Parts of an ecommerce website

Parts of an ecommerce website

Just like a basic informational or marketing website, an e-commerce website has several parts that need to come together to make it work. In this article, we focus just on the physical parts of an e-commerce website.  These parts alone will give you a functioning website, not necessarily a successful one. For that, you need to add marketing and business strategy components.

Basic Web Pages

These pages provide general information about the company and its products, and they may also contain details about company events and/or charities that it sponsors. To read about the pieces that make up this portion of an e-commerce website, read our "What are the different parts of a website" article.

Shopping Cart

The shopping cart is the part of an e-commerce website that contains the products, prices and shipping information. This is actually a program that dynamically displays your products, so they are not actual pages, even though it appears that they are. The pages are generated based on information stored in a database.  Shopping carts range in size and feature availability.

Payment Gateway

This is the portal from your shopping cart that verifies your customers’ credit card information. The Payment Gateway is a "gateway" between the shopping cart and the Merchant Account.  There are different types of payment gateways with different kinds of capabilities. You need to pick one that fits both your business needs and budget.  Typical mainstream gateways:

  • PayPal (formerly Verisign Payment Services)**

o Payflow Link
o Payflow Pro (functionally similar to Website Payments Pro, less the Merchant Account


o SIM (Simple Integration Method)
o AIM (Advanced Integration Method)

•• PayPal have several other Payment methods in which PayPal provides the Merchant Account internally. Those are not included in this discussion)

Since getting a Payment Gateway is like setting up a financial account, you need to go to a bank or a "merchant services" company to get it done. You don’t have to use your business bank. In fact, some the mainstream banks like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Union Bank of California don't always have the best options.

Merchant Account

Your Merchant Account is linked into the Payment Gateway, but is really separate.  If you already take credit cards in your business, you may already have a Merchant Account.  There are a number of types of Merchant Accounts and you need to make sure you have the right one for Internet use. Specifically, you need an Internet Merchant Account. The Merchant Account is serviced by a processor service (i.e. Vital, Wells Fargo, Global Payments, and FDMS are examples) that does all the actual verifications and transaction approvals.

Your Merchant Account defines what cards you accept and the rates you are charged for the service, and the routing system that makes sure your money gets into the right account at your bank.

Source of Confusion

One major source of confusion is the difference between the "Payment Gateway" and the "Merchant Account".   Basically your Merchant Account is the real banking relationship and the Payment Gateway is ONLY a "bridge" (hence the term "gateway") between your Merchant Account and your Shopping Cart.  You have to have both, but they generally come from different companies that specialize in each.   Often your provider of your Merchant Account will setup your Gateway for you. This is a convenience ONLY and should it should not be confused that they are always "one-in-the-same".


Now that you know the pieces, and hopefully better understand the relationship between those components, what exactly happens that makes a shopping cart work?

  1. First your customer selects products that are gathered in the shopping cart application. This application also handles the tax and shipping, and comes up with a "total" price.
  2. The customer clicks a button "Proceed to the payment server" and the total, customer information and a special hidden login are sent to a separate server. This server is the "Payment Gateway."
  3. The payment server establishes an encrypted link to the customer’s computer to protect all communications. The customer is now asked to enter credit card information.
  4. After the customer enters all required information, he clicks "Authorize Transaction."  The Payment Gateway now contacts the Merchant Account Processor, which verifies the data.
  5. If the Merchant Account Processor approves the transaction, this information is sent back to the shopping cart and the database is updated.
  6. The customer can end the session or return to the shopping cart to view the receipt.

As you can see, there are a LOT of pieces that must work together on an e-commerce website. It requires a lot of very sophisticated programming to ensure that all system components work correctly and under all possible conditions.

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