you customize your template, setup, import all your products and run through proper testing regardless of which platform you pick.  We can be that company!

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