There are a number of choices out there if you're considering building direct sales from your website. Opening an online store is one of the fastest and arguably one of the best options that entrepreneurs have for launching a start-up. However, as easy as it is to start an online store today, it has become increasingly difficult to choose the right ecommerce platform to leverage.

Year-by-year, the advancement in the ecommerce technology & the rising competition among online stores have raised the expectations that people have around ecommerce platforms. Today, it's not enough just offering easy setup, some level of customization, and the inclusion of standard features. Mobile friendliness, social media integration, good user experience, search engine optimization, modules for content marketing and customer support have become a fundamental need of an online store today.

Based on these factors and the understanding of what's required to open a successful online storefront, I have shortlisted 5 ecommerce platforms that will work for most businesses ramping up in 2016. I have provided a rundown of each platforms' strengths and weaknesses to help you decide which one will suit you best based on your individual business goals, budget, and technical knowhow.

Shopify
Shopify is the first entrant to this list. As a hosted solution, the ease of store setup that Shopify provides certainly makes it a popular ecommerce platform. And over the years, with constantly increasing expectations, Shopify has evolved right alongside the changing needs of most businesses.

Besides easy setup, quick loading speed and safe payment gateways are two other major reasons why Shopify is a good choice for launching an online store in 2016. Shopify also provides you with hundreds of templates to customize your store's landing page and give it the custom look you desire.

As for the SEO, Shopify enables custom title tags, Meta descriptions, canonical tags to prevent duplicity issue, plus, it also automatically generates an XML sitemap for your online store. So, even those who don't have much technical knowledge can easily make their store Google friendly with Shopify.

To wrap things up, Shopify has a great customer support with an extensive FAQ database and knowledgeable representatives ready to assist store owners and developers 24/7 via chat, email, and phone.

So what are some of the downsides? Shopify's checkout is not that customizable, so here you would have to compromise a bit. Plus, if you are planning to switch to self-hosting in the near future, then Shopify may not be your best choice.

As for pricing, Shopify offers various plans that cost you between $9 and $179 per month, depending on how many features you want in your online store. For instance, $9 plan won't even get you an online storefront, just will allow you to sell things online on Facebook. While the $179 per month plan provides all the bells and whistles that Shopify provides.

WooCommerce
WooCommerce is a "free" WordPress plugin, so you can expect to have all the advantages you get with WordPress as a platform for building websites. I use quotes around the word free, because while there are no costs to install WooCommerce, there are fees associated with the complete integration of WooCommerce as a functional shopping cart (see related article for detailed WooCommerce pricing examples).

WooCommerce is completely customizable, and has a good shopping cart & secure payment gateway. There are several themes to choose from and you can even design a new (completely customized) one, if you are familiar with the WordPress platform and have the required technical knowledge to build a custom WordPress template.

WooCommerce has an extremely intuitive admin panel that any layman can understand and manage. Other advantages that can be attributed to WooCommerce include - no limitation to product categories, a WordPress blog (of course), and availability of thousands of plugins & extensions that one can easily find on the internet. And if you have a website on WordPress, then 'Way to Go!'; WooCommerce naturally becomes your first choice.

On the flipside, if you don't have a WordPress website and are not familiar with the platform, then it could be a little painful to get started-especially because you also have to build a WordPress site in order to take advantage of the WooCommerce platform. Besides, as the database grows, a WooCommerce website tends to get a bit slow.

So, the bottom line is-if you have a WordPress website and are not planning to open that big of an online store, then WooCommerce is an ideal choice; otherwise, you should keep hunting.

Yo!Kart
A relatively new entrant, Yo!Kart is smartly built with the intention of combining the advantages of hosted and open-source ecommerce platforms.

Yo!Kart is fully customizable, feature rich, has multi-layer security, and its setup doesn't require much technical knowhow. Intuitive interface, multivendor functionality with custom storefront and automatic order processing are some other features that give it more weight.

One of the important things to know about Yo!Kart is that it was built primarily for early stage startups. It allows you to launch your online store under a hosted plan (typically a low cost and ready to launch option) and gives you the freedom to migrate to a self-hosted plan (fully customizable as well) after one year, once you have your online store well-established. So unlike Shopify you can migrate from a hosted to self-hosted plan, and like WooCommerce, the shopping cart experience is fully customizable.

Another great thing about Yo!Kart is that there is no compromise on the features, regardless of which plan you choose. Moreover, any system feature updates in the future will be automatic and free.

However, one challenge with Yo!Kart is that its customization requires some good technical knowledge. Since its script is encrypted, you would also need to initially work with its developers to get an understanding of the platform.

Basically, if you are looking for a cheap but feature-rich ecommerce platform and hoping to switch to self-hosting in future, then Yo!Kart is a great ecommerce option for you. Its hosted plan is available at $250 a year, and custom & self-hosted plan at $999 and you can see the full pricing details here.

BigCommerce
BigCommerce is pretty much like Shopify, except that it has more built-in features. For starters, with BigCommerce you get a fully functional website, unlimited bandwidth & storage, as well as freedom to add as many products as you want. Plus, essential ecommerce features like gift cards, reviews & ratings, as well as basic marketing tools are also built-in in BigCommerce software.

Easy to setup, the platform is aimed primarily at people with no web designing skills. But if you are into HTML and CSS, then you can easily tweak things around to give your store a unique look and feel.

As for security and page loading speed, BigCommerce is pretty much neck-to-neck to Shopify. Another thumbs-up for BigCommerce is its customer support. Extensive guides, comprehensive setup wizard, auto-responder emails functionality, video guides, etc. are there in the right place. So, chances of getting stuck while setting up or running your business on BigCommerce are pretty thin.

Pricing runs from $30/mo to $80/mo or more (see full pricing details here). Its plans are comparatively costlier to Shopify and others, but in BigCommerce's defense, the platform appears to offer more features than its competitors. Outdated themes were another downside of BigCommerce until very recently. So, BigCommerce could be your ideal match when you are ready to trade a little more money for extra features & more customization.

Magento
Recently spun out by eBay, Magento is now an independent company and continues to be a top-tier (enterprise-level) player that has stood the test of time when it comes to ecommerce. Primarily, Magento is a better fit for large-scale retailers and building high-end ecommerce websites. The platform has a very high level of security, is fully customizable and scalable, as well as offers many features that other ecommerce platforms miss, such as multiple storefront, multi-language, and multi-currency support.

Magento also scores pretty well on other important parameters like user-friendly admin area, intuitive navigation, search engine optimization, and mobile friendliness. The real twist comes with Magento's pricing. Its Community plan is available for free, while its Enterprise plan is, according to a Magento spokesperson, "tiered based on a client's current ecommerce business and intended to align to their growth trajectory." Don't forget the internal or external staffing costs required to manage this enterprise platform.

Of course, the enterprise plan comes with enhanced security, performance, functionality, and features like customer segmentation for targeted offering, return & cancellation management, customer support software, and many more. Plus, Magento's enterprise software offers more payment gateway options than any other ecommerce platform.

But there are other challenges as well with Magento. Building an ecommerce website using Magento requires high level programming skills; consequently, it is comparatively hard to find a team of developers that can take over the task easily. Additionally, there are not many free themes available for Magento based online stores.

Bottom line, if you are planning on having a serious, enterprise-grade ecommerce platform, Magento is the current reigning champion. However, if you are not planning to start a large-scale, high-end ecommerce store, Magento is likely overkill for your current needs.

Conclusion
It's clear that there is no single "one-size-fits-all" ecommerce platform solution. Each one is built to entertain only certain pre-assumed business needs and goals. That means that none of these ecommerce platforms are best for every sized business need. But, if you are realistic with your specific online storefront needs, there is clearly one of these five that can be the best fit for you. Choosing the right ecommerce platform comes down to outlining your vision for the kind of online store you need today while envisioning how those needs may change in the next couple of years as you grow.