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Checklist for Judging and Comparing Template Web Store Builder Packages

14 points that make or break a website template.

So, if you are going to start reviewing potential template providers, the first step in your education involves knowing how to judge them. The following list will help you with the basics of this. This article can’t possibly go into all of the minute considerations we would take into account, but it should help you to compare the basics of various packages from different companies. Ask yourself the following questions about any package you are considering:

1) Can I customize the Title Tags?
What is a title tag? It’s the little snippet of text that appears at the very uppermost left of your browser. The title tag of this page is Checklist for judging and comparing template web store builder packages. Do you see that up there? That’s the title tag and it is crucial. Search engines read this to see what your page is about, and you need to customize each title tag to fit each page. Your page selling socks needs to have a different title tag than your page selling shoes. If the template won’t let you customize this, or automatically generates the same title tag for every page of your site, you’re sunk. It’s not a good deal.

2) Can I customize the Meta Tags?
Though meta tags are not important to your search engine rankings, the meta description tag is what many search engines will use as the second line in your search engine listings. The following image shows you how Google uses your title and meta description tag:

As you can see from the above example, the meta description nicely describes what that page is going to be about, and having a clear, well-written meta tag can cause people to click on your listing if it looks like what they want. The meta tag, like the title tag, is something which is generally programmed in the internal code of the site. With template-sites, the company needs to offer you a way to access these areas of the code, via a form, or via direct access to the code. The other meta tag most commonly asked about is the meta keywords tag, but we don’t feel it’s really important enough to worry about. However, do worry if the template you’re considering doesn’t let you customize the Meta Description tag for each and every page of your site.

3) Can I access and alter the code?
For many non-technical people, this isn’t going to matter to them much, because they feel they wouldn’t know what to do with the code even if they could get to it. However, for people who are hoping to really customize the form and function of their webstore, be advised that few templates are going to allow you to do this. For instance, if you realize you’d be making more money if you could display 3 different photos of a product, but the template only allows you to show 2, chances are, you’re stuck with the setup. Or, if you wanted to reverse whether your photos or description show right/left or top/bottom and you can’t change this, you may be very frustrated.

Of particular concern is the ability to create an HTaccess file that fixes duplicate content issues within your site. You need to be able to 301 redirect your www and non-www names so that they resolve to a single location. This is an issue you can learn more about as you study SEO, but for now, just make sure that the template company lets you create an HTaccess file. Some of them do not. Being able to access the code of your site affects too many areas to really recount here, but you’ll know the answer to all of them by discovering whether the internal code can be accessed or altered.

4) Does the template include Header Tags?
The big bold tag at the beginning of this article is called an H1 (header one) tag. The slightly smaller bold line after it is an H2 tag. I haven’t come across a template that includes these, and as they are an important way to emphasize the contents of a web page, having to do without them would bother me a lot. Obviously, there are thousands of template companies out there, so there may be some that do enable you to use Header Tags. I surely haven’t seen everything that’s out there – not by a long shot! But, if I were picking a template, I would want to be able to use header tags to improve my chances of good search engine rankings.

5) Is the navigation menu HTML, images or javascript?
This is important. You want your menu to be done in straight HTML. It’s the only language search engines can read. If a template’s menu has to created with image buttons, or those roll-out, drop-down javascript menus, this is not good news. Both options will be blank to the search engines and you will be losing a vital chance to list your most important keywords so that the folks at Google, Yahoo & MSN know what you’re selling. How do you know if the menu is in HTML? Left click on your mouse while you scroll over an item in the menu. Does this highlight the text and allow you the option to copy and paste it? If so, it’s HTML. If not, it may be image text, javascript, or flash.

6) Is there a limit on the number of content pages I can create?
This is crucial. Because the amount of good, keyword-rich, relevant written text content on a site can determine whether it ranks #1 or #100, a package that will only give you 5 pages for you to write content on is not going to suffice. I’m not talking about product pages. I’m talking about the articles you will need to be writing to promote your business, better your rankings, win traffic and gain valuable inbound links from visitors. If you aren’t given the space to do this, or the template company is going to nickel and dime you for every bit of space you can use to write content on, it’s a bad deal.

7) Are the URLs static or dynamic?
Look up at the www of this web page. That’s a ‘static’ URL and is quite simple for the search engines to index. A dynamic URL looks something like this:

http://www.bigstores.com/gp/product/A4450385390/199-7320583968394- 2348593003-?v=glance&n=35892394&m=DJGIEHEIFFF&n=5939234996&s=page&v=site

Wow! Is that long! What’s going on here is that you are seeing a query going to a database to bring up whatever page the person visiting the site is looking for. I don’t want to get too technical here, but the problem with the above URL is that it may be harder for a search engine spider to crawl or index than a nice, short static URL. If your page can’t be indexed, it will never be brought up for anyone to see when they are searching in a search engine. The bad news is that nearly all template-based websites are dynamic, database sites. However, the smart techie guys have come up with ways to rewrite bad dynamic URLs with search engine-friendly URLs. BUT, if your template company doesn’t offer friendly URLs, you may be in trouble. You will need to find out whether the URLs are search engine-friendly or not. They may come friendly, or you may have to learn how to rewrite them to be friendly. But, whichever route you take, they need to be friendly!

8) How does it function?
How easy is it to navigate the stores belonging to other people using this company’s templates? Does the menu allow them to get FROM any page in the site TO any page of the site in a maximum of 2-3 clicks? Or is it a maze, fit only for dwarves to tunnel through? How about the checkout? Is it clunky, or is it easy to buy something? Does the shopping cart offer the shipping options you want to offer your customers? Does it have inventory control? How fast do the pages load? These considerations and many more determine the quality of the function of any website, and they are all important factors.

9) Is the company being run by spammers?
Is part of the incentive of buying the company’s product that they guarantee your Top 10 Google ranking in 30 days? Do they guarantee it at all? Do they promise to submit your website to 400 search engines, every month? Do they say they are going to submit it to any search engines at all? Do they say you’ll be automatically linked to many high-ranking websites, thus increasing your value? If you can answer yes to any of the above, walk away. You’re dealing with spammers. I won’t go into explaining all these things here, but they are surefire giveaways that you’re dealing with bad guys.

10) Do you own your domain name?
Be absolutely positive about this. If the template provider only allows you to use your domain name in conjunction with their templates or their design services, walk away. We have recently discovered that this is the case with Homestead.com – one of the Internet’s best known webstore builders. Your domain is one of the most important purchases you will ever make for your business. You need to be able to do whatever you want with it and take it with you wherever you need to go, no strings attached.

11) Are there hidden costs?
Do your homework on this one, folks. It’s all very well that a ‘basic level’ store from Super Online Fantastic Stores only cost $10 a month, but if it only lets you sell 10 products and you’ve got a garage full of china to sell, you’re going to be rather annoyed to discover that your ACTUAL cost of having a store with Super Online Fantastic Stores is $200 a month. Most template sites appear to offer different levels of store packages. Things like Silver, Gold and Platinum level stores, or however they categorize them. Different levels may offer different numbers of products you can sell, pages you can have, shopping cart features, shipping options and what have you. Figure out BEFOREHAND which one you’re actually going to need and whether you will need to pay extra for features and plug-ins that are going to be essential to running your specific business. For sure, you need to ascertain whether the store builder charges an up-front rent fee or if they take a percentage of your sales. We do NOT like the latter offer. They don’t deserve a cut of your sales and we really dislike this kind of a deal. And, don’t forget, companies have been known to hike their fees. It may cost more to be running the same store 3 years from now, just because the template provider has raised the rent.

12) How does it look?
Sad to say, most template sites do produce that fast food store-in-the-box look. Though function is always going to be vastly more important than visuals, I’ve got to say, some of the templates out there are pretty embarrassing to look at. I recently looked into a template company someone asked me about and saw that a ton of the store owners were using the same glaring blue background for all of their websites. Not only did it make one store look exactly like another (terrible for company branding) but it was simply horrid to look at. Nightmare web design! Being a small business doesn’t mean looking cheap on-line. For our own clients, we do go with the simplest, cleanest look we can possibly design. Simpler sites make more money, and we do go with the same basic format for most of them, with a logo up top, navigation menu at the top or left hand side, and main body of content in the middle. You don’t want to be silly and get away from this. It’s what folks are used to and you don’t want your customers to need to learn special new skills in order to shop with you. But, when you’ve got a situation where your store looks amateurish, or looks like everyone else’s, it’s not a happy thing.

13) How about support?
Is there a phone number? Or just an e-mail address? If your site suddenly goes down, who will help you and how quickly? Do you get a quick response from the sales staff, but a sluggish one from the tech support? Believe me, it’s the skill and speed of the tech support that’s going to matter. Who cares about the salespeople, however nice they are, once you’ve bought the product? What you care about is how the tech support will respond to your urgent and long term needs. Give the tech staff a ring, if possible, or send an email. How quickly do they reply? Can you understand their response? Due to the fact that many companies outsource their tech support to foreign countries, being able to understand the operators has become an important factor. Please understand, I’m a student of many languages and would not dream of putting down another person because they haven’t mastered our confusing English idiom. However, I have frequently had the extremely frustrating experience of trying to discuss a complicated technical issue over the phone with a tech support guy whom I simply can’t understand because of the language barrier. It’s not his fault. It’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the company who isn’t paying enough to hire people with adequate language skills for their tech communications department. I have run into the same problem with U.S.-based telemarketers whose enunciation is so poor, I don’t have a clue what they are trying to sell me. It’s one thing if the fellow is trying to sell me something – it’s an entirely different matter when I desperately need to know why a malfunction is happening that is preventing me from doing business. So, contact the tech support before making a purchase of a template package and see what you think.

14) Are other people succeeding with this store builder template?
Don’t rely on the testimonials being displayed on the company’s site. Though it’s quite possible that, “Joe Jones made $50 billion dollars in just 3 weeks with his store!”, do realize that any business is going to put their best face forward. They aren’t going to list the complaints and problems. Some unscrupulous companies may simply make up nice things to say about themselves. So, how do you find out the truth? Go to Google and type in the company name. Scroll down and see what comes up. Are people writing to off-site message boards screaming about the problems they had with such and such company? You can even do a Google search for “I hate __________” or “Problems with ______________” or “Terrible ________”, filling in the company name. See what comes up. In some cases, you may even be able to find a user or past user of the product to talk to, to hear what they like or dislike about the company. Obviously, you’ve got to be smart about this. If someone failed to make a million dollars selling second-hand doughnuts, chances are, that’s not the template’s fault. But, if the people are making reasonable complaints such as that the cart had terrible bugs, the tech support wouldn’t respond to them, the code wasn’t search engine friendly, prick up your ears before you part with your dollar.

Reading the Above Results
If any template I was considering did not meet the criteria of points #1-#10 above, it would be a deal-breaker for me. These are the vital issues, and without them being up to snuff, anyone using the template will be handicapping themselves in the Internet Marketplace. As we see it, small businesses need to take advantage of any edge they can get, when they are competing not only against millions of other small businesses, but also against manufacturers and corporations. Points #11-#14 are also very important, but deal more with how professional you’re going to look to your customers and how you’re going to like working with the company.

But what if you can’t find a templated store builder that meets criteria 1-10? Well, as I see it, you’ve got three options at that point. A) You’ll have to try to pick the least of evils of what’s being offered, so to speak, bearing in mind that the result could mean months or years of wasted time and a heap of wasted money. B) You’ll need to REALLY do it all yourself by becoming a web designer and SEO pro. C) You’ll need to hire pros to accomplish what you need.

But isn’t it going to be really expensive to work with a professional web designer/SEO?

I do hear this a lot, and my answer is that it depends on what your idea of expensive is, and who you work with. Renting a store is not going to be free. If you’re paying out $70/month to a template company for the total cost of running your store, that means it’s costing you $840/year for your store. So that means $1680 for 2 years, $2520 for 3 years, $3360 for 4 years and so on. If you’re making a good profit from this – good deal! But, if the store isn’t ranking anywhere or making any sales – bad deal. And it becomes a really bad deal when you’ve invested 4 years of time and $3360 in a site that isn’t making the sales you need.

Conversely, if your business has a saleable product, and you are able to pay a few thousand dollars up-front for a site that’s free of handicaps, and this results in you making back the initial investment in a matter of months, you can see why so many small business owners end up going with this route (sadly, often after years of headaches!).

I want to state clearly here that I don’t believe that the type of services a firm like ours offers are going to be right for everybody. In point of fact, we end up turning a major percentage of potential clients away either because we don’t think they have a saleable product, or because our skills are not a good match for their specific needs. Being a small firm, we have to be kind of picky about how many clients we take on so that we don’t spread ourselves too thin. We need to be able to attend to every client’s individual needs, every week of the year. We want happy clients, and we want successful clients, so we won’t take a client on unless we feel very confident that this will be the result of them working with us.

Can you do it yourself?
Yes, you can! If you’ve got the time and dedication to learn about search engine-friendly web design, usablility, advanced SEO, and Internet Marketing, you can do everything your business needs by yourself, without having to pay anyone else. You can learn about all of these things for free, from sites like ours and the sites being run by our respected colleagues in this industry. We love talking about our work, and our articles, blogs, and public conversations are a virtual education in all of the topics that relate to creating and maintaining a terrific website. But, this is going to require a serious investment of your time. If you can make that commitment, it’s going to be hugely beneficial to you. It will cut your costs down to almost nothing, and make you completely self-empowered. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

All of the above being said, it may well be going with a template-based store builder package will be the best option for many small businesses. And it may be that consumers will eventually be so well-educated that they will demand a better product than what we see most template store companies offering at present. By having read this article, you have just raised the bar! We wish you the very best of success in all of your business ventures.

Does the template-based store you run your small business on meet all of the above criteria 1-10? If so, we’d like to hear about it. Please, don’t be annoying and spam us if you own the template company! We are only interested in hearing from users. We may eventually add a comparison chart to this article, and your thoughts would be appreciated if you think the template you use makes the grade. If you would like to assist us in our goal of educating small web business owners, bookmark this checklist and let us know which points 1-14 your template store is hitting or missing.

Are you a true-blue do-it-yourself small web business owner? Read our Simple SEO Guide for the Small Web Business to begin educating yourself. The testimonials on the friendliness of this guide are flowing in, and the information it contains will be vital to the success of any small web business!