Anyone Can Start an Online Store for Free. Here’s How to Get Started on WordPress.

With over 40% of all websites using it, WordPress is one of the most widely adopted website technology platforms in the world — and with good reason: its solid framework has everything you need to start an ecommerce website in less than 10 minutes! (Not to mention the handy tools that help you manage your customers.)

If you’re thinking of rolling-out an ecommerce site on WordPress (or really any site using WordPress), this article will give you a solid grounding on how to go about starting it. You’ll learn how to install and set up WordPress, questions you need to ask your web hosts, how to vet themes, and more!

So let’s get into it!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. We only endorse products and services we currently use or have used in the past that we believe users will benefit from using. Affiliate links are denoted with

1) Find a Reliable and Secure Web Host

What is Web Hosting?

A web host is a fancy way of saying the server that holds your website. Any time you load a page on the internet, that data is sent from a server to your computer.

Conversely, any time you make an online purchase, or leave a comment on a photo, that data, as well as any other data you submit online, is sent and stored on a server.

If you plan on customers providing their credit card information on your website, it’s essential your web host is serious about the security of your website and it’s data.

How to Find the Best Host for a WordPress Site Running WooCommerce

When hosting a WordPress website, most, if not all, of your website pages are relatively static, meaning, the pages do not change often. However, when hosting a WooCommerce site, the server your site runs one will require additional resources.

This is because of the dynamic nature of hosting an online store. Anytime a user adds an item to the cart or visits a page that is not static (i.e. cart page, checkout page, etc), those pages need to be loaded from scratch instead of from a cached version (caching is the process of storing dynamic data as static files so it can be accessed more quickly when needed).

Additionally, when selling online, the more issues you have with your site being up and running, the more money you will potentially be losing.

In the end, all hosting providers are made up of 3 primary things:

  1. Hardware
  2. Software
  3. Support

Why support from your web host is essential

The hardware and software matter, but the support is key. If you need high touch support, you’re not going to get that from the bigger companies.

When looking at “managed WordPress hosting” specifically, all of them should provide at the very least:

  1. Security – How do they help you keep your website secure?
  2. Performance – How do they help you keep your website running smoothly and fast?
  3. Updates – Do they provide any WordPress core or plugin updates?
  4. Backups – How, where, when is your website being backed up?
  5. Staging – Are you able to create or request a replica of your site to be used for testing?

Our recommendation is to spend as much as you can afford on website hosting, seriously.

Partner with a web host that helps you manage your site and keep you focused on your business. The more time you spend fiddling with your setup, waiting and chatting with support, figuring out how to setup an SSL certificate, etc., the less time you’re working toward your goals and growing your business.

The top questions you should be asking your web host

To help you figure out the best hosting provider for you, here are a few questions to make sure you have the answers to before choosing your host:

What kind of support do they offer? Phone, chat, email? What is the support SLA (Server Level Agreement)?
Generally, the kind of support isn’t important unless you have a specific preference. However, knowing you’ll get a response back from support within 2 hours, 8 hours or more is a big difference.

What is included (or not included) with support?
Generally, hosting providers will help with making sure the servers are running smoothly and ensure, if your site is experiencing any issue, the issue is not server related. But, having someone on your side to help you figure out why something is wrong with your WordPress or WooCommerce setup can be extremely valuable.

What is the latest version of PHP they support?
Ideally, at the time of this writing, at least PHP 7.3 should be offered, ideally PHP 7.4. If they are already offering PHP 8.0, they are keeping up with the latest versions.

What is their server uptime guarantee?
Look for footnotes here. Servers need maintenance. Unless the hosting provider is running a High Availability setup (which is complex and pricey), downtime is going to happen at some point. Generally, 99.9% uptime is the standard, which is less than 1 hour of downtime per month (typically reserved for maintenance).

How frequently are their servers updated?
Like all software, the software running the server needs to be maintained and patched regularly when security releases are made available.

How and where is your website files and database (where your data is stored) backed up?
A good hosting provider will provide at least one nightly backup, stored encrypted and offsite for 30 days.

Here’s our favorite hosting providers for ecommerce businesses

Want to skip the research? We’ve used all of these providers directly or supported our clients with using them, so these recommendations are from experience:

Kinsta
These guys are top notch. Support is great and available 24/7. They are focused on security and performance and only provide hosting for WordPress. For an ecommerce site, you’ll likely need to start with their Business 1 plan at $100/mo.

WP Engine
Another provider focused only on hosting WordPress sites. We used to run all of our hosted clients with WP Engine and still highly recommend them to clients who need and want 24/7 chat support. They recently introduced new ecommerce specific hosting plans starting at $30/mo.

Watchdog Studio
Yep, that’s us. We’re not one of the big guys and therefore can’t provide 24/7 chat support, but to make up for it, we focus on personal high touch support that, hopefully, you don’t even need to use since we proactively monitor all client sites for issues.

We provide the basic 5 levels of managed WordPress hosting (mentioned above) and put extra emphasis on security and performance. In fact, we’re confident your site will run faster and smoother on our platform than anything else out there. Plans start at $49/mo as an add-on to any care plan.

2) Install WordPress

Although you could install WordPress on just about any server, we recommend hosting providers that do the heavy lifting for you. If you choose a hosting provider that specializes in WordPress (which we highly recommend), WordPress should be installed and ready to go for you when your account is set up.

If not, almost all hosting providers these days provide, at the very least, a one-click installation so that you can get started without feeling in over your head.

Once WordPress is ready to go, it’s time to design your site! Step 1 is picking a great theme.

Tip: Make sure the initial user that is setup with WordPress is not “admin” or “administrator.” These are the most common login names used by bots during a Brute Force attack. If either of these are created by default, create a new user for yourself with Administrator privileges, log in with this new user and delete the default user.

3) Choose an Effective (and Stable) WordPress Theme or Framework

What is the best theme for your online business? It seems like a straightforward question, but it can be difficult to choose from the thousands WordPress themes available.

There are tons of FREE options available from the WordPress repository and other resources around the internet and even more paid options all over the place. Just because you pay for a theme doesn’t guarantee it’ll do what you want or work well for you.

How can you pick the best theme for your small business website on WordPress?

By taking the time to test new themes (and plugins) in a development or staging environment before going live with them, you have the opportunity to see how the theme works and ensure it’s a good fit for your website.

So what’s the main thing to look for in a WordPress theme? Performance.

Not all themes are created equal, some are loaded with added features and code, known as bloat, that will slow down your site.

With more online shops than ever, you don’t want to lose customers because of slow load times. Stay clear from themes that bundle or require you to install other plugins. Plugins should add functionality YOU want for your website, not what the theme developer wants.

As a rule of thumb, we recommend staying clear of Themeforest. If you opt to go with a page builder, such as Divi, Elementor, Beaver Builder, etc, these are great options for building out sites fast (and all come with some great starter templates), but be prepared to do some optimization when you’re ready to launch the site.

Tip: Every time you install and enable a new theme (or plugin), new data is added to your database which can cause unnecessary database bloat and eventually slow down your website. This is why we highly recommend testing new themes with a staging site first.

Here are some other things to consider when choosing your WordPress theme:

Is the theme responsive?

More people than ever are shopping from their phones. Make sure your theme looks great across all of your customer’s devices. Further, SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages), such as Google, Bing, etc., reward sites that are mobile friendly and load fast on mobile devices.

How customizable is the theme?

Your shop deserves to look unique. Make sure the theme is easy to customize for people that don’t code.

How often does the theme author push updates?

If the beautiful theme you found is no longer updated, find something else! It’ll be too much of a security risk.

Does the theme have lots of installs and reviews?

Particularly if looking through the WordPress repository for a free theme, look for quantity over quality. A theme above 3-stars with thousands of reviews is generally better than a 5-star theme with only a handful of reviews.

How reliable is support?

When you get stuck customizing your shop, you’ll be grateful to have reliable support that can help when you need it.

Tip: WordPress’s own Gutenberg block editor is getting better and better and will eventually have full site editing capabilities. The current page builders (some mentioned above) are ahead of the game and much easier to use, but using the native block editor and/or a theme that integrates with the block editor will likely have much better performance.

4) Implement Google Analytics

Not directly related to setting up WordPress, but Google Analytics is a powerful tool to help you track users coming to your site, understand where they are coming from, see what they’re looking for, and provide powerful insight to help you target your ideal customers easier.

Using Google Analytics can help you tailor your website to the needs of your visitors by reviewing the data you collect on visitor behavior and implementing changes based on what you learn. The best part about Google Analytics is that it is free to use and easy to integrate into any website.

First, you need to sign up for Google Analytics. To do so, you’ll need to sign-in to Google with an existing Google account. If you don’t already have one, you can create one for yourself.

When prompted, you’ll fill in the necessary information to get your Google Analytics account setup and will be asked to choose between web, apps, or apps and web. Select “web” and enter your website details.

After you agree to the terms, you’ll be presented with your tracking code. Copy this tracking code as you’ll need it to add to your WordPress site.

Finally, you need to add the tracking code to your website. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest is to use a plugin. We recommend either Site Kit by Google or GA Google Analytics.

With Site Kit, you’ll be able to not only connect your analytics account, but you’ll also get data from Google Search Console, Google AdSense, and PageSpeed Insights. You might not be ready or need all of this from the start, but the point is, the Site Kit plugin can provide you some great details about your site all from within the WordPress dashboard.

5) Remember to regularly backup your website!

You’ll also want to make sure you backup your site as often as possible. The nightly backups your hosting provider is providing you isn’t enough. Too many small business owners don’t realize just how important backing up their ecommerce website in real-time truly is.

When running an online store, you need to have a real-time backup plan. Why? If something were to happen to your site or the server it is hosted on, you’ll lose every sale you made since the last backup!

That also means you won’t have any way of contacting those lost customers either.

Real-time backups, like those offered as an add-on to our WordPress care plans, take a snapshot of your website anytime a change to the database is detected. That way you will never lose a sale or customer again!

Conclusion

Although setting up an online store may seem complicated to a beginner, in truth, it’s easier than you think. It doesn’t take much on the technical side and is relatively simple when you use the right tools and have the right support. Now that you’re all set with WordPress and ready to run your store, it’s time to setup your store.

For a team that gives you support and keeps your WordPress site as secure as possible, then give your friends at Watchdog Studio a holler and start building your online store now!

Our excellent WordPress support and maintenance packages stay on top of your website 24/7 while keeping the bad guys out.

About The Author
Justin Korn

Since 2007, Justin has been focused on providing business owners sound and honest advice and services that allow them to stay focused on business growth.