So You Want to Sell Products On the Internet
Great! It’s getting dramatically easier to do so every few months, and the playing field keeps getting leveled.
There’s also a rapidly evolving set of best practices worth paying attention to, whether you’re a small independent seller or giant global retail organization.
First off, accept that the products you post online are going to be reposted, saved, shared, commented on and recontextualized by people using a variety of services and devices, if you’re successful. They’ll be stripped of the context of your store, as people are increasingly taking control of their content, including products found online. The products of yours that get reposted will become beacons leading new customers to your store, and you don’t have to pay anyone to get them there. (How often do you click on ads?) You just have to sell products that people think are worth sharing. And people really like to share.
Here’s what I would be sure to do if I was opening a new store online right now (and I just might):
1. Make a nice About page
People want to get some idea of who they’re buying from; it’s only natural. Include pictures of your face or team members’ faces and note your physical location in the world. Offer contact information and a real email address, not just a set of form fields. Pictures of your workspace, storefront or office are great. So is a full address. So is a paragraph or two about why you’re selling these things. Here’s a recent favorite About page.
2. Take compelling photos of your products, and do not underestimate their importance
Photos are everything, almost, in this increasingly visual internet world. Make your product photos interesting and the kind of thing people will want to share and collect. Buying will happen in the midst of all that sharing and collecting. Photograph your product with a hand holding it. Here’s a classic Etsy blog post on the subject.
It’s worth spending time on this.
3. Write your copy with people in mind, not search engines
You want your products to be shared by people, which will help with search engines, but people will not share things that are written for robots. Be conversational, direct, detailed and vivid. Write the kind of copy people will want to copy and paste when they share your product because it strikes them as humorous, surprising or fascinating.
4. Make your shipping and return policy simple and prominent
Try to anticipate the questions people will have. Write these policies directly, like you’re talking to a friend. Keep them as brief as possible. Link to them from your product pages.
5. Juice up your product pages with metadata
You want Google, Facebook, Wanelo, Twitter and other platforms to know that your products are products, so that they can present them as products. I would use Facebook Open Graph tags and/or Wanelo tags. Schema.org tags (supported by Google) and Twitter cards are also worth your while. Here’s a good article about this with easy-to-use templates.
For example, if I were selling a collectible copy of Ken Isaacs’ How to Build Your Own Living Structures (1974) (I just bought one after years of searching, so I won’t be, but for the sake of argument), I would include all this in the <head> of my product page’s HTML:
<meta property="og:title" content="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)" />
<meta property="og:description" content="A very collectible vintage instructional book from the 1970s."/>
<meta property="og:type" content="product"/>
<meta property="og:url" content="http://www.example.com/product/12345"/>
<meta property="og:site_name" content="Cool New Store"/>
<meta property="og:price:amount" content="75.00"/>
<meta property="og:price:currency" content="USD"/>
<meta property="og:availability" content="instock"/>
<meta property="wanelo:product:name" content="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)"/>
<meta property="wanelo:product:price" content="75.00"/>
<meta property="wanelo:product:price:currency" content="USD"/>
<meta property="wanelo:product:availability" content="InStock"/>
<meta property="wanelo:product:url" content="http://www.example.com/product/12345"/>
<meta name="twitter:card" value="product"/>
<meta name="twitter:domain" value="example.com"/>
<meta name="twitter:title" value="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)"/>
<meta name="twitter:description" value="A very collectible vintage instructional book from the 1970s."/>
<meta name="twitter:image" content="http://example.com/product/image.jpg"/>
<meta name="twitter:url" value="http://www.example.com/product/12345">
<meta name="twitter:data1" value="$75.00"/>
<meta name="twitter:label1" value="USD"/>
<meta name="twitter:data2" value="0"/>
<meta name="twitter:label2" value="Available"/>
And these Schema.org tags in the HTML body of my product page:
<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Product">
<meta itemprop="name" content="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)"/>
<meta itemprop="url" content="http://www.example.com/product/12345"/>
<span itemprop="description">A very collectible vintage instructional book from the 1970s.</span>
<div itemprop="offers" itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer">
<meta itemprop="priceCurrency" content="USD" />
<meta itemprop="availability" itemtype="http://schema.org/ItemAvailability" content="http://schema.org/InStock"/>
6. Just say yes to canonical URLs
Canonical URLs on your product pages will ensure that your products get indexed efficiently. They’re Good for Google, Good for Wanelo, Good for Business ™. They’re good for any new platforms that emerge in the future. These platforms all want a single, primary URL to link to your product, even if many different permutations of your URL can get people there, because they don’t want to create duplicate links to your products and waste everyone’s time.
How does it work? Just include a line like this with the simplest version of your product’s URL in the <head> of your product pages’ HTML:
<link rel="canonical" href="http://example.com/product/12345" />
Then, if your website is one that creates different URLs for pages based on how people navigate to them, or if you append various parameters to your URLs for tracking purposes, external platforms will still be able to point to your products effectively.
7. Treat visitors on mobile devices differently than visitors on desktop computers, and vice versa
This doesn’t mean use different URLs for these two cases (in fact, do not do that if you want to be successful). Just detect the customer’s browser user agent and optimize the experience for the kind of device they’re on.
You may end up with a lot of people posting and sharing your products from their phones. Those posts will be consumed by people on desktop computers. Don’t send those desktop users sitting there with their wallets handy to the mobile version of your website—it will feel broken to them and they won’t buy your product. Instead, try and use a single website that adapts intelligently to the different devices visitors use to view your content.
8. Keep your product pages up, forever
After all this, when your products sell out because they’re so incredibly shareable, note that they’re sold but don’t give up on the interested visitors who keep landing there thanks to the links you acquired. Give them options. If possible, give them a way to tell you that they are interested in the product—it feels productive for them and will be valuable for you. Then you can alert them when the product becomes available again. Best Made Company and ModCloth are both doing this well.
Or, show them lots of related products to check out, as on these new intensive sold-out Etsy listing pages:
Of course, there’s a whole lot more to selling online, but these are some of the things I often see missing out there in the wide, diverse world of ecommerce websites.