There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. – Colin Powell

game plan diagramAs I mention on the Making Money Online – My Story page of this website, I learned eCommerce from the Hermansen brothers and if you are really serious about building an eCommerce business, there is no better training available than their Store Coach course. Considering how comprehensive it is, the $277 price tag is dirt cheap. Far worse courses are selling online for five times that much money! That said, I can certainly give you the basics for how to build an online business so that you know what is really involved.

Folks who know me will most surely tell you that I don’t always do things the “normal” way. When people ask me how to build an online business, I tell them that they need to have a well thought out game plan. The Store Coach course lays out an excellent set of steps but I do things a little bit differently. Although the order of the steps in the Store Coach course work well for most people, I have modified them a bit to suit the way I do things and the way that I think makes the most sense.

Whether you are building an eCommerce website or an affiliate website, the steps are exactly the same. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be providing more details about each of the steps, below, and will link to that content from this base article. Much of that content will come in the form of articles that others have already published (or will publish but they don’t know it yet); some of it will come from yours truly.

In a nutshell, here are the steps I use to build a successful online business and the order I do them in, followed by a brief explanation of each. I hope that when you are done reading the summaries of each step, you’ll see why I do them in the order I have laid out.

  1. Find A Niche
  2. Research Potential Suppliers
  3. Build A Shell Website
  4. Find A Supplier
  5. Become Known
  6. Do Intense Keyword Research
  7. Build Your Site
  8. Add Tracking To Your Website
  9. Market Your Website
  10. Fine Tune Your Website

Step 1 – Find A Niche

magnifying glass and keywordsObviously, it’s pretty hard to make money online if you don’t have something to sell. The very first step is figuring out what that will be. After brainstorming a bunch of ideas, you’ll have to do some rudimentary research to figure out what the demand for your product line is and how hard it is going to be to compete with other online stores.

Frankly, at this stage, I’m not all that concerned with the keyword phrases that I’ll use or how hard they will be to rank for. Give me a set of products, and I’ll come up with a fairly decent set of keyword phrases to target. What I’m looking for is a concept for a store. I want to see that there are many keyword phrases that are being searched for that revolve around a related set of products. Hopefully, after inserting a seed keyword into a keyword research tool, I’ll see a few closely related phrases that have at least 50 searches per day that don’t look overly difficult to rank for. I’ll use them all!

There are tons of tools out there that can help you discover potential niche ideas and the better ones are paid tools. The best free one is the Google Keyword Planner. Although you do have to set up a Google AdWords account and provide credit card information, no money will ever be charged to that card if you don’t run any ads.

Step 2 – Research Potential Suppliers

eyeball and microscopeBefore you get into any real work, you’ll want to make sure that there is at least some sort of supplier out there. The good news is, if all else fails, there’s nearly a 100% chance that somebody is selling what you’d like to sell on Amazon and you can earn a little bit of money referring people to Amazon. You should also check to see if there are better affiliate programs out there by simply entering your product line and the word “affiliate” into your search engine of choice.

Of course, you’ll definitely want to see if you can get real wholesale prices, too, by contacting manufacturers or distributors directly. If you can find a wholesaler who will dropship products directly to people, your profits will be MUCH higher than affiliate commissions are. Yes, you’ll have to do a little more work with each sale but making 5 to 10 times more money per sale (or more) is usually worth it.

At this stage, though, be content just knowing that if all else fails, there is at least an opportunity for making a little bit of money as an affiliate. You’ll contact the manufacturers or distributors in Step 4 after you have your act together a little more!

Step 3 – Build A Shell Website

shell with www.mywebsite.comEven if you end up only having an affiliate website, you’re still going to need to have a website before you can sign up for affiliate commissions with practically every place except Amazon. This is going to cost you a little bit of money – plan on less than $25 (a very modest sum for a business investment).

First, you’re going to need a domain name. I always use GoDaddy.com for purchasing a domain name. The reason I use them is that they are the best place to buy aged domains and, since I use them for that, I prefer keeping all of my domain names in one place (I’ve got enough passwords to remember). I can also get a friendly, helpful person on the phone whenever I need them at GoDaddy (I will always be glad to pay a little more when a company offers stellar service).

You can save about two dollars off GoDaddy’s price by getting your domain name from NameCheap.com. I cannot vouch for them, personally, because I have never seen the need to save two whole dollars. “Go with the devil you know,” I always say! They may or may not offer phone support as good as GoDaddy’s. I know many people who use them and haven’t heard anything bad, though.

There are tons of options for setting up online shops but for now, I’m happy with a simple WordPress site, listing a couple dozen products in a few categories and leaving it at that. At this stage, we are not trying to really sell anything – we’re just building something so that potential suppliers can see that we are a legitimate business and not just someone who is trying to buy something for themselves at a wholesale price.

Unique copy on product pages is not important at all at this point. Just copy and paste whatever Amazon (or your affiliate supplier) has for product descriptions. I would highly recommend blocking your shell website completely from all search engines via a robots.txt file, though. You sure don’t want search engines seeing a bunch of thin or duplicate content as their first impression of your website!

That website is going to need to be hosted somewhere. I cannot say this emphatically enough; DON’T GO WITH A DIRT CHEAP WEBHOSTING COMPANY! I have tried various different hosting companies over the years and HostGator is miles ahead of the rest. Once again, they are a couple of dollars more per month than the “el cheapo” companies, but you definitely get what you pay for when it comes to web hosting! HostGator has the best website uptime in the industry, far better server speed than the cheap companies and if you get into a jam, they have incredibly knowledgeable and helpful telephone support that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

If you want their best deal, sign up for the Business Package. For less than $15/month, it includes unlimited bandwidth, a toll free phone number AND a private SSL certificate and static IP address. You can choose one of the cheaper $7/month plans for now, though, since this is only a shell website. You can upgrade to the Business Package later if you still think things are a “go” after Step 4.

Step 4 – Find A Supplier

supplier warehouseIf you aren’t going to set up a real eCommerce business and will only be running an affiliate website, you don’t have to do this step at all, since you won’t be buying from manufacturers or wholesalers.

This is really the “make or break” stage, though, for people trying to set up a real web store. Whether or not you can get true wholesale prices will determine how much work, if any, you put into your new website idea. This is also the stage that freaks people out the most. Bite the bullet, pick up the phone and make the calls. The worst they can do is say no, which puts you no worse off than you were before you dialed the number.

The main reason for setting up your shell website is so that you have something to show manufacturers so that they can see that you are for real. If you can get them to take a look while you are on the phone with them, you can use it as a tool. Asking them which products of theirs they think you should feature on the home page is one method I use for getting “minor agreement” from them. Once you get them talking about things they’d like you to add, they’ve all but said they are going to set you up with an account!

If you’d like to know about how I, personally, go about contacting suppliers, I did a guest post on the Store Coach Blog about it – Finding a Supplier (it’s like butter!).

Before you call a supplier, you’re going to need to do a few things. You’ll need to register for a DBA and get a tax ID (also called a resale certificate and several other names) with your state. All depending on the state you are in, this could cost you anywhere from $25-$100. Sorry, but you’ve got to spend a little bit of money to make money. If you’re just going to run an affiliate site, you don’t need to register with your state for anything.

If you’re not from the United States and are trying to get a U.S. supplier, it gets a little harder. Many U.S. suppliers simply will not do business with foreign entities, for whatever reason. Because of that, many internationals set up a U.S. business entity, usually in New Mexico or Delaware.

If you can’t find a wholesaler and are happy making a few bucks here and there as an affiliate for someone else, that’s fine. Just remember that there are thousands of other niches out there and that it is sometimes better to leave an idea for a store behind, at least for now. Move onto another eCommerce store idea before you invest too much time and effort into a website where you will only be making a fraction of the profits by being an affiliate for someone else who is making the real money.

Step 5 – Become Known

having an audienceA whole bunch of training courses have this step much further down the line in the process but they are wrong (yeah, I said it!). You know what you are going to sell and you have a supplier. You’re going to be spending a good deal of time building your website and I guarantee you that you will need a break from the tedium.

Find forums related to your product niche – even if they are only loosely related – and start participating. Find non-competitor blogs about your niche and get to know the authors of those blogs by commenting frequently on them. Hit Twitter and Google+ Groups and become involved.

After your website is finally built, the relationships you develop during this stage can really pay off. It takes time to develop those relationships and if you wait until after your website is complete, you will have lost a lot of time. Not only that, but you’ll be tempted to only talk about yourself and your site – a definite turnoff! If you’re already known and respected in a community, an occasional plug won’t be frowned upon as much.

Step 6 – Do Intense Keyword Research

excercising with keyword reerach wordsBefore I write a single word on any page of a for-profit website, I want to know all of the different “money” words that are available for me to use. Each and every page is going to be built around a different keyword phrase and I want to know what those words are now because I don’t want to waste hundreds of hours doing re-writes later.

Don’t get me wrong; you definitely DO NOT want to intentionally build a website around words just to get them on a page. You’re going to want to map out the most logical and user friendly category structure that you can. After figuring out the best way of organizing your website for visitors, you’ll want to create keyword groups and use them on pages that are already part of your navigation.

There’s no ultra simple explanation for how you should use your keyword groups. I humbly submit that the best article I know of about how to use keyword phrases you have researched on your webpages is one that I wrote for the Store Coach BlogGroup Your Keywords for Better On-Page SEO.

Step 7 – Build Your Website

contruction worker drilling laptopBeing a writer, this is my favorite part of the whole process of building a website business. I finally get to put words on a page and, even more fun, I get to play with the site design!

There is definitely a way that your pages need to be built in order for them to have a better chance of showing up in the search engines. Proper title tags, header tags, meta description tags and image alt tags are some of the “behind the scenes” things that nobody ever sees on your website but they play a very important role in search engine rankings, click-through rates and even conversions.

There are also complicated sounding things like canonicalization, pagination, robots.txt files and noindex/nofollow tags. Authorship and schema markup are other technical things you’ll need to be aware of. Yeah, websites aren’t just words and pretty pictures; there’s a whole lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that can make or break you as far as search rankings go!

You are going to want to look at all of the top sites within your niche and see whose category navigation makes the most sense by putting yourself into your customers’ shoes and thinking about how they would most likely try to navigate to a product.

You’re going to need to leave those “customer shoes” on while you write unique category pages and product descriptions, too. Make sure that any question a visitor might have is answered on your pages and they’ll have no reason to go looking for answers someplace else! I wrote a piece for the Store Coach Blog that explains all of the questions you should be answering on your pages – “How Journalism 101 Can Improve Your Ecommerce Website.”

When you are finished with all of the writing, you’ll want to add things that enhance your website. I wouldn’t waste a ton of time on tweaking the design – at least at the beginning. Getting traffic is more important than wasting tons of time making “good enough,” “perfect.” I would definitely get a professionally designed logo, since it is your brand and is going to appear on every page of the website in the header. Trust seals, banners, live chat and a toll free number are all things you may want to consider as well as social sharing buttons. Having more than one payment processor is also a very good idea!

Step 8 – Add Tracking To Your Website

gps satellitesThere are quite a few maintenance items you will want to take care of before you announce your website to the world. You need to have proper tracking codes embedded into your website so that you can get a true picture of how well it is performing.

You’ll want to sign up for Bing and Google Webmaster Tools accounts so that you can be aware of any issues the two biggest search engines may have with your website. It’s also essential that you install Google Analytics as well as Conversion Tracking so that you can see what is working and what isn’t.

Step 9 – Market Your Website

spreading the word onlineIt is now time to start marketing your website. You will want to take advantage of the relationships you built in Step 5 and leverage them for links to your website. The more links you have from quality websites that are related to yours, the higher you will climb in the search engine rankings.

You’ll want to look around places like Yahoo Answers to see if there are questions that you can answer with a link to your website and you’ll sometimes need to create content on your website specifically built to answer questions you find there and on forums that you can link to. If you can find quality directories that specifically target your niche, you’ll want to get listings in them.

You’ll definitely need to be very careful about where you get backlinks from; though, a few bad links can send your whole website business crashing down. Stay far away from automated link building tools, cheap SEO services and from paid links. Any short term gains they might get you now could damage your website forever down the road. If a link to your website can be obtained easily, it’s probably a link you don’t want!

Especially at the beginning, you’ll definitely want to look at various paid advertising and shopping directories to get traffic to your website and experiment with as many of them as you can. Some will be pretty profitable;  others won’t be. Even after you start ranking well organically and getting natural traffic, there is no reason to stop advertising as long as it is profitable.

Finally, there are three things you need to remember about marketing your website:

  1. Marketing is a Never Ending Process: I hate to tell you this, but marketing never stops. You can’t market a website until your results are good, the money is pouring in and call it a day. A website that stands still is soon passed by others. Pole Position Marketing President, Stoney G deGeyter, explains this quite well in his article, “SEO All Over All Over Again, Again: Part II.”
  2. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is Always Evolving: The search engines are constantly tweaking their algorithms in order to keep people from gaming the system and taking advantage of flaws that allow them to rank higher than they should probably rank. What works today, may not work tomorrow. That is why I do not recommend anything but “white hat SEO.” Of course, you never know; what we may think is “white hat” today, may be seen as a bit darker of a shade tomorrow. That’s why you need to constantly monitor what’s going on in the SEO community to stay on top of algorithm changes. Of course, if you just subscribe to our RSS feed, you’ll only have to check one place. Staying on top of what is going on in the SEO industry is what this website is all about!
  3. Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Basket: A major algorithm change can cause your search rankings to plummet (or rise). You should never rely on any search engine to bring you the majority of your business. Market your website in as many different channels as you possibly can. Many successful website businesses are wiped out overnight that rely on one search engines alone when an algorithm change occurs that causes them to disappear from their once-prominent ranking positions.

Step 10 – Fine Tune Your Website

tuning knobsAnyone who is successful online will tell you that there is no such thing as a “set it and forget it” website. You will constantly want to tweak things to see if you can get better conversion rates, get slightly more money per sale and, of course, get more visitors to your website.

The best way of knowing for sure that you are on the right path is by split testing things. Try one change (and one change at a time only), wait until it has had enough impressions and keep the change if it results in more visitors and/or sales. If things get worse, switch back or try something else. There are practically an unlimited number of things that can be fine tuned on a website!

Anne Holland put together a great website – Which Test Won? – that shows the results of lots of different split tests that are being tried with the results of a new split test featured every week. Although I do not recommend assuming that the results of a split test on one website will be the same on another, it’s a great place to get ideas for things you can split test, yourself!

Rinse and Repeat

figure in showerAnd there you have it – my game plan for how to build an online business. Once you’ve done it once, you can do it over and over again. I’m relatively new to this game, having only really been at it for five years. In that time as a “one man show,” I’ve built ten websites and all of them were profitable. Some were certainly bigger successes than others but I’ve never built a website that lost money.

Sometimes, the niches that I think are going to be goldmines turn out to be not so great at all. Others that I think have limited potential have ended up being the best money makers of them all. If you take the time to do everything correctly in the right order and don’t skip steps, it’s almost impossible to NOT make at least some money!

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Scott McKirahan

Scott McKirahan is a full time owner of several successful e commerce websites and has been involved in SEO since the late 1990's. He has been published on a variety of websites with articles ranging from politics to sports to Website Tips to SEO and is a member of several web related forums where he often goes by the names "Scooter," "Scotty Mack" or some variant of those names.

4 thoughts on “How To Build An Online Business – The Game Plan!

  1. Thanks , I’ve just been searching for info approximately this subject for ages and yours is the best I have came upon till now. But, what in regards to the bottom line? Are you positive in regards to the supply?|What i do not realize is actually how you are now not really much more neatly-appreciated than you might be now. You are very intelligent.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. As I state on the My Story page, I have been ghost writing for a few places the last few years, so much of what I write is not published under my own name. You will, however, find some things here and there under my name when there is no way anyone would believe that anyone other than myself wrote it.

      I’m not sure what you are asking in regards to whether I am “positive about the supply” or not. The supply side of this business has always been the hardest. A good supplier with good margins can make or break a website. That said, worse comes to worst, if they are selling it on Amazon, at least you know that you can sell the product as an affiliate and make a little bit of commission for the referral to Amazon. More often than you might think, once your website is ranking well, those suppliers that initially turned you down come knocking on your door, asking for you to carry their products once they see that you are a “player.”

      Be sure to read the What TO Sell Online and, just as important, the What NOT to sell Online articles. They might answer some of your supply/supplier quesitons.

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