We are often asked about the fundamentals of e-commerce: how do you build an online retail store, what do customers need to see, what does Google look for, how can you increase conversion rates?

I have compiled a list of the 12 fundamentals that you can put in place to enhance an existing online store or plan a new one…

• The most important thing online is the user experience. It can be argued that everything else is secondary. Websites that frustrate will not endear your brand to prospective customers. Try to create an online experience where users can easily find and digest the information they need in order to proceed to the checkout.

• Solidon-site search’ functionality is vital. You need good-quality metadata to make it work properly. One E-consultancy study showed that half of all site searches returned no results even where products were available. Madness. ‘Prompted search’ is a no-brainer (a la Google Suggest and Become.com). We published a buyer’s guide to site search tools.

• Well-defined information architectureand intuitive navigation is essential. Studies have shown that most people are ‘cognitive misers’. In plain English: people don’t like to think. Keep this in mind when wireframing your site.

• Clearly label categories and pages. Talk in the same language as your users. This language is the language of search. People will type in search queries that make sense to them – you need to mirror these search queries on your website (keywords in titles, body text, internal links, etc). Use keyword suggestion tools to figure out which terms are most-searched for. You should define a keyword strategy very early on – figure out the top 50 keywords/phrases that you want to rank well on.

• Trust and credibility need to be reinforced, particularly in key purchase areas, and especially for new or unknown brands. This means testimonials, customer feedback, press cuttings. It also means highly visible contact details (telephone / email) and online customer support options (FAQ / help / delivery options).

• Prioritise the key information users look for during the purchase decision-making process. Price, features, delivery options and the buy now button all need to be placed above the fold. Above. The. Fold.

• Minimise distractions – keep the user focused on the purchase or conversion goal. This means no flashing ads above the fold, among other things. It means up-selling and cross-sellingat appropriate times, and not too early (to avoid confusing the user before they’ve fully bought into the purchase decision). Yes to white space and big fonts. No to clutter.

• Good copy. Copywriting is just as important online as it is offline. Be persuasive and add value where you can. Talk to the user as an individual. Think about what you would want to see, in order to proceed to the checkout. Use an active voice, not a passive one. Avoid jargon and marketese.

• Images. Pictures might be very important to your customers, to help them evaluate products. In some sectors, images aren’t needed whatsoever. They are absolutely crucial in others. Optimise images for Google when you upload them. And compress them! Keep an eye on page weight – slow loading times can annoy and frustrate users (broadband connections help, but everything is relative…).

• Service the pre-purchase consumer. The e-commerce store is often a place for research (I almost always look at Amazon recommendations when buying any kind of product). Most people research products and services online prior to starting out on their purchase journey (in a separate session). When in pre-purchase mode users look for comparison tools to help them weigh up the options. If your competitors have better feature filtering tools then users may prefer to use their website. ‘Watchlists’ are a good idea too – encourage users to ‘save items to watchlist’, to start a relationship with them (a simple register user account may be needed here, but don’t ask for much more than an email address at this point).

• No alarms and no surprises. Always let the user know what to expect, especially when they’ve started to purchase. Go and see how Amazon does it. Transparency is very important (eg, ‘step 2 of 4′).

• Highly visible support options. This is worth mentioning again in case you missed it earlier. It means prominently-displayed telephone numbers, emails, online customer service tools, delivery tracking, and so on. This is absolutely vital, especially to first-time customers and non-savvy internet users, who may have a lingering mistrust of the internet.