How to Choose the Best Ecommerce Platform
I am writing this article because, as a person who has been a web developer, I advise you to not always listen to your web developer. This advice is especially true when you are making decisions like what the best ecommerce platform is for your business. Web developers and designers will far too often recommend an ecommerce platform based on the platform they are most comfortable developing on. In other words, not all ecommerce platforms are created equal. With each platform having completely different interfaces, file structures and sometimes, different programming languages, web developers tend to specialize in one or two major ecommerce platforms. The upside of this is that they become specialists on that platform and can complete your ecommerce website faster and with better quality. The downside is that perhaps that platform is not in the best interest of your company and they recommend it because that is the one they know. Many qualifying questions should be asked, and many objectives should be considered first when selecting the best ecommerce platform.
Every company has different resources, assets and long-term objectives for their ecommerce website. What works for one company may not work for another. For example, Attivia has a client that had their brand new ecommerce website developed on the Magento CMS (content management system) platform. Magento has a great reputation for being a very powerful ecommerce platform that integrates well with a lot of third party software. If you are hiring an ecommerce developer, there is a solid chance they work with Magento. The problem is that Magento is extremely complicated to use and develop, and for this reason, development costs are usually much greater than other options. Furthermore, because of it’s complexity, it is not very user friendly for those businesses looking to manage their ecommerce in-house after the website is built. For these reasons, in the case of our client, Magento was a bad choice. Unfortunately, we were brought in past the point of no return during the development of the website. Let’s jump into some of the considerations for choosing the best ecommerce platform.
1. What is your budget?
This is perhaps the most important consideration. You should be looking at this question from a couple different angles. You should ask how much it will cost up front for the development of the website, and then you should also be aware of what it will cost to maintain, update, add and edit content moving forward. In addition, the benefit of using a CMS platform these days is that they are very scalable. You can add functionality or expand ecommerce functions as your business grows. How much will that cost?
I raised a lot of questions above. Let me break them down for you. The up-front cost (cost to build the website) – As I mentioned above in my example of our client that was told to use Magento by their web developer, the cost of developing on different platforms can vary quite a bit. For example, Mangeto is very expensive to develop on. WordPress, however, is much more affordable. A Magento website that costs $25,000-$30,000 might only cost you $8,000-$10,000 on WordPress. Side note: I am comparing these two platforms because they are both CMS platforms, making them comparable. They are both great platforms. They both have their strengths and their weaknesses that must be weighed.
What about adding functionality? Both Magento and WordPress use a “plugin” model for adding functions. That means third party software developers write programs that plugin to your existing ecommerce website and instantly add new functionality. On WordPress, most of these are free, and only some of the more advanced plugins charge (usually ranging between $30-$90). On Magento, you will be hard pressed to find a free extension (Magento calls them extensions). Most of the extensions on Magento range between $150-$350. Then, just like when you first built the website, you will have development costs to implement those new plugins. Many WordPress plugins can be installed and configured in a matter of minutes, costing very little and sometimes nothing. Magento plugins rarely work out of the box and take some development work from your web person. That means hourly billing at rates that reach $150/hour sometimes. Again, Magento can be much more powerful (for ecommerce) than WordPress sometimes. That means if you are a large company with deeper pockets, the benefit of this power is worth the cost. If you are a small startup or just a small business in general, I would never wish the development nightmare of Magento upon you.
Lastly, in terms of budget, what are your plans for updating content? That means adding or editing products (description, price, images, etc), blog posts, page content, home page slider images and website images. Again, if you are a big company with deeper pockets, you may be allocating in your budget for a web developer to make these changes for you as needed. If you are a smaller business, and you planned to make these changes yourself, then WordPress is definitely the way to go. Magento has a very complex backend. WordPress has a very graphical backend that presents little learning curve for anyone with experience in simple applications like Microsoft Word.
Again, I compared Magento and WordPress because they are both CMS platforms, very popular and very scalable. When examining budget, if you don’t have need for advanced functionality, you can find huge cost savings by using a platform like Shopify, Bigcommerce or Sqaurespace. These are closer to website builder type platforms and offer less flexibility for customization, but that inherently makes them much cheaper and easier to use. Because these platforms are so popular, they still integrate well with some major third party software such as Google Analytics. Their pre-built templates and out-of-the-box solutions make the development costs much cheaper and the ongoing content editing very easy. I have even seen some businesses use something like Sqaurespace to build the website themselves in-house. 5-6 years ago I never would have recommended one of these website builder platforms, but recently, they have implemented some great features to allow for some customization, and they have some very attractive layouts/templates.
2. Editing Content
I touched on this above so I won’t go too in depth here. The main purpose of making this it’s own section is so you realize the importance of considering this when choosing your ecommerce platform. I have seen far too many companies choose a platform because it was recommended as “the best platform for ecommerce.” The problem is that the recommended solution is so darn complicated that no one internally can make even the simplest of changes. Every time they want to adjust a price or new description, they have to call (and wait on) their web developer. Anyone that has worked with a developer before knows this: web developers are not always the fastest and most responsive people out there. If your’s is, you have found a unicorn. So ask yourself, do we want control over editing the simple content?
If you answered yes to that question, you most likely will want to look at solutions like WordPress, Shopify, Squarespace and Bigcommerce. There are some others, but that is a pretty good list to start with. If you want to hire a developer and need more advanced functionality, you can consider Magento, Drupal and WordPress. Yes, WordPress. Even though I have presented WordPress as the “less powerful” option thus far, the truth is that WordPress is incredibly powerful and highly scalable. I heard a statistic recently (have not verified its accuracy) that said its estimated that about 60% of the websites on the internet now are WordPress sites. Personally, it is my favorite platform for all types of websites. Again, what was my first piece of advice? Don’t listen to your web developer. That includes me. The purpose of this article is to equip you with enough information to ask the difficult questions, thus making you more informed to make an educated decision.
Shameless plug: the information above, although valuable, might not be enough for some people to narrow down to one final option for their ecommerce platform. It may help you decide which ones not to use, but identifying the perfect solution may take a little more depth. For this reason, you can always ask simple questions below or you can consider our ecommerce consultant services.
This is something that I touched on above, but just to reinforce it, here we go. As your business grows, so will your ecommerce needs. You do not want a situation where you pay thousands of dollars for an ecommerce website, and when you outgrow it in a few years, you have to pay thousands more for a new website. The best ecommerce platforms allow for scalability. Simply put, platforms like WordPress and Magento allow you to add new functionality or even a new look and feel very easily. If you need to add a referral program, membership program or any new bells and whistles to your website, CMS platforms are fantastic for this. We touched on the concept of CMS platforms above, but here is a little more info: CMS (content mangement systems) are platforms that allow for customization but also put the content into some type of graphical interface for editing. This means that changes to the website can be made without doing any coding. With that said, because they are designed to allow advanced users to have some control for customization, they still allow for code edits as well. CMS platforms include WordPress, Magento, Drupal, Joomla, etc. These ecommerce platforms are the best for scaling because you can keep all your data (products, comments, user accounts, blog articles, etc) and simply change the theme for a fresh new look and feel. Oh ya, CMS platforms run on themes (not to be confused with a template). Templates have predetermined layouts where you plug in a picture here and some text there. Themes provide elements and styling to create a consistent look and feel. The layout is completely custom in most cases. In addition to changing your look and feel, the addition of plugins make scaling up to advanced functionalities very easy.
With that all said, we talked about budget above and how to think beyond what the cost is to develop the website. How about what it will cost for your next website? By using a CMS platform, you can easily get a fresh new look but keep all the bones of your old website, significantly reducing the cost of a “new website.” Search engines and consumers love fresh, new and relevant content. Having a scalable ecommerce platform caters to this desire very easily. The website builder platforms we discussed above (Shopify, Bigcommerce, Squarespace) allow for some scaling, but again they are designed to be very very easy to use. They are targeting the do-it-yourself (DIY) customer. Once your business crosses a certain threshold, it would be difficult to scale up on these.
4. Your Product
Here is a consideration often not thought of. It is very important though. For example, is your product digital? Not all ecommerce platforms support selling and managing digital content. Most of the main stays mentioned in this article will support this though. Again, I prefer the CMS platforms like WordPress or Magento for digital content as they manage download restrictions and provide regulatory controls so that people cannot freely distribute download links (helps fight content piracy).
I would also ask you how many products you have? Does each product have multiple images? Does it have variations (sizes, colors, etc)? If you have hundreds of products, this can be a major issue. I quote my ecommerce sites based on how many products they have usually. There are some other small contributing factors in the quote, but the number of products is huge. The reason for this is that uploading and setting up all the products can sometimes take more time than it actually takes to design the website. Thankfully, most of these platforms have come up with solutions these days for bulk uploads of products. Then it all circles back to cost. Is the bulk upload free? Do you need to buy a pricey plugin to enable that functionality? Pay close attention to this because the last thing you want to have to do is upload one product at a time.
A little insight: Find a bulk upload solution that allows you to upload a complete list of all options and images you want to have for every product. I have seen so many scenarios where a company used a bulk upload solution to upload 150 products, but it wouldn’t do one thing. Maybe that one thing is it didn’t upload more than one image for each product or maybe it didn’t upload the variations. Then the client would tell me, “It’s not a big deal. We only have to make one change. All the other content is there.” The problem with this logic is that you have to make that one change to 150 products. That means opening each one individually, making the change, saving the change and then going back to the product list to restart the process. Now, of course some ecommerce platforms have plugins that allow you to make bulk edits after your bulk uploads. That, again, is something to look for.
Hosting is almost never considered by so many web developers until it is too late. If you are using a CMS platform, this is even more important. Example: WordPress is a lightweight platform that does not take substantial resources from a server. Therefore, a more standard hosting package will suffice. Magento on the other hand is bulky and resource heavy. It requires better hosting to run smoothly. What was item #1 on this list? Oh ya, budget! Here I go talking about another cost… this is a big one though. Hosting for WordPress could run you $60-$150/year. Magento might run you $200-$1500/year. It really depends on your website. If you need a dedicated server to handle your big website, be prepared to fork out the $1500/year and hope that includes the configuration costs. At the end of the day, paying the money to get the right hosting is worth it. If your website looks good, but runs slow, potential customers will not be able to leave fast enough.
6. Marketing, SEO, Integrated Blog & More…
The purpose of an ecommerce website is to make money right? How do you do that? Generally is starts with doing some type of marketing. Some ecommerce platforms make this task easier than others. In other words, the best ecommerce platform will set you up for success. Platforms like WordPress and Shopify are well known for being very SEO friendly. Magento.. not so much. It really can be with a little help from an SEO consultant.
The nice thing about something like WordPress as opposed to Shopify is that it has an integrated blog. That is HUGE. Not only does that set you up for SEO success, that can be your most powerful source of driving new traffic to your website. Blog articles (being new) get indexed by search engines like Google much faster. They also tend to appear higher in search results because of their freshness and relevancy. Imagine if you had a blog that wasn’t attached to your website? All that nice organic traffic would go to a page not connected to your ecommerce shopping platform. Magento and some others have blog extensions that can be added, but they tend to not work as smoothly as WordPress. Magento was developed as an ecommerce platform and through extensions, it can be adapted for other functionality. WordPress was developed as a blogging platform and can be adapted very well for ecommerce.
Make sure that your solution has a robust coupon system (or the capability to add one via plugins). For example, most of the ecommerce platforms have simple coupon code systems for discounts or free shipping. But what if I wanted to do a gift with purchase? These are great promotions for new product launches. Example: Buy this new product and get this travel size product free. You could add the gift by hand when you ship the order, but analytics show your conversion rates go up when the customer can see the gift in their shopping cart. This functionality is fantastic to have. Again, this goes back to scalability. If you aren’t ready for that stuff when you launch your website, it would behoove you to choose a platform that would allow for it at a later date easily.
Lastly, if you are going to put forth the effort to do these marketing initiatives, you better have the capability to track and measure the results. Some platforms come ready to plug Google Analytics right into it without any additional programming. What you need to watch for is enhanced ecommerce tracking. For example, by default, Magento comes ready with its built in Google API to track enhanced ecommerce data. WordPress, however, does not. You can enable it pretty easily though with a free plugin. These are things to consider. Furthermore, it would be great if your ecommerce platform allowed you to run advanced reports based on coupon code, sales during a certain time period, gift with purchase sales, etc.
Since most web developers have little to no cyber security background, they do not advise on this or weigh it towards their platform recommendation. It is, however, extremely important. If you think that hackers will leave you be because you are one of the small fish, you are wrong. All CMS platforms these days are at a high security risk because the code is open source. Hackers frequently find existing known vulnerabilities and what we call zero day vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities not yet discovered). The reason they would be able to exploit a known vulnerability is because not all web developers or business owners keep up with their updates. This includes platform software updates, theme updates and plugin updates. All 3 of these must be kept up to date at all times. I personally have seen more than 20 instances of a website being hacked. Those range from small local service websites all the way up to a big flashy corporate website.
If you are truly concerned with security, and you want to use one of these CMS platforms, you can pay $200-$300/year for a service called Sucuri which is a monitoring, cleaning and firewall service for websites like WordPress, Magento, Drupal, etc. I have used it and it works very well.
With that said, an easy way to “set it and forget it” is to use a closed proprietary system. I mentioned above that the CMS platforms were vulnerable because they are open source. If you use Shopify or Squarespace, those are proprietary platforms that are closed sources. Meaning they are not easily hacked. Also, those services are usually managed and all the software updating is done for you behind the scenes. This is another example of choosing based on your needs. The most powerful solution is not always the best solution… for you. If you are a very small company just starting out, have no need for advanced functionality, don’t want to hassle with security issues and just want to have a beautiful website that sells your products, then Shopify or Squarespace might be the best fit for you.
There is no one right answer. It will certainly come down to your needs and the needs of your business. When I speak to prospective clients, I always make sure it is known that Attivia does not use any cookie-cutter solutions. Pretty much all platforms these days will be mobile enabled and provide the options to use most of the major payment gateways to checkout (if they don’t, ditch that option fast). The list of 7 major considerations above will help educate you on what to ask when making your choice of the best ecommerce platform for your business. It is my opinion that the best business owners and ecommerce managers are curious. They ask questions. With that in mind, when your web developer suggests a certain ecommerce platform, be curious and ask questions as to why they recommend that one. See how it fits into the things I discussed and what your objectives/needs will be. And if you need help in the decision process, you now know someone that will be happy to provide some objective expert advice. Leave your comments below!