The online services that power the Internet can fundamentally change the way you run and market your business. But there are only so many dollars and hours to invest so choosing an online service requires some careful consideration.
Here’s our guide to choosing an online service that is the best fit for you, your business and its customers.
What sort of online services are we talking about?
By online services we’re mainly talking about things like a do-it-yourself website and online shop. Even so, you could apply these guidelines to any sort of online service such as music streaming services, photo sharing services or even a social media platform.
We’ve broken the considerations for choosing an online service into the following categories:
- Design and usability
- Storage and bandwidth
- Domain name
- Geographical location
- Viability of the service
- Terms and conditions
- Technical considerations
Design and usability
The admin area is the part of the service you log into and use to build or manage your website, online shop or other service. It is important that you can easily use this backend or admin area.
During any free trial period you should give the admin area a real workover. Try to perform the widest range of tasks you are likely going to have to perform. Make the most of any free trial by setting yourself some small projects to complete, like creating a product in the system and displaying it properly. Check whether for instance you can bulk upload images or have to process them one by one.
Frontend visitor experience
Can you, and anyone else, use the front-end? Does it have good visual design? First impressions count – if it doesn’t feel or look right then it probably isn’t. Ask customers, colleagues, friends and family to have a look and see what they think of the look and feel of the site. What is the buying experience like? Is the checkout process simple?
Also check whether the service offers good looking templates with plenty of features built in? Are these included in the package or do they cost extra?
Free is what free gets
Many services are free like Facebook and website builders like wix.com and webs.com. These are fine and good for certain purposes but be aware of the limitations they place on your ability to do the things you will want to do.
Most paid services offer free trials and if you look around you can also find good discounts and offer codes. Tech podcasts like those on the TWiT or 5by5 networks are a great source for discounts.
If you are choosing an e-commerce service, compare the monthly fee against against any transaction fees charged. Having a good idea of your expected turnover will help you work out the best plan to choose. In most cases you can change plans anyhow so you can fine tune your requirements over time.
Watch out for upsell
When purchasing don’t get upsold on things you don’t need – you can usually add features later. If in doubt, leave them out and save your money.
Monthly v annual payment
Remember that an annual payment will usually be cheaper but again try before you buy and use the monthly payment option for a while before committing to an annual payment.
If you need ecommerce features then this opens up a whole extra set of considerations. For a more detailed discussion of the types of ecommerce platforms take a look at Ecommerce options – where to start?
What sort of transaction fees does the service charge? Some charge less in monthly fees but make up for this in higher transaction fees. Some charge a mixture of both. You’ll need to carefully consider your specific business needs to choose a fee profile that suits you.
For Australian businesses check if the service provides GST support, specifically can GST be levied (usually yes as a generic tax rate) and can the system render a compliant tax invoice (not always). Obviously Australian services are more likely to provide GST support but many overseas services do also.
Decide what shop features you will need by looking at other successful sites and making a wishlist of options such as product configurators, colour selection options and marketing tools. You may not need these straight away but if you plan on having them, then the service needs to offer them. Rarely however will you get the exact combination of features. Bear in mind that a good service will continuously evolve their offerings so if it isn’t available right now it may be in the future.
Payment methods and accepted processors
What payment methods are supported and will the service accept your payment gateway of choice? A new crop of ‘all in one’ payment gateways do not require a merchant account but you will tend to pay a higher transaction fee with these services.
Storage and bandwidth
Will you have enough disk space to store your data? Most likely this won’t be an issue but may be more of a concern to photographers and videographers. You can usually increase your storage quota by paying extra.
If you suddenly become internet famous can the service cope with spikes in traffic? Some services are able to dynamically increase resources for your website to meet spikes and surges in traffic – squarespace.com is one example that claims they can make your website invulnerable to traffic surges.
The only real question here is “Can I use my own domain name?” Most paid services should allow you to use your own domain name while free services may prefix the URL with the service name and charge a premium for using your own domain.
Find out what levels of support the service offers. Online services can be notorious for only offering support via email and helpdesk tickets. If talking to a real person is important to you then you should look for a service that offers this. If you prefer to read or watch videos then look for a services that provides this. Either way, make sure there are sufficient support resources and not just a superficial guide.
The geographic location of a service is less of a concern than it used to be. Aside from a burning desire to keep your business local your should at least consider the option to host your service in another part of the world. Australian services tend to cost more that overseas options though the gap seems to be closing. Bear in mind what currency you will be paying in as changes in exchange rates could cause fluctuations in your monthly bills.
During any trial period pay specific attention to the page load time. This may be due to geographic location and latency issues but it could also just be a sign of a bad service.
Ongoing viability of the platform
This is an important but sometimes overlooked consideration. I was recently investigating using MagentoGo for a client site and then one morning I see that it is slated for closure and all customers need to get off the paltform by a given date. You really don’t want this to happen to your online shop especially if it has grown to a reasonable size.
You should do some research into the the long-term viability of the company running the service. Find out how long the provider has been around and see if there is any current news or rumours on their performance.
Also dig deeper into the technology the service is using. Is it based on modern technology and to some extent ‘future-proof’. This can be difficult to know if you havent got a technical background but do your best to read as many reviews as you can. If you have access to a technical expert ask their opinion.
Terms and conditions
These are the things that we we often just click through and accept as the price of doing business but if you are going to be investing time and money in a service then it is worth checking the T&Cs in a bit more detail.
A good sign is if the service can provide a plain English/short from version of its terms and conditions. Check the company out using Google News to see if there have been any issues or blow ups relating to their terms of service. Try to find out what happens to your content – do you own it? How easily can you export it from the service?
Other technical considerations
Are you going to be locked-in to a proprietary platform? Regardless of the service you choose, you will be ‘locked-in’ to some degree but some services offer greater portability than others. For instance, you can import a WordPress site into a squarespace site. Some sites will let you export the content as an xml file which you may be able to import into another platform. If you are not sure it is worth asking the service provider about it.
Can you customise your website or service? Website owners may find themselves running into a roadblock when they want to make their site do something it is not set up to do. In this case you have run up against the limits of the chosen platform. You can either wait for the feature to become available , pay (typically large) sums of money to have the service do what you want it to do or pack your bags and move to another service.
Is the service friendly to search engines like Google? In the past this was often a limiting factor but nowadays most online services offer some basic ability to make your content more search friendly. But it is always worth checking. At the very least you should be able to specify a custom URL, a focus keyword and a meta description.
Built on modern technology?
Make sure the service is based on modern web technologies like HTML5 and CSS3 and not reliant on outdated technology such as table layouts and Flash.
Is it mobile friendly?
Can the service offer different layouts for mobile, tablet and desktop devices without you having to do anything extra? Almost all services now offer mobile compatible layouts but again it is worth checking.
Talk to a real person
When choosing an online service ask around – try your colleagues, friends and family for any advice they might have. What can they recommend?
Ask questions on your favorite social media platforms or forums. Pick up the phone and call a customer service rep at the service you are interested in. You will get a chance to experience their customer service and could uncover some good information.
The moment you sign up for a trial of a service you will likely be bombarded with ‘customer support’ and ‘how are you finding your trial’ emails. You can make the most of these and actually pose some good questions to the sender.
That’s a lot to consider…
These are the main considerations as I see them. There are no doubt many more and some that are highly specific to your situation. But we hope this is a good starting point. As always, if in doubt consult a web professional.