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Selling with e-commerce:Understanding e-commerce platforms

What you’ll learn

  • the characteristics you should look for when choosing an e-commerce platform
  • the main types of e-commerce platform available
  • the platform features that are necessary for international e-commerce

Choosing e-commerce platforms

An e-commerce platform is software integrated into your website that enables you to sell your products over the internet. Choosing the right e-commerce platform for your business is an important early step in making sure your overseas online sales strategy is a success.

When choosing an e-commerce platform, look for:

  • user friendly architecture – this is the basic structure of the site. It dictates the way your products are displayed, searched for and purchased and must be intuitive for your customers. Similarly, the way in which you manage your inventory behind the scenes should also be quick and easy to use.
  • robust support – any downtime for your e-commerce solution could mean a loss in sales. Quick and effective support channels are essential in getting you up and running should your online store come into any problems.
  • easy to implement APIs – an Application Programming Interface (API) is software that allows your website to talk to other websites. This is particularly important if you want to integrate your website with other online stores and marketplaces.
  • a good choice of software extensions – apps and plug-ins, either native to the platform or supplied by a third party, are essential to expand the capabilities of your e-commerce operation.
  • capability for expansion – as you move into new international markets you need a website that can deal with different languages, currencies and cultures. Having the capability to scale up your e-commerce operation, without the need for external resources, means you can do this quickly, efficiently and have technical support on hand.

Types of e-commerce platforms

There are 3 main ways you can build an e-commerce solution into your current website, and each has its pros and cons.

Software as a service (Saas)

Saas solutions are popular with smaller businesses with limited inventory to sell. The complete e-commerce solution is provided and hosted by the service provider and you pay a monthly license fee to access all the features. They’re generally quick to integrate into your website and provide a range of templates, themes and features, such as multiple currencies and localisation tools.

On the downside Saas platforms are not easily customised beyond the themes and templates on offer. So if you’re selling products with specific requirements they may not be suitable for your needs.

Platform as a service (Paas)

Paas solutions are hosted on cloud-based platforms where you can install your choice of e-commerce software. Unlike Saas you are not limited to one type of solution and therefore may find you can build a more bespoke e-commerce experience. The platform is maintained by the service provider, but all the software you host on the platform is your responsibility. This method is used extensively by larger businesses who need more flexibility and bespoke features for their e-commerce operation.

Custom built

Custom built solutions are managed entirely by your company and managed on your own premises. Fully customisable, they are usually only used by the largest of businesses, as a large amount of IT resource is needed to maintain them.

Important features for international e-commerce

There are a number of features which are particularly useful for international e-commerce that you should look out for when you are choosing an e-commerce platform.

Translation and localisation

Making sure your products are understood in multiple languages is essential if you’re looking to sell in a diverse range of markets. Create translated and localised content bespoke to your products and pay particular attention to an SEO considerations.  

Many platforms also have plug-ins, additional software that provides translation for users, along with localisation for things like currency and local payment methods. These plugins have their uses, but do not generally cover everything. So it’s advisable to not rely on them solely.  

For more information read our lesson on how to localise your website for an international audience.

Optimised for search

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) ensures your site ranks as highly as possible in search results pages and is one of the primary techniques available to maximise website traffic. A lot of this optimisation is achieved through the architecture of your website, so an e-commerce solution with SEO at its heart is a key consideration, particularly when you are entering new overseas markets.


Built in security features are common on e-commerce platforms. Data encryption, firewall and payment protection software all work to protect your customers data, and your business, from cyber attacks. You should make sure that any e-commerce platform you choose is compliant with industry standards and legal requirements both in the UK and the markets you're trading in.


These let you know how your website is performing and where you traffic is coming from. Most e-commerce platforms have their own analytics capabilities, but integrating with systems like Google Analytics and Google Search Console will give you a much more detailed picture.

In the UK we still tend to do a large proportion of our online shopping through a desktop browser. But in many other countries e-commerce is done entirely on mobile phones. Whatever platform you end up going with, make sure it works well on mobile. It could be the difference between making a sale or not.

International trade adviser

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