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?