Clutch spoke with Alex Melen, the co-founder of SmartSites, about popular E-Commerce CMSs Magento and Shopify, and the most widely used CMS, WordPress.
Can you please provide a brief description of your company and the role that you play there?
I’m the co-founder of SmartSites. We’re a full-service digital marketing agency. We do everything from website design, development, SEO, PPC, social media marketing. Usually, we try to provide full-service solutions to our clients so they don’t have to deal with one company for design, one to make a website, one to change a logo, one to do marketing, etc.
What should people consider when choosing a CMS or a website platform?
A lot of times people call us up. We don’t do cold calling or outbound marketing. They call us and ask for help building a site or making their idea a reality. They don’t know what a CMS is in most cases. The initial decision we try to help them make is whether they’re going to have an e-commerce site or information site. That’s the biggest distinction that will make the biggest difference in what kind of platform they go with and how their site functions and looks.
What differentiates Magento, Shopify, and any other e-commerce platforms you’ve used?
In our case, we work with WordPress and Magento more than any other platform, but we’ve worked with all of them. The way I differentiate it is if someone calls up and says they don’t want e-commerce, just an informational site, that’s a pretty easy decision to go with WordPress. WordPress is the universal informational go-to CMS. There are some smaller ones like Joomla but over time, WordPress has become bigger and bigger in terms of market share. It has a great development community and more plugins than any other platforms. It’s run by more sites than any other platform. There’s sites like CNN and New York Times using it. It’s a universal go-to platform for a basic informational site.
Once you decide that you want to do e-commerce, that’s almost a decision on top of that. WordPress still allows for e-commerce. They have WooCommerce and a couple other entire ecosystems of e-commerce platforms that sit on top of WordPress. But it’s usually best for smaller sites that might not have thousands of products. Once you determine you need a huge e-commerce store with 100,000 products, at that point you move toward the dedicated e-commerce platforms where Magento is one of the leading ones and one we usually recommend.
Who is the ideal client for these platforms?
Someone who just has an informational website or a service like a doctor’s office, I would use WordPress. It would let them do everything they need to do and more. There’s also lower tier platforms like Wix, SquareSpace and GoDaddy's site builder. For someone who doesn’t have a lot of web experience, it’s quicker to build a website but they’re not necessarily ideal platforms. Either way, we push for WordPress no matter how simple your website is. WordPress serves the niche from the most basic to medium complexity websites. It’s best for services and informational websites. It even lets you add some basic e-commerce functionality if you plan to sell a product.
The next step up is WordPress with WooCommerce. WooCommerce has become almost its own CMS that sits on top of WordPress and has it’s own plugins and extensions. It has become its own ecosystem. We usually recommend that if you have a store with a website with 20-30 informational pages and you might sell five, 10, 100 products. Let’s say you’re a local store that sells bracelets and you have 20 variations of bracelets. It might not make sense to go to Magento which has more features but is also more expensive to build and harder to understand because of the complexity.
Then you have companies like manufacturers of car parts. You have 100,000 car parts. Even if you’re making something like exhausts, you would have 100,000 SKUs for exhaust because every car has slightly different exhaust based on the size. In that case, you’d want to go with Magento or a full e-commerce platform because you will need the complexity with all the SKUs in there. You might have to have more complexity in your checkout options that WordPress wouldn’t allow for.
Who should avoid these CMSs?
For Magento, people should avoid it when they have only a couple of products. Magento is more expensive to develop and to maintain. It’s more complicated to understand and use. Once in a while, we have people say they’ve been told to use Magento for selling three different types of earrings. In that case, we tell them it’s not the best for them. They should go with WordPress with the WooCommerce. There’s also Shopify, BigCommerce and a few other pre-built platforms that offer less customization but have excelled at making the process easy for beginners.
Talk about the importance of technical coding knowledge when building a site on either platform.
WordPress is probably the easiest to learn out of the standalone CMSs, not counting Shopify and other self-hosted platforms. With something like Shopify and BigCommerce, the amount of coding you need to know is very limited. With Magento, you could get by with knowing no coding at all, but eventually, for customizations and changes, it would require either knowing some coding or working with a company to help you maintain it. If you have fewer products and not a huge budget, Magento might not be the right solution. Something smaller that doesn’t take as much coding knowledge would be better.
Is there a feature of these platforms that has impressed you?
Magento is probably the most flexible and powerful platform out of all of them. We’ve created a lot of very custom and unique sites that wouldn’t be possible with almost any other platform. We’ve created sites that websites use for commodity pricing where there are millions of products that will change in price every fraction of a second based on the live market prices. The API and functionality would be very difficult to develop on any other platform. In most cases, sites that need that functionality wind up custom coding their platforms from scratch. But the Magento platform is flexible enough that it actually allows for all this coding to live within its platform. It’s very customizable and powerful for very big websites and projects. On the flip side, if you’re a small site that sells one product a week and you have an inventory of three or four SKUs, it wouldn’t make sense to go with such a huge and potentially complex platform.
Are there any areas that you feel could be added or improved upon?
They’ve all come a very long way. Looking back even four, five, six years, all these platforms have come a long way. The big area of improvement for the self-hosted platforms, which is WordPress or Magento, is security. Both platforms are working on improving security over the last couple years. Platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce host it themselves so they have a tighter control over security. The limitation is what you can modify on these platforms. It’s pre-built, pre-made and they give you the ability to customize some things but you can’t customize everything. They’re working on that. Shopify has made big strides in the last couple of years of adding some custom ability to its system.
What cost factors should clients keep in mind when considering these tools?
There are self-hosted platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce which are probably the lowest initial cost because you don’t have to build anything out. They give you the template. The cost comes with the transaction. They charge your credit card processing fees on top of the standard fees and a small monthly fee.
Next would be WordPress which is the most widely used CMS; most developers are familiar with it, which keeps costs low. Magneto is much more expensive to develop and maintain. There’s much less Magento certified developers. That’s how I would rank them from the cheapest to more expensive. Self-hosted platforms are the cheapest in up-front costs. WordPress the next step, and then something like Magento being more expensive.
What is the importance of SEO and security when setting up a CMS?
Security has become very important especially for WordPress and Magento. As platforms become bigger and universally used, they become bigger targets for hacking. It’s like you see with Windows. There are so many viruses and malware made for Windows. It’s not because Windows is less secure than Linux or Unix; it’s because it’s the most commonly used. If you’re going to try to exploit something, you’re going to work on the platform that the most people use.
WordPress has become a huge target so it’s important to choose the correct hosting that is secure. You also want to secure the site itself. You want to make sure that user logins aren’t easily guessed. You want to make sure all the security plugins are installed. You want to make sure you’re not running anything outdated. Those could be easily exploited. If you’re running a WordPress version from two years ago, I’m sure it has enough vulnerability that someone could get in. Similar with Magento. Even though it’s not as popular and that’s why it’s not targeted as much, there are also security implications with Magento and it should be secured as well.
For SEO, it also becomes important. We’ve seen a lot of companies that just do web design and focus on having the site look pretty. But then it’s not really optimized for SEO. We had a very big client come to us that designed a WordPress website. It was beautiful. Everything looked nice and pretty. It was one page and a lot of the content were images. So in Google’s eyes, it had very little unique content and very little unique pages. Google wasn’t even ranking it for its own name. When building a site, regardless of the CMS, SEO is very important in terms of structuring things correctly, creating unique content, structuring all the link structure correctly and the metas. Make sure that Google sees the site the way it’s meant to be seen.
User experience has also become a player in SEO. You want to make sure the user experience is good on the site. It’s definitely very important. In this day and age, people don’t make a website just to have it look pretty for the couple people they tell the URL to. In this day and age, having a website is all about sales and has become huge sales channels for most companies. Google is a big part of the organic sales channel. Google needs to be able to crawl your site and see your site. It has to be structured to their best practices in making sure that Google gives you all the value you’ve put into a site.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
An often-overlooked part of it is making sure, no matter what CMS you pick and what design you pick, it’s mobile responsive. It’s almost a no-brainer in 2017. I’ve seen more and more websites designed to look good only on the computer. But they never bother to check it on tablet and on a cell phone. Cell phone searches and cell phone traffic is now surpassing desktop. Most of the categories we work in, traffic from mobile devices is now double that of a desktop. That makes sense. If you come home from work and you see your sink is leaking and you need a plumber, you’re not going to go upstairs, boot up your computer, and look for a plumber. You pull out your cell phone and search. Make sure to treat mobile as a top priority no matter what CMS you choose. In 2017, it’s no longer that you design your site and make sure it works on mobile. It should be a mobile-first philosophy. That’s how behavior is driving the use of websites.
Functionalities and Features
Shopify - 2.5. Being a self-hosted platform and in trying to be secure, they limit a lot of the functionality.
WordPress - 4.5. I think it has tremendous functionality out of the box. What helps that score more is that it has the biggest opensource development community that exists out there. There are literally millions of plugins to do everything that you could ever need.
Magento - 4. It’s a great platform. It’s very customizable but out of the box, you need more technical skills to customize it. Fewer plugins and development exist for it than for WordPress.
Ease of Use
Shopify - 4.5. It’s one of the easiest to implement. I’m sure there are some things that are easier like Wix. If my grandmother called me up and said she wanted to sell cookies online, I would send her to Shopify because she doesn’t have the web experience to understand WordPress.
WordPress - 4. It would be less but what helps prop them up is the huge amount of documentation that exists about it online. You can go to YouTube and search anything you want to do with WordPress and you’ll find tons of video tutorials on it. Even though it’s not the easiest to use, there’s so much support out there.
Magento - 2.5. It’s very feature rich but it takes a while to get used to it and absorb and understand all the features.
Shopify - 4. Their support is not on par with companies like Amazon (who is known for their customer service), whoever they do offer decent support. Theirs is also live chat where you can talk to someone most of the time.
WordPress and Magento - 2. They don’t provide much of their own support. There are communities that provide support so you have to rely on those. The enterprise version of Magento provides support but very few people get that because it’s very expensive.
Willing to Refer
Shopify, WordPress, Magento - 4. We recommend each one for different reasons. We recommend Shopify for someone who’s really looking for something very basic and not looking to invest or spend much money. We recommend WordPress for someone who is a step above Shopify and they want to customize some things to some extent. We recommend Magento for more complex projects. People that go with Magento really have very few solutions outside Magento that work for them other than building from scratch.
Shopify - 3. We’ve had clients ask for things that their support is not sure how to implement. For example, linking up with a Google merchant center was very difficult. If something can’t be done, it can’t be done. They don’t give you access to change things.
WordPress, Magento - 4. We’ve had good experiences, and that’s why we recommend them and build most of our sites on them.