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Episode 2: Choosing an Ecommerce Platform

What is an Ecommerce Platform?

An Ecommerce platform is the software which runs your online shop, so it’s what you upload your products to, it has the basket/cart functionality which allows people to buy multiple items at once, processes the orders etc. Sometimes it manages your product inventory as well, and sometimes it creates customer accounts where people can log back in and see their past orders, and save their details. So, it’s basically all the software which runs your online presence.

What Ecommerce Platforms are there?

There are two main routes which you can go down, self hosted or SaaS, which stands for Software as a Service.

The self hosted option is where you download software, you install it on a server, you configure it yourself. The kind of things you do with Magento, WooCommerce, OpenCart, and Prestashop, which are a few of the major offerings for that.There’s also Software as a Service, where you choose a platform and pay a monthly fee, but they host and manage it for you. So, the most popular ones for this are Shopify, Bigcommerce, for smaller sites Wix and Squarespace.

Why would you choose self hosted, because isn’t Software as a Service much easier?

Yeah, it is definitely a lot easier. There are some downsides, though. They don’t accept everyone, so they have terms and conditions about which products you’re allowed to sell and which ones you aren’t. If you’re involved in things like alcohol, or knives, or even cosmetics, you might not be allowed to sell those on their platform. So, you definitely need to check in advance, to make sure that the products that you sell are allowed.

They’re also quite rigid because everyone gets the same software. So, whilst you can customize the themes, usually, that make your shop look the way it does, or you can have plugins which add extra functionality, you can’t really make any major changes to them. So, it might not work if you have an existing inventory management system to integrate with, or you have offline systems for your retail stores that need to plug into your online store. It might not be possible using one of these Software as a Service options.

It’s also hard to add things, like when Shopify first launched, they didn’t have any real blogging options. A lot of Shopify stores had to create a subdomain, of blog.storename.com, in order to host their content. Of course, that’s not great for SEO, because it’s almost like having two separate websites. And, also not great for user experience because there’s two completely different identities that you’ve got there. Shopify does have the option to do blogging now, but it’s not as powerful or user friendly as WordPress is. People are used to using technology such as WordPress and don’t like having to log into a Shopify admin system, to upload a blog post there.

It can also be expensive sometimes, for the really small stores, if you’re only selling a few products a month. You might not be able to afford the monthly fees for having one of these Software as a Service platforms.

So, what should you consider when you’re self hosting?

So, self hosting can be good for small stores, if you don’t really mind having the software as it comes, out of the box. But, if you want to have a fully customized ecommerce store, there’s going to be a large upfront cost because you have to pay for programmers to create the store exactly how you want it. You don’t have the SaaS monthly fees, but you do have this upfront cost, so all the features you want added that aren’t currently on there, you need to pay for those. Even just setting it up can cost you time and money, because a lot of these platforms are actually quite hard to set up, so you need to have someone that manages that for you.

If you’re looking at even a half decent web host to host a Magento store, you’re looking at at least $100 a month for that, whereas a Shopify store, to get started, is $29 a month, so it’s not always the cheaper option.

There’s also issues such as what happens with downtime. So, if your website goes down, who do you call? How do you even know that it’s down? You might need to look at maintenance contracts, or support contracts from another company in order to make sure that your website stays up and stays running. It’s not even a simple case of having one of those uptime monitoring services, where they just make sure that your homepage is up. You need to make sure that all of your product pages are working correctly, that they’re showing the correct information, that the right prices are shown, and the cart is working for you as well. So, you can’t just make sure that the homepage loads.
But, self-hosted is fully flexible, it’s totally in your control, and that’s why so many companies go for the self hosted option.

Which Ecommerce platform would you choose?

I would probably go with Shopify, just because of the simplicity, and how powerful it is. You don’t really even need any of the plugins or addons to make it better, it is just a fantastic platform out of the box. It means that you don’t have to worry about all those things that you do with a self hosted platform.

But, it’s not perfect. There are some SEO issues that Shopify has. As I said before, the blogging functionality is quite weak. There’s lots of prohibited products that you can’t sell on there, such as CBD, and you can’t open a wine shop, really, on there, and use their payment facility. You’re also locked in as well, because it’s quite hard to then migrate from Shopify over to another platform.

Apart from that, it’s really good. There’s some great themes out there, where you can just buy a theme from the Shopify website, customize it, and you’ve got a website ready to go. They’ve also got a really high converting checkout page as well. That’s a really important feature for ecommerce platforms, to make sure that once people have chosen products, that there’s no friction at all to get those people through to payment. It also has an integrated payment gateway for taking credit cards, and they’ve got a POS (Point Of Sale) system as well, which allows you to have retail stores using the same system as the ecommerce store. Also things like physical gift cards that can be custom branded.

They’ve got fantastic uptime, because it runs on Amazon’s servers, and they’ve also just launched a new “Shop” app as well.

What is Shopify’s Shop app?

It’s Shopify’s way to compete with Amazon on mobile, really. It’s a B2C app, so aimed at consumers, where you can buy from any Shopify store in a single app. It allows you to do things like track your deliveries, and manage your orders, all in one place. It’s free for all Shopify websites to be in this app, and to have your products included.

People can shop local as well. They can look for stores which are near them, to help support local businesses. It’s trying to stop people from just going straight to Amazon, because obviously Amazon has such a huge range, and consumers are just used to going to a single place to buy all their things. Whereas, which this “Shop” app, you can do exactly the same, but you’re supporting independent, smaller merchants.

It’s already installed on 16 million devices. Shopify did something quite sneaky, by basically renaming and redeveloping an existing app that was already on all these 16 million devices, so that it’s instantly available for these people. It’s a great new market to attract new customers, people that might not know your brand, especially if you have a retail store which is near these customers.

Is Shopify trying to take on Amazon?

Yeah, that’s one of their big competitions really, because Amazon is a central place where people go to buy online. Shopify is all about supplying the platform which allows people to buy online through independent merchants, so they do have competition between each other. Amazon’s Marketplace is also a direct competitor to Shopify, allowing merchants to sell directly through Amazon, without building an ecommerce site.

Do all of your clients use Shopify?

Unfortunately not! One client does, as a small test project for within a FMCG company. They just wanted to use it because they know it’s really fast to get going. If it works out well, then they’ll probably develop it out on Shopify Plus (the enterprise version of Shopify). But, most of my past and present clients use Magento.

Magento has a cloud option, which is similar to Shopify. You don’t have to manage the servers yourself, you can let Magento do it for you.
Also, Magento is now owned by Adobe, so there’s a lot of brand loyalty there, within companies which already use Adobe products such as Adobe Analytics – it’s very corporate friendly.

It’s also a lot more flexible than Shopify, because of it’s existing roots in being an “off the shelf” self hosted product. It’s great for integrating into existing inventory systems, plus you’re not so locked in, because Magento can be installed and migrated to any server. It’s also quite easy to migrate to and from different versions of Magento, keeping the URLs and the design the same.

Another small difference is that Magento has bigger markups for the web development companies that build these online stores for businesses. Medium to Large sized companies tend to contract out the development of their ecommerce presence. Shopify has low affiliate/reseller commissions and is limited in what can be customised, so there’s not much room for the web developers to make money.
Magento’s a really good platform, it would be my second choice after Shopify. And, first choice if you really need granular control over your website.

So Shopify for most sites, Magento if you need something more complicated or advanced?

Yeah, I think that’s a good guideline. I mean, there’s hundreds of options out there, but there’s obviously safety in numbers. If there’s so many people already using Magento, and using Shopify, then they’ve got the money to keep it all going, to keep it supported, to increase the amount of features. If something goes wrong, everybody knows about it – it gets fixed very quickly. More customers = more revenue = better features, so I would say definitely go for either Shopify or Magento.

Are Shopify and Magento both SEO friendly?

Well, Shopify does have some issues. When you first get started with it, you can cause some duplicate content issues, because there’s multiple URLs where you can access the same content. Google might see the same page but with different URLs and think that they’re different pages. Also, Structured Data (Schema.org), last time I checked, is actually down to themes creators themselves to implement. Structured Data is very important for SEO these days, and for having a very rich search result. You need to make sure that your theme handles that properly.

There are some SEO plugins for Shopify, but they’re not really needed. You can get away with just using out of the box Shopify, as long as you’ve got a decent theme, and you fix some of these issues with duplicate content issues.

Magento is not so great for SEO, it’s good to install an SEO plugin. I think one of the best ones is Mageworx SEO Suite. Query strings can be an issue on some of the Magento URLs, because you can create a lot of duplicate content because of that. The default robots.txt file, which Magento supplies, will fix a lot of those issues, but it’s best to use an SEO plugin, such as Mageworx, to fix those common issues. It’s also built in PHP, so it’s relatively easy and cheap to customize it, if you do need some added SEO features. There’s the potential to make the SEO perfect, because you can just go into the source code and get the code changed very easily.

What about Wix and Squarespace for smaller businesses?

They’re OK. A bit like a modern day Geocities though – very simple.
They both shout about SEO being one of their biggest features, but they’re not actually that great for SEO. They’ve also got quite weak ecommerce features. But, it’s okay for a hobby website, if you’re only selling one or two products, and you don’t expect that many sales, then it’s okay to go with Wix and Squarespace.

Again, it’s a SaaS, so you’re locked into that, it makes it harder to then migrate across to something better in the future.
If you’re planning to sell more than one or two products, and have more than one or two orders a month, I’d definitely go down the Shopify route.

Or, if you really want to customize your site, then go down the Magento route.

If people have any more questions, where should they go?

There’s a great website called EcommerceGuide.com, which is run by some veterans of the industry. They have a lot of information about the different platform options, how to implement them, and some of the issues that are happening in the industry right now.

You can also of course contact us at [email protected], and we can feature your question on the show. You can tell us whether you’d like to be anonymous or to have your name mentioned. We’ll hope to get through everyone’s questions over the next few episodes.


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