How To Build An eCommerce Website For Free
I have been building eCommerce sites for years and it couldn’t be any easier for someone who doesn’t code (like me). There are many free scripts out there that are open source and we will dive into them shortly. I want to outline everything you need to build a path from start to finish without spending a ton of money. There is a new world in shopping online today and you can be a part of that if you want to build out a store without using a monthly service like Shopify or eBay.
I have tried many different ways to sell my items including Amazon and in the past, it was highly successful. Who doesn’t want to make money while you sleep and wake up to a bunch of orders? Most bloggers might have you believing that you need to invest a ton of money into a setup, but the truth is you really don’t. You can simply get a domain and hosting and after that, other costs are not necessary.
I wanted to try and pick apart each layer and offer some tips on what you might need to build something that is yours and completely under your control assuming you aren’t selling or doing illegal stuff. That’s out of this scope for sure.
Domain names that are short and easy to remember are getting harder and harder to find. I used to own LLLL.com (letters) and 1111.com (numbers) domains, but most of those have expired in the last few years. You use there characters in combination to find something short, memorable, and on a .com. I personally use GoDaddy to manage and purchase domain names but you don’t have to. (I get nothing if you choose to use them.) It is just easy for me to use and manage. Trying to learn all of the domain registrars that ICANN approves like NameCheap, GoDaddy, and even Domain.com. I have used 2, but they are all the same basically. Just buy the domain name and not the side offers they try to upsell you.
You must own the .com of whatever domain you are trying to get. There are many people that will say the .co, .net, .org…etc, is just fine. It’s not, and not even a little bit. We have generations that understand that the .com TLD is the most critical because it’s the natural “go to” when people go direct or share a link. The last thing you need is to have only a .info website and all of your traffic is going to another company that owns the .com. Seriously, if you can’t get the .com version then keep looking for another name.
You can always buy all of the other TLDs of your .com version just to make sure it’s not cyber-squatted by a company. I always tried to get the main 4 TLD of my domain and build the .com website with the other 3 just 301 forwarded to the main site. I am able to do this easily at GoDaddy.
Another thing to consider is SEO in the domain name. You shouldn’t have anything crazy or long because no one is going to remember it. If you are a carpet cleaning company and can’t get “carpetcleaning .com” then find another solution. This blog is my name and I bought it 8 years ago. If anyone searches for me they will find this and not something else.
The last thing to mention on domains is the price. You may think you need to be a part of a domain club or some other frill just to buy a domain name. You don’t. You can buy a domain for about $8.29USD and is only 1 of 2 things you actually need to paid for in this process. If you really, really want a certain domain name that is up for auction or for sale then buy it. Spend however much you think it is of value to you. I can’t tell you how to spend your money, but I can tell you that I pay $8.29 per .com at GoDaddy.
This part isn’t free, but this is something you need before you can do any eCommerce online.
Hosting is one of the worst things I have had to go through in order to find a reasonable and professional service. Every website and blog that tells you “The 10 Best Hosting Companies” or some other forms of reviews in forums and elsewhere are 99% fake. Hosting companies pay well for affiliate signups and create these websites to have positive reviews. I wish I could say that it is not the case, but it is. When it comes to hosting I don’t trust anything I read online. Someone has an agenda any time they “review” a hosting service.
I am not going to say that I know each service and which is the best. The only thing I can tell you is that I have bounced around with hosting and then found Wiredtree in 2008. I was jaded by getting screwed over by previous hosts. I have never hosted anywhere else to this day. I hear about nightmare hosting from the slowness of GoDaddy, or hosting that was nothing like they said they were. I overpay for my hosting and that is a VPS that is normally $78USD/month, but I pay annually for the extra 10% off. My yearly payment is close to $750 and yes, it is overkill for a blog. I do more with my server than just hosting this blog. Please don’t overpay.
If you are a business then you might want a VPS and if you want to use Wiredtree and want to throw me an affiliate payment then use this link and enjoy an amazing company.
Business, Taxes & Banking
Okay, I am only adding this into this to just briefly touch on it as a requirement. You will need to create an entity, register with your state, get an EIN from the IRS, and hopefully wind up with a business account. Luckily I have already written a massive post detailing how I did this being a military member overseas, but it applies to anywhere. You may just have to change a couple things.
If you think that you are going to make money, want to protect your personal assets, or just protect you from an array of things then create a business such as an LLC. This is what I did even for just my blog. I opened Adding Social, LLC out of Colorado Springs, CO. I am glad I did and I strongly advise anyone to spend the few hundred dollars and some time to get this done.
Your banking is crucial. You have to separate your personal banking from your business. Otherwise, both of them are at risk if something goes south. I did this for a couple years and I am so thankful that I decided to take this advice and do it right. You need a business account to attach to Stripe, PayPal, or a merchant account. You need to show this for taxes, capital, and other possible situations. Just do it.
This area is not free and not something I am getting deep into. You should have this done before even thinking about moving forward with eCommerce. You need to get your expenses and revenue together for your statements and so you know how you are doing. Please read the post I linked to above to dig deeper.
You can’t do a whole lot without a shopping cart, or otherwise known as an eCommerce platform. I have used all of them from one time or another and it’s always been open-source. I am going to put them in order by how much I like them. I have a strong bias here because I have used all of them and know which ones are good and not so much. My bias is the perception of quality and flexibility. As always, I am not sponsored, or have any incentive when discussing the following platforms.
- WooCommerce: Integrated with WordPress and has been a standard for many businesses over the years. It’s open-source, and many developers contribute to the ecosystem. You can always buy premium plugins and access a large community that is active or perhaps a freelancer community that holds a lot of experts. This is my favorite one and it’s what I use on all sites because it’s easy, looks great and has plenty of options.
- PrestaShop: This used to be my “go to” because it’s open-source, light weight on server resources, and easy to work with. It has negatives as well, to include a large inactive community, plenty of paid plugins that are overvalued by 3-4x over, and little interest from developers to build quality plugins or themes. It is standalone and can integrate with a CMS like WordPress or Joomla. Prestashop is a nightmare if you are planning on selling digital downloads or managing it without some medium level of PHP/MySQL understanding.
- Magento: This is now owned by eBay and it’s a monster in terms of server resources. This is an enterprise level platform with enterprise costs if you get the supported version. Luckily for many of us, they have a community version that is free to use and offers almost endless options. The themes available today are high quality and I have used a few of them over the past few years. I turn to Magento when I need a stand alone juggernaut to sell my wares. Seriously, it’s only below Prestashop because of its intense resource needs.
- OS Commerce: This is the OG of eCommerce and I used it one time when I was just getting started in 2006, I believe. It was good and it stands alone without the need of a CMS. I am sure there are plenty of stores still using this, but I don’t recommend this unless you are or have a developer that can truly use it to your needs. I worry about it being up-to-date with patches for known vulnerabilities and features, but I haven’t spent time researching what’s new either. I personally would never deploy this type of cart with newer technologies like Meteor being available to build with.
- Zen Cart: This was a fork of OSCommerce that hasn’t really had much traction in the past 10 years or so, but I am including it because it may be worth a peek. It’s a stand alone cart, PHP/MySQL like the rest of them, and could be fun to work with.
I think I covered enough ground here in this section. All the mentions are free and easy to use for the most part. I would say that Magento might be the largest learning curve. Just make sure you read everything you can about them so you know what you may be getting yourself into.
You have two choices here for site security, and that’s Cloudflare Flexible SSL or Let’s Encrypt. We don’t do self-signed SSL certifications because they will throw up the untrusted page for a user trying to go to your store. In the past, you had to spend big money for security and we can thank Edward Snowden for pushing us to secure everything. Maybe you have no idea about what he did or who he is. He is the one who told all of us that the government was tracking, recording, and using their might to control our data. Web security got serious.
It’s also search optimization consideration that Google will prefer your website over someone else’s which is why I just do it all upfront. This was a result of Snowden and Google saying it has to be done. Green locks for every site out there is the goal. If you are a business it’s mandatory for payment processors to approve you and ensure you meet guidelines to accept payments on your website. You may have heard of that thing called “PCI Compliant“, and if you have then there is a small rabbit hole to try out for a bit.
I have tried Cloudflare’s Flexible SSL and it works, but not completely. They really break down what is secure and what isn’t. I rocked this for about a month and I had to do something. I wasn’t getting green locks and I wasn’t securing data end-to-end and that is a must for anyone visiting my website. All my sites use the free tier on Cloudflare, but I have decided to opt for Let’s Encrypt for SSL. They issue free SSL certificates that cover everything and they automatically renew, or at least they do for me on cPanel.
I don’t plan on going through the process in this post, but I may do a step by step in the near future now that I have some practice under my belt. If you don’t have the chops for this then find a freelancer that can knock this out for you. I might consider offering it as a service in the store, but for now…please get your SSL certificates with Let’s Encrypt and get secure. Everything in this section is completely free.
Your site is going to need some services so you can stay protected. While there is a ton out there that can make your life easier, I don’t know all of them. I personally use services that improve the quality of my website, protects it beyond SSL certificates, and makes my life easier. Cloudflare is probably the most important of them all.
Cloudflare can disguise your server and help keep the ill-intentions away from doing harm, however, they aren’t bulletproof. It’s just a small step and the best part is that their free tier is amazing. You can configure everything very quickly and they have tons of documentation if you have issues. This was absolutely the best thing I used along the way.
Another awesome thing to learn and hopefully use is Amazon AWS. They have many services and the one I think deserves the most recommendation is their Simple Storage Service or better known as S3. You can host static files there and take a bit of load off of your server. I use it to host my podcasts, audio blog, images that are served often and never changed. It can be your best friend and I highly recommend this web service. If you have never used AWS then you get a free year. You can simply host your site there on a micro instance EC2. You can really luck out on this.
There are many other services like MailChimp to build an email list, or using CodeCanyon to purchase premium plugins that make the experience better for your customers. It’s always about making sure your potential customers have everything they need. The last one I will mention is Google Analytics and Google Suite to handle your analytics and email. I have moved to this and so far so good. I know I mention a lot in this section, but they each really deserve their own post and I hope to write about them in depth in the future.
You will need some form of payment processing. Here are the ones I think are a must or at least you will soon enough:
- Paypal: Most people are familiar with PayPal and probably have an account with them. Most sites have the PayPal option, but they are notorious for horrible customer service. Like Stripe and Square, they are considered a payment aggregator and do not have the same compliance as a processor like a bank or Visa/Mastercard have.
- Stripe: Stripe is a newcomer in the recent years and they are super easy to integrate, are a payment aggregator, and they even allow you to take Bitcoin which is very cool considering digital currency is on its way up.
- Square: Square is unique because they are a lot like PayPal and Stripe by having a web interface, but they have this little dongle you can plug into your phone 3.5mm jack to swipe cards with. Sorry iPhone 7 users, this probably isn’t going to work for you, but I am sure there is an adapter or something on it’s way to market.
- Bitpay: Bitpay is the processor that takes coin payments, converts it into money and sends it to your account. Digital currency is coming into a stable part of some folks lives. There are still many that think Bitcoin, Litecoin, or even Potcoin is a joke, but there is real money in blockchain technology. Many banks from around the world are currently engineering a blockchain technology that they can harness and control. Just remember that Bitcoin isn’t dark money, it’s just decentralized and that is important for everyone around the world. Accept in your store.
- Cash: Yup, old fashion cash. Illegal to mail, but hasn’t stopped anyone from doing so to date. You might be a local brick & mortar too so this is an expectation for customers.
There is a lot you have to learn to get through the tunnel of eCommerce, but as you have read, almost all of it is free. I have gotten far on a tiny budget and so can you. My goal in writing these types of posts is to help you overcome the issues I had along the way. I want you to be successful and have a conversation about getting from point A to B and beyond. Doing business online can be a daunting task and you need support to get through it. Luckily we live in an age that almost any question can be searched for and answered.
If I missed something that you feel should be added then please tell me in a comment below. I want to make sure it’s the right information and help everyone out. Let me know what you think about this outline. I am searching for a conversation so please start it off with a comment and if you got this far, thank you for reading and best of luck on your journey.