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This guide describes exactly how to set up a WordPress ecommerce site using the WooCommerce plugin.
The WordPress platform was originally started as a way to blog online. Over the years, it has evolved into a fully-fledged “content management system” – in other words, supporting software that can “power” any type of site – including an e-commerce site.
However, WordPress as an e-commerce platform is not good for everyone. Here’s a brief overview of the reasons it would be good fit:
- You want complete control over your site
- You just want to make other parts of your site that are not ecommerce (blog, pages, etc.)
- You do not want the monthly and transaction fees of an integrated e-commerce platform like Shopify or BigCommerce
- You want to start small and build a website as you grow (i.e. avoid costs while doing it)
- You are not amazed at any technical work – i.e. the “FTP” alias makes you more curious than scared (note – WordPress was created to be easy for first timers, but it’s not a click, not a click, but a finished software)
- Initially, you do not plan to have a complicated payment processing system (i.e., you will use PayPal, Amazon, or Google Wallet rather than processing payments on your own server). WooCommerce works perfectly on SSL, but again, you’ll need that expertise to implement it properly
- You want a common platform where you can easily involve developers on your project as you grow
WordPress will not let it suit you if:
- You want to easily download all the hosting and technical details (especially speed, etc.)
- You plan to have a complete (i.e. non-PayPal) integrated payment / inventory system from the start without the help of a developer (i.e. you will sell on platforms like eBay / Etsy and will need to automatically update inventory numbers – WooCommerce can do this, but it can be complicated)
- You want dedicated customer support that is already paid for
- Each month, you want one single predictable cost of software, not a potential developer account
If WordPress not look good in line, you should check out either Shopify (see their plans here) or BigCommerce (see their plans here) for an all inclusive ecommerce platform. Note – I wrote a quiz to help you choose the best ecommerce platform for your needs here and compared WooCommerce to Shopify here.
Otherwise, let’s dive into the guide.
Getting Started – Install WordPress
Your absolute first step to using WordPress for your ecommerce site is to actually install WordPress on a hosting account with your domain name. Here’s my step-by-step guide to setting up WordPress for a hosting account if you don’t already have one.
Ecommerce sites need even more PHP memory than a regular WordPress installation because they are larger and more complex than a simple blog. Having thousands of products + thousands of visitors can add even more requests to your hosting account.
If you’re starting small (hundreds of products, low thousands of visitors), it’s a good shared linux hosting account (like the one I mentioned in the setup guide), but should have more than 64M memory … preferably 256M.
I recommend InMotion Hosting (see their plans here) with HostGator (see their plans here) and SiteGround (see their plans here) as good options (I reviewed them here, here and here).
If you are starting with large numbers (thousands of products, thousands of visitors), you will need either a managed WordPress hosting company account like WP Engine (see their plans here) or a VPS hosting account from InMotion.
An introduction to WordPress e-commerce capabilities
There are indeed three components that make a regular website an “ecommerce” website – product pages, shopping carts and billing.
You can add WordPress ecommerce functionality using the plugin. Add-ons are separate pieces of software that you install and activate in WordPress, which basically contributes to what it can do.
In this case, we need an add-on that will create custom product pages that will have shopping cart functionality that allows individual visitors to add products to the cart all the time while they are on the site and that will sync with the payment system in accept payments and match payments for purchased visitor products. Wow.
They are there a lots of a plugin option to turn your WordPress site into an ecommerce site, but far and away the leader is WooCommerce by Automattic (the people behind WordPress.com and JetPack).
It has the functionality, ease of use, reputation, community and versatility to be a solid long-term choice for an ecommerce plugin.
It is the most desirable ecommerce platform tailored for search engine optimization. I am an SEO expert who has worked on major brand platforms, and from an SEO perspective, I would love to work with WooCommerce. It gets rid of most duplicate content (SEO plague for online stores) and has a schema tag embedded.
In addition, the company that creates it, WooThemes, has been a core part of the WordPress community for years. In fact, Woocommerce was purchased by the same company that owns WordPress.com and supports the WordPress.org Foundation. Since they opened the software … it won’t go away anytime soon.
It has the support and a lot of versatility for what you will need.
Oh – and for free.
Here’s WooTheme’s sales description and review.
Fast aside – Whenever something is free, you should look for a catch. In this case, WooThemes makes money by providing WooCommerce extensions for things like advanced inventory management, direct credit card processing (i.e., the free version syncs with PayPal, but not directly with your credit card processor). WooThemes also sells custom themes that are encouraged but not needed.
While there are solid alternatives like MarketPress, if you plan on going to WordPress for your online store – I recommend using WooCommerce for its strong developer base, app store, and compatibility with a range of plugins and themes. What this guide will focus on.
WooCommerce has tons of options and tons of documentation. Here’s how I mainly install it for clients with an emphasis on things that are often consumed by first timers. It may seem daunting, but it is really simple once they have the handle of the general building.
Install your ecommerce plugin
To get started with WooCommerce, go to the WordPress dashboard and add a new plugin. Search for WooCommerce and simply install and activate WooCommerce by WooThemes.
After activating your plugin, you will be prompted to install WooCommerce with a wizard that will take care of the initial settings. It’s worth it.
WooCommerce needs several pages to function – including a shopping cart page, etc. There is one page, the Store page, that you may want to customize. But for now, you can let the wizard install these pages.
You will then need to set your location, units and currency. Make sure you record your tax rates. You can edit and change them later.
And now for shipping and tax. You can (and will have to) change / adjust this later in Settings. But for now, you can enter the general settings to start a store.
You will then need to make payments. Payments are the strictest part of running your own store. I recommend joining PayPal to get started. Optionally, you can explore other options in the settings.
Next you will need to post a theme (i.e. your own design / layout). WooCommerce has a lot of unique design classes that need to be covered. I recommend using the default Storefront theme as your placeholder as you post products and purchase a new theme. I will cover that in the following sections.
Now that WooCommerce is installed – you can learn more about the product, head to the New Product page, or return to the WordPress dashboard. I recommend that you go to the Create Your First Product page so you can go through the expert guide and check the information you need to enter.
If you click “create your first product” – you will be sent to a new product page. I recommend exploring the product page to see what you need – but don’t really add new products (except for the test product to see what your design / theme looks like). Your next step will be to check that your store URL structure is correct and that the WordPress theme integrates with your new ecommerce feature. Otherwise, you will create a mess later.
Aside – aside from theme compatibility, keep in mind that there are many third-party add-ons that will sync with WooCommerce. Make a note of these options. For example, consider Analytics.
Referring to the ecommerce analytics available in Analytics would be very helpful would be humbling. But you cannot take advantage of this if the analytical tracking of your site is not set up correctly.
You should use Google Analytics by MonsterInsights (formerly Yoast) to integrate with Google Analytics, but we want to go a step further and tag your online store with a lot of specialized ecommerce tracking (like sending SKUs and item attributes seamlessly to Analytics).
To do this, return to the Add New Add-ins section and look for the WooCommerce Google Analytics integration. It’s also produced by WooThemes, and it’s free. Install and activate. Boom – you just added the tracking that agencies usually sell for $$$$. You can do the same for Yoast SEO and many other plugins.
Now that you have WooCommerce installed, move on to the site structure before moving to General Settings.
Setting Up Your Online Store Structure
One big advantage of WordPress + WooCommerce is its efficient setup durable i.e., “permanent connections”. Online stores often have a thousand ways plus one to display products. It can generate really inefficient, ugly, and obscene search engine URLs for your products and product categories.
Once you’ve set up a permanent connection structure, it’s hard to change that. Although the default values are generally the best, I like to confirm them before moving to General Settings or anything related to design. To get started, go to the new WooCommerce link in Control Panel -> WooCommerce -> Settings -> Products.
WooCommerce needs a product archive page that will display all your products and / or categories. Think of it as your blog page displaying all your recent posts … but with your products.
WooCommerce uses the standard WordPress site for this archive. By default, this is the Store page. You can edit this name in Pages -> All Pages. You can create a new page. You can call it anything (i.e. “store”). You can leave it the default.
Your visitors do not need to see this or go to the main settings -> read and make it their homepage. But it must exist, and this is where you need to adjust it.
Once you’ve verified that page, click the link to view the permanent links to your product.
This site allows you to set up lasting WordPress links and permanent links to your products. When setting up WordPress for the first time, you should have enabled Pretty Permanent Connections (see here).
These lasting links are structured so that they never conflict with the blog categories you can write. But they are customizable if you want to customize them. For example, if you have the Gloves product category … but the Gloves blog category, then they will appear by default as
Makes sense? Super. Usually the defaults are cool, but if you want to customize them, do it here. I also generally choose the Product option within the Permalink product, simply for the sake of aesthetics.
Your online store setup is now complete. Feel free to head over to the new product link in the main WordPress Dashboard to create an example product or category to see how the URLs look before you move on.
Get a compatible WordPress theme
Before we get to General Settings, make sure your WordPress theme is compatible and set up with WooCommerce.
As a WordPress refresher, plugins manage the functionality of your website. Themes control the design and “output” of your functionality – i.e. what the visitor will see.
An add-on like WooCommerce adds a lot of functionality that some themes aren’t built to handle or print properly (especially themes with lots of built-in choices). It’s important to find a topic that doesn’t make product pages as nasty and ugly.
Accordingly, you will also need a versatile theme that can be designed, updated and generally left to the site you want.
There are several options that I recommend.
First, you can get the WooThemes theme. They are premium (i.e. not free), well made and (of course) perfectly in sync with WooCommerce. This is the easiest (especially with integrated support) but the most expensive solution. Check out their selection here.
Second, you can use a WordPress theme task, like twenty-twelve. They are free, well made and can be expanded by installing a Child theme. Your installation probably already has it, but you can grab it via Themes -> Add New. This will be the cheapest option, but also one that requires some technical work to get the site you want.
Third, you can head to a market with high quality standards like ThemeForest and get a premium theme compatible with WooCommerce. These are well made and very simple solutions, but be sure to determine what you are looking for in a theme. Many over-sell their features. But here be sure to browse through your chosen selection of ThemeForest. I have also highlighted 25 of my favorites here.
Fourth, you can get a theme box like Genesis by StudioPress. My preferred way is to create websites. Genesis adds some critical theme functionality (like adding content to category pages), syncs across all kinds of plugins, and lets you easily make design changes without affecting the entire site (especially with embedded subordinate themes).
You can read Genesis’s sales pitch here, but it is a way to build a WordPress site in my experience. All the other options are fantastic – and WooThemes is especially suited if you want something to plug in and play. Feel free to skip down.
If you are going with Genesis, it needs a little extra to sync with WooCommerce. Here’s how to sync it.
First, go to Genesis and install your first baby theme (like the Genesis sample). Now, check out the screenshot below.
You’ll first do the PHP programming 🙂 Go to Layout -> Editor -> In The Children’s Theme, select Theme Features -> Copy and paste the code exactly below (i.e. no spaces or accessories) To the function.php file. Save.
add_theme_support( 'genesis-connect-woocommerce' );
Now move on to Adding New Add-ons. Look for Genesis Connect. Install and activate StudioPress.
You are done. Take a trip with Genesis.
Whether you are going with Genesis, WooThemes, ThemeForest theme, default theme or some other theme solution, just make sure to install and activate it to ensure that WooCommerce plays well with it and makes sense for your store and customers.
Now let’s take a look at … General Settings.
General store settings
Under the WooCommerce link, in the Dashboard menu, scroll to Settings and see the General tab.
The first thing to note is all the default settings. You will set most of them in the wizard, but most are set by WooCommerce. They may not be, but they may not suit your store. But in any case, you’ll have to click on each section and subsection to check them out.
WooCommerce also has built-in styling for buttons, borders and the like. If you want to get real control, you can customize them in your style.css theme file … or you can just match them to your website’s color scheme and everything will look great.
Also, WooCommerce allows Lightbox to be enabled. This is part of the code that allows visitors to click on pictures of your product and see them in a larger window that can be magnified without leaving the product page. Super great.
You will also need to double check the product image settings. See the size of your product images. Are they square? What are they reduced to? In this case, WooCommerce allows you to post Catalog images (which appear on the category pages), Unique product images (featured images on the product page), and Product Thumbnails (which appear below the highlighted images on product pages).
Uploading pictures can be a bit complicated, but WooCommerce has some excellent documentation here that I read before uploading thousands of photos. However, if the dimensions are not quite right, do not worry because you can come to the same screen and regenerate the image dimensions.
Most other settings are quite incomprehensible or have excellent documentation. The main thing is to pay attention to the details and take advantage of all the possibilities offered by WooCommerce. If you go with a platform solution, you will often not have this many options at your disposal. And other e-commerce solutions found in the household (like Magento) are nowhere near as easy.
Go through the settings and customize every aspect of the experience to your customer, even what receives the email when resetting the password.
Outside of General Settings, WooCommerce has a few more cards that you should understand when setting up your online store for the first time.
First is the System Status section. Here you can get your technical data from the memory assigned to the version number.
Also, if you ever want to reset your entire store, you can head to the Tools tab. I hope you never need it, but it’s good to know where it is anyway.
Second is WooCommerce Extensions. In this section, magic can happen.
As I said in Into to Options, one big advantage of WooCommerce is its deep community of developers and applications that they simply do with software.
Usually, when building an e-commerce store with specialized functionality (such as syncing with QuickBooks or setting up a new billing gateway), you need to hire a developer to program a custom solution for a problem that honestly doesn’t need to be customized. It would cost hours and $$$ to develop.
With WooCommerce, you have access to a huge range of extensions that you just “add to the plugin” and get WooCommerce further. Most all extensions are paid, but they cost less and get started much faster than a custom solution.
You should look for the WooCommerce Extensions market here. It’s easy to add them, and this tab has where you manage them.
So now your WordPress e-commerce store is functional and set up. The following research is the first thing you need for an online store – your products.
Placement of product pages
Your theme will give the design, look and feel of your product pages, but here’s how to understand everything that applies to your product pages. Here’s an example of a product page with defaults and a default Twenty-Twelve theme.
It has all the basics you need, but it is also highly customizable. All attributes are highlighted in a schema that helps search engine optimization.
If you have any reviews, they will also appear below the product description
Below is a complete look at the WordPress backup utility that generates this page. Note especially where the content is drawn from (i.e., the main content as opposed to the short description).
Here are some of the features you must call:
- Product categories – self-explanatory, but you can add them directly from the product page
- Product Tags – Add additional categorization that may not be a product (like colors, etc.)
- Product Gallery – Images that appear as thumbnails on the product page. As the customer clicks on them, they move to become a “big” prominent image
- Product image – Upload a main feature image
But the main part of the product page is the Data Data widget. Here you set the product type, price, shipping and more. But I’m serious about calling it drive. Once you understand that, here you can do all kinds of fun things and sell almost every type of product you can think of.
WooThemes has a ton of product documentation here. But I want to highlight the clearest aspect. A simple product is a product with no possibilities, no changes and is not part of the collection. It’s just one simple product. Like a book or something.
Grouped products allow you to place a product as part of a collection. For example, you could place one dining set that would include chairs, tables, etc. in 1 grouped product … although there would also be individual simple products.
Variable products allow you to add attributes to a product (i.e. small, medium, large or blue, green, red) so you can sell 1 product, but it allows buyers to choose the exact variation they want.
And external products allow you to list and sell products from websites with your retail partners.
Inventory and delivery options are also highly customizable.
As I mentioned, you can organize your products directly from the product page, but you can also organize them as a whole from the Products menu.
Category-level pages also allow you to create sub-category pages. Shipping classes, which I haven’t really touched on, are pretty self-explanatory, but they do allow you to adjust shipping and pricing rules based on distance, weight, bulk, etc.
Quick aside: If you have a theme like Genesis that lets you place content on category pages, this can be a huge opportunity for your search engine optimization strategies.
If this guide seems daunting and you think a more ecommerce platform would be more appropriate, I recommend looking for Shopify (see my review here) or BigCommerce (see my review here). Both are great options for a hosted platform.
If you love the look of control that WooCommerce gives you and think it would be appropriate for your online store, follow this guide on setting up WordPress and get started installing WooCommerce! And check out my complementary posts like WordPress SEO and how to bulk upload anything to WordPress (great for thousands of products) as well as my list of WooCommerce topics.
For more video documentation, check out WooCommerce 101 here. Peace!
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