The hype surrounding Magento Commerce’s official release has lingered for about a year. For those of you who haven’t been privy to the news – Magento Commerce is an open source eCommerce shopping cart platform brought to you by a company called Verian. The shopping cart is quite feature rich out of the box, and is positioned to be the de-facto standard for open source eCommerce platforms. As it stands, this product is expected to oust Open Source frontrunner OSCommerce along with a handful of other open source, PHP based solutions. I won’t get into much detail about what Magento Commerce is and its history, there’s plenty of coverage the company has had over the past year in anticipation for it’s release – which by the way, was March 31st.
What I do want to discuss in this post is my first take at Magento Commerce. Now, I’ll preface this by stating that I’ve only gone so far as installing the software (well, actually the Magento Commerce host Crucial installed it all for me), playing around with it, setting up some products, and toying with its features. My goal is to setup a fully functional production eCommerce site in the near future. But, before we go jumping onto the Magento Commerce craze, let’s tackle a few things we like about it, and a few things we don’t. I’m sure there will be more added to both sides of the table (hopefully in favor of the software) as we get more involved with the application, but for now, here’s our first takes.
Let’s Start With the Negatives
Alright, it’s a new software, version 1, and for those of you with experience in the software industry understand – v1 of any software typically sucks. I usually recommend against anyone rolling out v1 of a software product in a production environment when it is a mission critical system. Hell, I won’t even install the latest Microsoft product until the first service pack is released (trust me, I’m not the only one and I have a Microsoft consulting background). Given that, I’d say that Verian has put forth a very strong first release. But, being the nit-picky software guy that I am, there are a few items that I identified that I have huge issues with that need to be addressed before I jump on board.
- Inconsistent Use of Rewritten URLs: Not 100% sure if this is a bug or something I just need to configure differently (if it is, I couldn’t find out how to), but out of box, it just doesn’t make sense. Magento Commerce has URL rewriting, like most shopping cart applications, they’re autogenerated (not my personal preference) and applied to each product, category, and page. So, through the navigation, I might end up on a page located at /apparel/t-shirts. One of my favorite features of Magento Commerce (which I’ll discuss below) is what they term “layered navigation” – although it’s more of a filtering mechanism for products within a category. While this is a great feature, it does present itself a problem, in that the links within the layered navigation, along with the pagination links, and the grid settings (like products per page, sorting, and grid preferences) all point to the non-rewritten URLs.Besides this being a huge usability issue, it also presents a duplicate content issue (in regards to SEO) where the non-rewritten pages are now being spidered and indexed in the search engines. So the site is going to have two (at least, see next issue below) URLs for the same page – /apparel/t-shirts and /catalog/category/view/id/19 or something along that line. But, because the non-rewritten URLs are exposed, the search engines can spider all of the way through that and cause potentially damaging SEO issues for the site.Some community members have come up with creative uses of the robots.txt file to stop the indexing of the non-rewritten pages, but that is really a hack and still leaves the usability issue out there.
- Multiple URLs per Product: Aside from the issue presented above, the URL rewriting of the application also leads to another SEO issue. The URL of an individual product can vary based on the path taken to get to that product. Let me clarify, you might sell a Pepsi T-Shirt, where the user can find it by browsing to Brands -> Pepsi -> T-Shirts but also by browsing by Apparel -> T-Shirts, along with any other categories it might belong to. Well, depending on which path you take, that URL could be /brands/pepsi/t-shirts/pepsi-t-abc or /apparel/t-shirts/pepsi-t-abc, and so on and so forth for each category. Which URL is the right one? How does Google know which one to show in its search results. Having this one page accessible through so many URLs is going to present a problem. One product should have one URL, that is static. Some of the suggestions to fix this has been to choose a “master” category that defines the URL, or, better yet (in my opinion), have the shop administrator the capability to define their own URL.
- Performance: There’s been widespread complaints about the performance of the application. Slow page loads and response times can be deadly for eCommerce merchants. Now whether this is due to Magento itself, the zend (php) framework it’s built upon, or due to crappy code (which I highly doubt) is not yet determined, but regardless of why it happens, performance trumps all and I won’t be happy until it is able to run smooth and sleek. Now, there’s been some movement on that front – some of the Magento partner hosts have come up with server configurations to maximize the performance of the application. Host Crucial now offers Magento containers – basically a virtualized server environment with more resource allocation and less sites per server (10). Running some basic tests on their demo environment performance seems better than we’ve seen in other hosted environments. But, at $80-$100 per month, we’re talking a pretty serious investment from a hosting standpoint – especially for a PHP based “open source” software which traditionally has the lowest costs of any eCommerce technology (free software, cheap hosting, community based support). When it comes to hosting though, its value should not be underestimated, but the expectation needs to be set that this will not perform well on a traditional “cheap” PHP hosting account where other open source solutions work just fine (within limits, obviously more traffic requires more resources).
If You Think I’m Not a Fan
Ok, I admit, I’m quite a bit critical when it comes to eCommerce software, but don’t confuse constructive criticism with distaste. The reality is, Magento is a very powerful, feature rich shopping cart – and to top it off – it is free. The issues I list above I attribute to the product being new, and with any new software, there are always issues to work through – this is expected. I used to work for a software company and I can tell you firsthand that releases get pushed out before they’re ready, only a small percentage of features you want actually make the cut, and development always runs behind. That said, the folks at Verian have put forth an online bug tracking system, a product roadmap for planned features, and have a pretty aggressive development plan. I have total faith that these issues, and more, will be addressed by the Verian team over time.
I myself, am a fan of the software. Some of the features offered in this free shopping cart (did I mention that it was free?) are not found in 90% of the small to mid market offerings on top of all of the features you would expect from a strong solution.
- One such feature is their layered navigation – wow – I love this feature. What an incredible usability feature that I’ve been waiting for from a number of other shopping cart vendors. Most don’t even offer a basic level of product filtering not alone this level of navigation. Assuming my issue listed above is fixed, what a great advanced eCommerce feature that you’d see on Amazon.com, Buy.com, and other eCommerce behemoths.
- The crazy, twisted, tangled offers you can create. I couldn’t find a screencast for this on their site, but if you need something that gives you flexibility in what types of specials or offers you can create – these guys have it.
- The ability to create, and manage multiple storefronts from one admin – this is honestly something I don’t think there even is a comparable solution that comes close to this out of the box. You have one backend to manage multiple websites – it doesn’t get much easier than this.
- Multi-lingual, multi-currency capabilities are included out of the box.
Honestly, this is a small sampling of the many great features offered – most of which are considered “advanced” in the eyes of most small to medium sized eCommerce merchants. It’s these advanced features that really got my attention to them in the first place.
While Magento has been suggested to overtake the open source eCommerce market, I see them as more being competitive to the paid solutions ranging in cost from $500 to $2,000. Why? Well, I mentioned the performance issues above and with some beefy hosting setup, you’re looking at a monthly cost of $75-100 to get optimal performance from the application. Most developers and merchants coming from an open source application are used to paying for the dirt cheap PHP hosting available (as low as $5 a month) and having their sites perform just fine – there’s going to be some sticker shock there. On top of that, traditional open source software has been seen as an “entry level” choice for shopping carts. As websites mature, as sales and needs grow, many merchants look for a supported, more robust solution. I believe it is these merchants, that are looking for the next step up from traditional open source software, that are looking to improve their site and work with Magento partners on improving their presence through its advanced featureset and functionality, that will migrate to Magento. I still see a need for traditional open source applications to fill that entry level need.
So, there you have it, like it or not, my first reaction to Magento Commerce. Overall, I’m excited to see what’s to come, it looks very promising, and I can’t wait to transition some sites. That said, I still think there’s some very important issues to be worked through before I migrate anything here, but I’m confidant that shortly, these issues will have worked themselves out. We’ll be covering more about Magento Commerce in the near future, as we become more involved with the application. They have a great set of resources on the site for you to judge for yourself, but as with anything, I suggest to try it out for yourself – and let us know what you think!