Magento as an ECommerce Platform – A Case Study

To date this year, I have inherited several Magento stores to perform web updates on. I thought I’d write a small post on my experience and thoughts in using the system and how that system translates to real world, non technical clients.

As a bit of background, I’m by no means a fully fledged Magento developer in the least. After a few hours of experimenting I managed to get a template based upon my design, up and running.

It’s common knowledge that Magento is touted as the best thing since sliced bread – you constantly see companies selling the (what I call), “Magento experience”. Sales based pitches such as “you’ll never need to upgrade again”, “Magento can do everything out of the box” and “Magento will infinitely scale with your business” are very common from web companies. The latter does not apply to all businesses in my experience. To illustrate, I’ll use the example of a client who came to me in despair at their current web company and Magento based website – I won’t be using any real names.

Magento – A Small Case Study

My client has a small business consisting of 2-3 people, that sell hand made retro clothing. Their whole store contains 78 products – all with simple size and color attributes. Prior to using Magento, the client used oscommerce. Whilst oscommerce may be crap, the store did generate approximately £250.00 per day – which isn’t too bad at all for a small store. However, my client was approached by a web company (I’ll call them “Web Company ABC” going forward) proposing to upgrade their ecommerce platform. Web company ABC did sell them the whole Magento dream, albeit at the hefty price of £5,900.00 +vat. My client said they were impressed with the rich feature set and functionality. Hell, I am as Magento can literally do everything out of the box.

So, 4 months worth of delayed development later and Web company ABC had developed a rather standard looking Magento theme. Skip forward 7 months after the new site had been live on the internet and I was asked to look at doing some improvements due to it failing. Within 7 months, the store had taken ~ £450.00 – not good at all. The reason for this was clear from an SEO point of view – the site in question was total mess within Google. The upshot was that the site averaged 150 visitors per month. I promplty told my client to speak to her current web company about this, as they had paid £6,000.00 for a store and the SEO basics had not been applied. To summarise the main issues, there were lots of querystring based urls within Google and masses of duplicated content. Additionally, the company had allowed search results pages to be indexed (550 pages of them!) and all the customers login/info screens were indexed too. I suggested they install a small plugin for Magento that sets the correct canonical tag for each page.

The response from web company ABC: “Magento is industry leading software, as result we feel it needs no modification”. Industry leading maybe, but from what I saw it was extremely weak on the most basic SEO front. After 7 months, when Google hasn’t even indexed all your pages, something is wrong in my books.

Now, I haven’t looked at default SEO functionality of Magento out of the box, but a few things jumped out to me straight away:

  • Far too many duplicated pages with no canonical tag
  • No canonical tag for category filter pages resulting in lots of additional pages indexed
  • Lots of issues with urls for products being in multiple categories, as discussed in a blog post about multiple categorisation for seo
  • Unnecessary links indexed
  • Search results pages indexed

Skip forward a few more weeks and the client was now asking me to design and customise some better transactional email templates as they don’t like the default Magento ones at all. They had previously spoken to their current web company (who used Magento to develop the site in question), who said it was not possible. I’m no Magento expert, but it is most definitely possible according to Google.

My client then asked the question that all clients who use Magento always ask – “Can you help me use the admin area, as it’s too complicated”. It’s also very common (as in this example with Web Company ABC), that full training had not been provided on how to use this area. I felt especially sorry for the client when they emailed me saying “I’ve been trying to add a new product for the last hour with no luck and no one has shown me how to do this”. Feeling very sorry for the client and knowing they had forked out close to £6,000.00 for a site I advised them to ask their current web company. The response was shocking in my opinion: “We can’t support your site to this level, there are lots of guides on the Magento official website”.

There are a few standout issues here when a web company has used Magneto as an ecommerce solution. Make sure you are actually Magento experts – know how the core files work, know how to customise core functionality and know more than being able to install a basic plugin. Whilst I agree Magento does have an impressive feature set, even in the community edition, it is inherently complicated and bloated. The latter is not a criticism, just something that naturally happens when a system is built that attempts to cater for a plethora of requirements.

Lots of web companies seem to hide behind the reputation of Magento and base their whole sales pitch around that. For the smaller clients I’ve dealt with they don’t need such a feature rich system – I’d go as far to say Magento is overkill for a lot of sites it’s used on. In my opinion, the whole system is geared towards larger companies and sites with complicated products. It is not geared towards small sized business with simple products. I put together a list of changes for web company ABC that would solve all the issues the client was experiencing, some involved installing small, third party plugins. The web companies response was simply: “we feel Magento works well of the box and doesn’t need any additional plugins”. Fail.

The Infamous Magento Administration Area

Now comes my major criticism about Magento – it’s insanely mammoth administration system. As a developer I personally like it – lot’s of functionality and settings to play with and lots of general control. For the end user, in my experience, this is the area that makes Magento fail as a platform for me – for a few reasons. For a normal user, there is simply too much functionality, and too many options to make even the most basic tasks extremely difficult. Does an end user really need functionality to control essential system settings for example? I felt really bad after accepting a small admin fee after the client emailed me the following out of pure frustration: “can you please add a discount code to my store as I’ve spent 20 minutes trying to get this to work”. All they wanted tom do was add a voucher code that knocked 20% off orders over £100, but due to the complexity they were unable to do this simple task. I personally liked this area, but can see why a non technical user would get confused.

If companies are going to push Magento as their platform of choice and tout it as the best thing to build your business on, they need to provide training on how to perform basic tasks within the administration area. It doesn’t matter the value of the project – the administration area remains complicated and end users need training. However good an ecommerce platform Magento may be, if end users have difficulty using it something is wrong. Web companies should realise this include training as part of the price.  Leaving a client with the advice of “go and read the Magento docs” (which are quite technical in their own right) is not acceptable and does little to help the client.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I am not saying Magento is bad ecommerce platform. What I am saying, is that Magento does not have a place for every level of ecommerce store and that users require training. My advice, if you’re considering Magento for you platform, take note of the following:

  • Don’t get caught up in the sales speak and try to ignore the shiny default template
  • Remeber you’ll need to set aside a great deal of time to learn the administartion area – you may need training here
  • Magento is not for every niche/business. The feature set and size of Magento implies you have a high volume of and complicated product variations
  • Remember that due to the complexity of Magento, you’ll no doubt pay a premium for updates where a plugin will not suffice

What are your views on this matter?

28 thoughts on “Magento as an ECommerce Platform – A Case Study

  1. Jon

    I completely agree with the administration area. As a developer, it’s great having so many options; As a developer who has to walk clients through Magento, it’s a nightmare.

    Reply
  2. Chris Cox

    I’ve implemented Magento for a few of my clients, and I wholeheartedly agree that the admin UI is terrible. I’m tempted to release and admin theme that would take care of some of the problems you (and my clients) have encountered, but naturally that’s quite a large project and I’d have to make sure the i18n was up to scratch, so I may have to put it on the backburner for a while.

    One other issue I’ve noticed implementing it is performance – I’ve just replaced an ancient and butt-ugly OSCommerce site for a client, and load times have trebled despite moving to a VPS. I’ll be implementing a Varnish cache on that one next week, which should make it a lot more snappy (to the tune of serving ~100x more requests per second).

    Reply
  3. Rob Post author


    Chris Cox:

    I’ve implemented Magento for a few of my clients, and I wholeheartedly agree that the admin UI is terrible. I’m tempted to release and admin theme that would take care of some of the problems you (and my clients) have encountered, but naturally that’s quite a large project and I’d have to make sure the i18n was up to scratch, so I may have to put it on the backburner for a while.
    One other issue I’ve noticed implementing it is performance – I’ve just replaced an ancient and butt-ugly OSCommerce site for a client, and load times have trebled despite moving to a VPS. I’ll be implementing a Varnish cache on that one next week, which should make it a lot more snappy (to the tune of serving ~100x more requests per second).

    Yer, it’s not so much that the UI is terrible imo. It’s the fact there are literally so many options. I’ve seen it bring clients to their knees, weeping for mercy :)

    I’m sure a stripped down admin area with just the basic functions, for what I’d class a “normal user” would be greatly recieved by a lot of people – including myself.

    Reply
  4. Chris Cox

    One thing you could do is create a new Role for day-to-day admin and restrict its Resources to the more common tasks. That would take away a lot of the confusion, but I’ll stick by my terrible UI comment. It’s not that it’s intrinsically bad, it’s just that it comes across as having been designed by developers for developers.

    A friendlier admin theme with contextual help and less confusing nomenclature would go a long way toward reducing the learning curve.

    Reply
    1. Rob Post author

      Ha, “designed by developers for developers” sums up the admin area perfectly :) Contextual help would most definately be welcome. Thinking about it, I’m surprised it’s not in by default – surely it would save their forum getting spammed to death with the same questions?

      Reply
  5. Chris Cox

    I don’t think they’re all that worried about content on their forums, as their business model for CE is releasing the product free and charging for support.

    I’ve been considering a couple of ideas for a while now. One is the replacement admin theme, another is offering managed Magento hosting and support.

    Reply
  6. rob steele

    Completely agree the admin system is a complete nightmare to get used to and for me to show my clients i would be showing them for weeks on end.
    I am not totally convinced about the seo qualities as my ecommerce has been live 3 months and isn’t performing half as well as i though, magento out of the box in my opinion isn’t good enough as for as on-page seo goes and duplicated content. :(

    Reply
    1. Rob Post author

      Personally I was quite surprised how bad it was out of the box when I forst came across Magento. As soon as you turn on SEO urls – which I imagine the majority of site owners will do – you instantly create masses of duplicate content. E.g. with sei urls on you have a good 7 or 8 different urls to get to a product detail page for a given product. Also, search results pages seems to get indexed by Google too, which I thought was pretty bad.

      Reply
    1. Rob Post author

      Yep … and at the end of day, after the plethora of features and however well written it may be, that’s what it comes down – the users :) Nice site btw.

      Reply
  7. jesics

    I have putted it into practice Magento for some of my clients, and I enthusiastically agree with your points that the admin user interface is very bad. It is not so much user friendly.

    Reply
  8. Rob Post author


    Umesh Ramidi:

    Providing a good administrative area for client is very hectic, as a developer I it easier in Magento.

    Looks like you’v e totally missed the point of this article – however, a typical response from a offshore, generic outsourcing company. I’m sure it does make your life easier as a developer a you have to do bugger all as a developer and you can just hand over the Magento admin area to client and say “go read the docs champ”. My point is, is that the magento admin is anything but user freindly to a none technical person (E.g. your client). How much “easier” is it when you get the inevitiable barrage of questions on how to use it?

    Reply
  9. techguywebsolutions

    Great Article. I agree 100% that Magento is no good for small stores with less than 100 products. It is meant for larger scale operations. That is horrible what your client went through with their other developer. With any project, our company, Tech Guy Web Solutions, ALWAYS provides custom user documentation. That is just common sense.

    Reply
    1. Rob Allport Post author

      The problem you’re always going to have with Magento in particular is it’s complexity. Writing your own documentation is fine, but covering all the Magento topics would be an absolutely huge job. YOu’ll no doubt always get clients asking how do I do xxxx even after documentation.

      Reply
  10. MMMedia


    Chris Cox:

    One thing you could do is create a new Role for day-to-day admin and restrict its Resources to the more common tasks. That would take away a lot of the confusion.

    Absolutely agree with this, from our experience the best thing to do is limit the clients exposure and options on the admin side. Not only do it stop any meddling it also helps simply and speed up their learning curve.

    Reply
  11. Mat

    Hi Rob,

    I’ve built a few Magento flops in my time. I use the word flops because no matter how nice your make the front-end, how much meta and seo you put in the administration area is just too complicated to teach clients in the few hours we give them.

    I’ve met other developers who have a hard time with the administration panel. My advice, invest in buying an off the shelf solution, one where the admin panel is designed around the administrator not the coder and has been built for the modern day.

    Reply
    1. Rob Allport Post author

      Yep, that’s it’s major downfall. Their developers are too focused imo and have forgotton that a normal user needs to use the admin area on a daily basis – by “normal” I refer to a none technical webby type person who just owns a business. Even for some of the Magento stores I’ve inherited, I still gets cries for helps from customers asking how to do simple things. GReat admin area for developers, an absolute fail for normal users.

      Reply
  12. Abhishek

    Hi,
    Before reading this articles I was actually thinking of using Magento or Drupal for my yet to be launched web store. But now I am confused. I was under the impression that a non-technical guy can very well use magento. Can you throw light as to how can someone make a simple dynamic website to sell 200-300 products? I have picked hostgator and they have provided me with a control panel. Should i go with that?
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Rob Allport Post author

      I’d advise you go and have a look at thge Magento demo admin yourself, as it really isn;t for the faint hearted :) If you;re handing the site over to a non technical client you’ll need to invest a decent amount of time for training and lots of ongoing support.

      Reply
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  14. Engineer-ing.com

    While I can understand the depression regarding the agency that sold absolutely nothing for £5,900, there’s absolutely no reason to be that negative about Magento.

    Magento is pretty much straight forward to begin with, if you know where to look for.
    Basic tutorials you can always find here: http://www.engineer-ing.com

    Magento provides complex functionality very easily and most startups use it today.
    Also, indeed – some non-tech (relatively old) clients have troubles getting accustomed to Magento’s admin panel. so? it’s still one of the most simple and convenient to handle ones.

    Reply
    1. Rob Allport Post author

      You say that the admin area: “it’s still one of the most simple and convenient to handle ones.”

      Really? It’s like a spaceship. I’ve not come across a single client – even on the boat load of Magento sites I seem to inherit – how has a good thing to say about the Magento admin area. Even the people who have paid £4,000 plus all say they’ve been sold something that is too complicated to use. THis is why they end up paying me to do it. I still remember one lady client who literally gave up using as it was taking her 45 minutes to add a single product.

      From a developer perspective Magento isn’t that bad granted, but for a client it’s an absolute failure. As I say though, I come across a huge number of clients in my day job and have never ever heard a positive word said about the Magento admin area. Their biggest compliant isn;t even the fact that it’s inherantly complictaed. It’sd because their previous web company E.g. the company that recommended Magento, simply sends them links to complicated online tutorials that they don’t understand – this is the level of support they recieve.

      But for the record and for a client, Magento is NOT an easy platform to use, it’s greatest strength (the fact it does everything) is also its greatest weakness.

      When you strip away you point of view as a developer and look at the platform as a normal client, Magento is a total failure in that respect.

      Reply
  15. Monty @ ilovemage

    Magento ecommerce solution has become the most demanding open source platform of today’s online retail store businesses since it provides a tremendous advantage. With Magento Ecommerce Platform, online store owners are being given the capability of handling multiple stores and facilitate a more systematized browsing of items for sale. Improved management of customer’s orders and having more developed promotional or advertising tools also becomes possible with Magento Ecommerce.

    Andy
    iLoveMage.com

    Reply
  16. John

    Magento ecommerce solution has become the most demanding open source platform of today’s online retail store businesses since it provides a tremendous advantage. With Magento Ecommerce Platform, online store owners are being given the capability of handling multiple stores and facilitate a more systematized browsing of items for sale. Improved management of customer’s orders and having more developed promotional or advertising tools also becomes possible with Magento Ecommerce.

    Thanks

    John
    iLoveMage

    Reply
  17. John

    Hi, this article has left me in limbo.
    I was just getting stuck in to learning Magento, but now I am left in doubt.
    My wife’s new website would be selling up to 200 ladies accessory items in the UK.
    I was a software developer in the past but I only have limited time to help with this.
    If not Magento then what would be a better e-commerce software to use that doesn’t suffer from the user problems you highlight?
    Many thanks for any pointer.

    Reply
    1. Rob Allport Post author

      Don’t get me wrong, Magento is a good platform but those people who use it for every single ecommerce project are just plain wrong. I use Magento under the following situations, particularly large stroe with very complicated products and more those clients with the budget for the additional hosting requirements (a well configured VDS is a minimum to be honest. For the smaller and medium sized stores I’ve had lots of success with Opencart personally and I find clients pickup the admin area much quicker with little help. If using Opencart be sure to have a read about vQMod too.

      Reply

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