E-commerce platforms are the lifeblood of modern businesses because, without them, there would be no online shopping. When you're first getting started with an e-commerce site, one of the first and most important choices you'll have to make is whether to opt for a hosted or self-hosted e-commerce platform. They both have their own pros and cons, and there are many reasons to choose one over the other.
In the end, however, making the decision comes down to factors like your needs and goals, your technical aptitude and experience, the expectations of your customers, and how much control you want over your store. Essentially, a hosted site is a turnkey solution that can have you up and running with ease, but it offers little control. On the other hand, a self-hosted site offers plenty of freedom and customization options, but it demands more technological know-how. Here's everything you need to know about the pros and cons of e-commerce hosting sites to help you choose the right option.
To truly understand the benefits and disadvantages of hosted e-commerce sites, it can help to compare them to self-hosted sites. With a hosted e-commerce site, both the hosting and the software are taken care of for you. With self or non-hosted e-commerce sites, you're responsible for choosing, downloading, and operating the open source software platform by yourself. Some people like to use the analogy of taking a city bus (hosted) versus driving your own car (self-hosted) to understand the two. When you take the bus, you don’t have to know the route or even how to drive—all you have to do is hop on, and the driver will make sure you get where you need to go. Similarly, with a hosted e-commerce platform, you don’t have to really understand how e-commerce works to have your own store because the provider will take care of it all for you. This is a great way to get started with e-commerce because most of these platforms implement all the best tools and features for you.
By contrast, self-hosted sites are more like driving your own car—you have to know how to drive, have a license, and know how to get yourself from A to B. With a self-hosted site, you're responsible for choosing a hosting provider, and then selecting, installing, and setting up your own e-commerce platform. In other words, you have to have some basic knowledge of e-commerce to go this route. Plus, it takes more time and effort to set up and maintain the site, so you'll have to have the resources to devote to it.
On the flip side of this, however, is the fact that a hosted site offers a lot less freedom and control in terms of customizing your site. Going back to the bus versus car analogy, you can think of it like this: on a bus, you have no control over the route, when the bus stops, or how long it takes to get to your destination. With a hosted platform, you'll have to work within the confines of the theme or template you choose and will have very few options for customization. This, unfortunately, means you won’t have the freedom to tailor your customer experience based on your needs or the demands of your audience.
With a car, on the other hand, you can customize your route based on the stops you need to make, and you're the one in control of the journey. Similarly, with a self-hosted site, you can find or build plugins and extensions when you need additional features, meaning you can offer a completely unique customer experience.
Although you may not have as much control with a hosted site, the flip side is that you don’t need as much—or any—real technological skill to be able to maintain or run the server or the software. Just like you don’t need to know how to drive in order to take the bus, so too can you operate a hosted e-commerce platform without having much experience with the technology or software that run it. Beyond that, hosted sites also ensure your customers will be guaranteed the type of security and privacy they expect when shopping online, without you having to worry about the technical aspects of it. Moreover, because many hosted platforms offer payment processing, you won’t have to worry about signing up with a payment gateway or purchasing your own security certificate.
On the other hand, self-hosted sites are again like driving your own car in the sense that you need to provide your own license and insurance, you have to be responsible for your own safety and the safety of others, and you have to get your own vehicle fixed when it breaks down. Self-hosted sites are similar in that you may not have access to technical support if you encounter problems with the software, and you'll have to troubleshoot them on your own. You'll also need a basic understanding of development languages, some experience with coding, may have to buy a security certificate, and will need to create an account with a payment gateway in order to process your own payments.
Another constraint with hosted sites is that they don’t offer a great deal of freedom in terms of moving around. On the city bus, you have to follow the designated route, just like you have to stick with your chosen platform when you opt for a hosted site. Depending on your store, you may be able to switch platforms down the road, but the process is often expensive and requires a great deal of time and effort.
When you're in your own car, however, you're free to go wherever you like, whenever you like, and you can do the same with a self-hosted platform. For example, with self-hosted, it’s relatively easy to select a startup platform and then switch hosting services when you outgrow the provider.
Because hosted sites don’t require that you have a great deal of technical ability, and because you're working with a centralized service, you'll have access to technical support when you need it. If something goes wrong with the server, there's a bug in the software, or another problem crops up that needs diagnosing, you won’t have to worry about being the one to fix it. With self-hosted sites, however, you don’t necessarily have that help to rely on, especially when it comes to the software. You can hire a developer to help you if you encounter problems, but that’s an additional cost you'll have to worry about.
Because hosted e-commerce platforms are more comprehensive and offer full-service, it makes sense that they cost more than self-hosted sites. Plus, the more traffic you get, the larger your store becomes, and the more features you offer, the more resources you'll require, it also means your annual or monthly fees will increase as your store grows. However, the money you spend paying somebody else to worry about the maintenance and operation of the platform will offset the time you save not having to worry about it yourself.
On the other hand, self-hosted sites tend to have higher upfront costs than hosted sites, but the monthly costs will be lower once your store is up and running. So in other words, a self-hosted site will require a larger upfront investment but a lower overall cost, whereas a hosted site will require lower upfront costs but higher monthly costs in perpetuity.
Choosing between a hosted or self-hosted e-commerce site is one of the first and biggest decisions you'll face when starting an online store. The choice you make now will have an impact on your business in the future, so it’s important to consider all the pros and cons before making an informed decision. The main things to remember are that a hosted site is easier to operate and maintain, it doesn’t require much technical knowledge on your end, you'll have access to help and support when you need it, and the startup costs will be lower.
The disadvantages, however, include that you won’t have the freedom or control to customize the site the way you want, you'll be stuck with the same host, and the monthly costs will be much higher. Overall, however, a hosted site is great for any business that wants to get up and running quickly, wants a hassle-free e-commerce platform, and wants to offer customers a basic but high-quality shopping experience.
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