Payment Options: Using PayPal: Part 3

Stephen Yagielowicz

In my last installment, I told you about the difficulties I had in trying to set up the free PayPal password management script on my wife’s virtually hosted pay site. In today’s conclusion to this series, we'll take a look at some of the steps required during script installation, and address some recent PayPal concerns.

Setting Up Payment Buttons
Once you have registered and verified your PayPal business account, the process of setting up products for ordering is as simple as adding the appropriate link. In the case of membership subscriptions, this involves creating and adding PayPal Subscriptions buttons to your Web site. PayPal Subscriptions buttons will allow you to accept recurring payments for a product or service, and require only a basic understanding of HTML and the ability to edit and post ‘sales’ pages on your Web site. Creating a subscription button is a very easy online form-based process, and the detailed .pdf Subscriptions Manual provides information for those users desiring a more advanced implementation.

Creating and adding PayPal Subscriptions buttons for your site requires only that you have a PayPal Premier or Business account, and an email address at which you will receive payments. You will also need to have a small amount of information, including the item’s name, price, the length of your billing cycle, ‘preview’ or ‘trial membership’ details (if any), and the number of recurrences of your billing cycle (if it is limited).

Optionally, you may also specify the URL for the confirmation Web page that a customer sees after making a successful transaction, as well as the URL for a page to be displayed after customers cancel a transaction. The value of these custom pages should not be overlooked: a confirmation page that is displayed one-time can make a great place to remind visitors to save their usernames / passwords, present alluring up sells, and otherwise profit from a ‘hot prospect’ while welcoming him or her to your site. Having a custom page that is delivered to customers who cancel is also a great way to increase sales, either by presenting a ‘special’ offer for a new ‘reduced price’ membership, or perhaps an up sell to a sponsor who might have “just what you’re looking for…”

While several ‘stock’ subscribe and unsubscribe buttons are available, you might wish to create your own custom ‘JOIN NOW’ and ’cancel’ buttons that will fit in with the design of your site, and while you’re at it, make a 50 x 150 pixel logo to add to the subscription pages as well.

Once you have gathered your custom graphics (if any), as well as your ’welcome’ and ‘cancel’ page URLs and other necessary information, then it is a simple matter to login to your PayPal account, then choose the Sell tab, selecting the ‘Subscriptions’ option under the 'Sell on a Web Site' heading. This will take you to the ‘Button Generator’ where you will need to select a stock button image, or provide a URL for your custom Subscribe button, before entering the subscription details such as the item’s name (I used the site’s URL) and an optional item number. Using the site’s URL (“”) made it easy for customers to remember the site, and to look up records through their own accounts, while easing my own record-keeping when multiple sites and products are listed within our inventory.

Your next step is to decide if you want to use PayPal’s password management system, and then to define the terms of any trial period(s) you may offer, as well as the full terms of your regular billing cycle, including whether or not you wish for subscriptions to automatically renew, and for how long. Your final decisions will involve whether or not you would like to reattempt billing upon failure, and whether or not you wish for subscriptions to be automatically cancelled if a payment attempt fails. Once you complete these steps, and enter your complete information, a snippet of code will be generated for you to copy and paste to your site.

You are now ready to test your new subscription buttons by setting up a ‘personal’ PayPal account and joining your own site. You can then test the email notification process (both from the customer’s as well as the merchant’s prospective), cancel the membership, and then refund the purchase to the customer. Doing so will help you to better understand the mechanics involved in the transaction process, and will help to ensure that everything is running smoothly.

Managing Passwords
While PayPal subscriptions buttons let you “add an easy, fast, and flexible payment method to your website so you may accept automatically recurring payments for an item or service” they do not automatically add, and then just as importantly *remove* active then inactive username / password combos from your site’s password protection system. While many options are available for budget conscious Webmasters, using the standard (and FREE) .htaccess / .htpassword user authentication tools on an Apache Web server makes a lot of sense, and fortunately, PayPal offers a free script to interface their Instant Payment Notification system to your .htpassword file. Figuring out how to properly install and configure it is another story however.

As I stated in my last article, this process proved to be extremely problematic – although the issues were one of ‘operator error’ than of a problem with the script. Here’s a few stumbling blocks that might help ease the installation process of this script (and others like it) for you: Make sure that you follow the directions, and even though they are aimed at ‘techs with telnet’ you can still get by with a little experimentation.

Make sure that you follow the directions, and even though they are aimed at ‘techs with telnet’ you can still get by with a little care and experimentation. Don’t always believe everything that an ISP’s tech support says – one guy *insisted* that my problems were the result of the ISP “not allowing outside domains to write to your cgi bin for security purposes…” I would have given up then, had I not previously used ibill, who most certainly wrote to my cgi bin (although THEY also setup the script for me, sparing my current confusion).

The password management script has an ‘error notification via e-mail’ option that should be used, and the manual does a good job of explaining error codes. The problem I had though was not being reported to me, even though the script had a valid address to email reports to. I examined my server logs, and found the requests that I was making to my site (identified by IP address) as well as PayPal’s failed attempts (403’s) at communicating with the script. This was why I was not receiving error reports as to why the username / password combos I had been assigned would not work with my site – the management script could not be ‘reached’ so it did not execute, and thus no errors were reported. My problem? I had not set (chmod) the script – nor the .htpassword file – to ‘755.’ Once I did this, the script executed, and PayPal wrote the valid username / password combos to my .htpassword file, and access to Dawn’s member’s area was provided.

One final installation and testing note: for those who have not used .htpassword authentication before, remember that while it is called “H T Password” – it is interchangeably spelled “.htpassword”, “.htpasswd “, and even “.htpwd” – so be sure of the spelling you specify in the management system file is the same as your actual .htpassword file name (you would be surprised how long it took me to notice the missing ‘or’ in my file name field that kept the script from working)!

In Conclusion
While I have still barely scratched the surface of the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of using PayPal for processing recurring Web site membership fees, I’ve been impressed with the options available from them. Given their tightening integration with Ebay, PayPal is an even more attractive option for our non-adult product offerings, and regardless of any yet unannounced changes to their VISA / MC acceptance policies, PayPal will remain our primary processor.

Sure, ibill was easier to setup and maintain, Epoch offers more features, and a Netbilling managed merchant account would be more flexible, but the PayPal system is flexible and robust enough for our needs, and is a well known, trusted commodity in several of our markets, making it well suited to our own growing needs, but perhaps not the best choice for your own. ~ Stephen