I was asked recently if WordPress can be used to create a whole website, and a shopping cart. The short answer is yes, you can build a website from scratch on it. The bad news is that you’ll need to learn how to design a template around their existing structure if you don’t use an existing one and modify it. WordPress is a platform that separates content from presentation. The content structure doesn’t change much, but the way it is displayed in the “presentation” layer can be styled using CSS and the built-in template editor for the theme. That said, the structure itself is somewhat limiting. Thinking about how you want to display your content may ultimately make the decision to go with WordPress for you.
WordPress creates a very good basic site almost effortlessly. If you only need simple pages that match the WP structure, it can work very well. It eliminates the need for creating your own navigation elements, as you can create “pages” that will appear in the correct places and update when you add new ones. You can also create “child” pages, so that fairly complex sites can be built that are not really blogs at all. This can get you through the simple stage of creating an “about” page and some images to represent what you do. But WordPress is designed for text and images, more than ecommerce. On the good side, WP has a great search function built-in. Tagging your pages and using a third-party keyword plug-in like All-in-one SEO Pack will go a long way towards making your content very findable.
Getting to the next level with a good ecommerce function with WordPress will be a little harder. I have not seen any good ecommerce sites built entirely on the WordPress platform. That’s not to say that you couldn’t mimic the look of the WordPress template within the blog format. But WordPress is not really set up to display grids of images with database descriptions, pricing and the other minutiae that make an ecommerce site searchable. Embedding a full scale ecommerce site within WordPress, or just linking to it might be the best bet, should you choose to start out with a basic WP site. Once you start adding multiple products and product categories, adding all of that navigation to the WP structure will be nightmarish.
Enter the WP e-commerce plug-in. While I have not examined any of these, you may be able to make one work. There are lots of third-party developers that have already spent time working on this problem. A quick search on the WP Codex for “ecommerce” in the plug-ins section turns up about 70 solutions. WP-ecommerce looks like it’s had a ton of downloads, and some extensions built into it. There are other plug-ins to enable various ecommerce platforms, including Magento, oScommerce, etc.
You will probably discover that it’s much easier to use PayPal or Google Checkout to enable payment on your ecommerce site than it is to go through the security requirements necessary to host your own site and use a full-fledged merchant gateway like Authorize. It costs more per transaction to use PayPal, but it offloads the stringent requirements to the payment processor, while letting you set your own pricing and do your own fulfillment. In the long run, it may be more cost-effective, unless your site starts doing hundreds of transactions a week.
Another alternative might be hosted e-commerce. There are tons of these out there, not all good. Yahoo Stores, Volusion, Shopify are a few that come to mind. Photographers often turn to SmugMug, PhotoShelter and ZenFolio. [Note: I’ve been using ZenFolio for a number of years now, and find it very easy to work with. If you’re interested in giving it a try, use my discount code 9BP-ZYX-ECM for a 10% discount.]
Your hosting provider may also offer something along these lines, using Miva Merchant, or some other hosted solution. Many times these are also template driven and not easily customizable, aside from the monthly expense. I customized a Kurant StoreSense site once for a client. It didn’t use standard code, but Java compiled code, so was almost impossible to test! It took months to get it right. I suspect the survivors in this market are better now. Kurant has since been acquired (by eBay I think) and is marketing under a different name. It’s still the same kludgy product.
One very good thing about hosted ecommerce solutions is that they will handle the payment gateway security issues. Come audit time, you have less data security to worry about. Of course, you pay for this convenience in the monthly charges. Keep in mind that even if you have a merchant account for selling products at retail, that you will need another account for selling online. The two are not linked as a general rule, and if you want to accept credit cards online, you have to use one of the following: PayPal or Google Checkout; a hosted gateway through a third-party provider, or your own merchant service linked to a payment gateway through a secure server. Many hosted ecommerce solutions will offer options one and two, depending on how you want the customer experience to flow. IMO, using PayPal is very secure, and most customers don’t object to being redirected to a third-party site, as it has a good reputation for buyer-bias.
One place to look for more ecommerce info, including rundowns on many popular shopping carts, is Practical Ecommerce, online.
One other thing to keep in mind, is that SEO is NOT the same thing as site search. If your site is built on a database platform such as SQL or MySQL for your product line, or even if it’s imported from a flat-database such as Excel, you should have good search terms built in for your main user-centric search function. Name of product, description, short description, price, size, breed, etc. should all be built into your product database already, and can be used to provide searchable terms for your site specifically. Search Engine Optimization, on the other hand, takes into account popularity, in-bound links and a host of other information to provide the best destinations for those searching the entire web for their interests. If your key search terms are buried in JPEG images, Flash code or a Java app, they won’t be searchable at all.
See Search Engine Watch for worthwhile info on SEO and other related topics (some of this is paid content). Google also has extensive information on how to optimize a site for their search spider. While SEO is a worthwhile endeavor, building a site that is easily navigable, searchable as to product information and loads quickly is a much higher priority for most small businesses. There is so much competition in the web universe now that even with the best optimization efforts, you still may not see a lot of traffic coming from cold leads.
There are many many books on this subject, so recommending just one or two is a tough job. For CSS, the CSS Zen Garden is a great place to start learning about separating content and presentation. The above-mentioned sites are good reading for SEO and WordPress integration issues. For any other subject, you may need to drill down into fairly specific areas to learn what you need to know. I’ve found the Peachpit Press Quickstart books very helpful over the years; the O’Reilly books are also well-written and researched.