SCHAWEL+COLES | eCommerce Blog
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eCommerce Blog

Thoughts, facts, and opinionated articles on eCommerce

18 Feb Big-time Opportunities for BigCommerce Stores

Across the ecommerce landscape, there are several SaaS (Software as a Service) companies vying for the attention of online store owners. They all tout simple administration, beautiful pre-built layouts and powerful conversion components. Bigcommerce is one such service that offers a wide range of templates, features and convenience for ecommerce managers. Not every business can afford to support a development team, and even fewer can sustain a strong development team with years of experience (good ones can be expensive). Bigcommerce simplifies the management and curation of products and empowers business owners with a strong suite of tools that are easy to manage.

Bigcommerce Remains A Market Leader

While many ecommerce companies have struggled to remain relevant in the constantly changing field, Bigcommerce has grown to own a sizable share of the ecommerce market over the past several years and continues to project major growth moving forward.

What is Bigcommerce Blueprint?

For a while now, Bigcommerce store owners have used a framework called Blueprint. While it has been successful and easy to administer, Blueprint contains inherent limitations that stymied development. Developing on the same site customers use and seeing changes in real time is scary business. In essence, Bigcommerce Blueprint is geared for users that primarily favor ease-of-use over customization and standard development practices. 

Important note: Blueprint and the theme libraries are now entering legacy status.

The New Bigcommerce Stencil Framework

But now there’s a new option. Enter Stencil. Bigcommerce’s alternative to Blueprint alleviates many of the bugaboos that plagued Blueprint. Stencil is an improved framework that offers a similar level of usability while also providing a far more robust environment for companies with web development capabilities. Stencil enables developers to create truly custom features, test changes, have full control of assets and backup content. Finally, serious ecommerce sites can be aligned with the more modern web development practices and principles.

More Stencil Goodies

While Blueprint framework was intended for “soft” customizations using early web standards (HTML and CSS), Stencil allows developers to utilize the more modern tools to develop truly unique experiences. For owners who employ experienced developers, Stencil uses the CLI Command Line Interface and leverages Node Package Manager to install, update and integrate front-end web dependencies such as BrowserSync, Sass, Grunt, Gulp, which combine to making development more nimble and precise. Developers can now use Git (a popular backup and versioning software) to easily backup a store’s data and themes. Now, if something unexpected happens while making changes on a Bigcommerce store, you can forget curling up into a fetal position. Just go ahead and roll back the store to a stable previous release.

Some Stencil Caveats

The primary downside to the Stencil framework is for those times when you want to make major alterations to a template but don’t have an experienced developer on staff or agency on retainer. Installing and making major modifications to a theme using the Stencil framework can prove to be quite daunting for less experienced users. Making major changes to the core theme templates requires a deep knowledge of the Command Line as well as package managers like Node’s NPM. If a developer is only familiar with the web basics (HTML and CSS), Stencil could prove difficult to operate. Also be aware that, because the framework is so new, updates are released quite often and store customizations needs to be monitored.

Moving From Blueprint to Stencil

For store owners who either have an existing Bigcommerce site using Blueprint or ecommerce marketers using another SaaS platform, there has never been a better time to migrate to BigCommerce. The differences between Blueprint and Stencil are primarily oriented around aligning the development workflow and ecommerce store management to industry best practices. The good news is it that the clean, easy-to-use dashboard is still there and many owners can move forward with or without the help of developers. Stencil also offers additional admin features for customization that do not require any development knowledge.

Overall, Bigcommerce has taken a major step forward from its standard framework allowing for far greater customization while limiting the inherent dangers of developing in a live environment. Stencil is a serious programmatic framework, enabling developers to create custom modules and themes using the most up-to-date tools and practices. Current Bigcommerce store owners without developers on staff can still easily navigate Stencil-based templates but those entrepreneurs with big ideas and skilled developers stand to achieve the the largest gains.

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magento-varnish-cache

10 Feb A Layman Approach to Magento Varnish

Everybody wants faster websites but there is no cut-and-dried process to achieve one.

In the ecommerce world, sites often rely on conveying lots of information along with a mandate to showcase large product and lifestyle images. Even if the amount of data is not negotiable, the speed at which that information is presented can be optimized. Magento web stores, which are notoriously discounted as slow beasts, can be dramatically improved using a tool called Varnish.

Ok, so I have also heard a bunch of hype around Varnish. What exactly is this “Varnish”?

Warning – Tech Speak: Varnish is a type of “reverse proxy cache“. It is employed between the visitor and the website and works to optimize the interaction between the two. Specifically, Varnish can store already-assembled content in memory and determine when it is appropriate to reply with this version rather than asking the underlying application to build the content from scratch. For a complex application like Magento, this can yield significant decreases in response time and server load.

Contact us now and we’ll finish the article over the phone.

Even better, Varnish can be configured to handle parts of a page independently. This means that portions of the page that rarely change can be summoned from the cache while more dynamic content is fully refreshed.

So is there some sort of example where Varnish is best deployed?

Consider a Magento category page. A significant amount of the content is unlikely to differ each time the page is loaded. The top navigation may require update only when the business expands into new categories. The products that appear on the page may change more frequently, but not often enough to justify engaging the intensive process of building this content every few seconds. At the same time, alerts, shopping cart contents and other results of user interactions must always be as current as possible. Even within the product grid, it may be useful to keep availability or prices constantly up-to date. Varnish has the flexibility to accommodate all of these requirements.

Great, so how do I get it?

Effectively wielding the flexibility that Varnish provides is complex. Turpentine, an extension developed by a Magento hosting specialist Nexcess, makes this complexity manageable by bringing the Varnish configuration process into the Magento framework. Turpentine integrates Varnish-specific configurations into the Magento layout system, underscoring the natural fit between Magento’s modular “block” concept and Varnish’s ability to manage these blocks to optimize the user’s experience.

Turpentine does an excellent job of making Varnish accessible. However, it is important to recognize that it does not reduce Varnish to a simple “plug-in”. Turpentine is an extension, Varnish is a foundation. Even with the convenience of Turpentine, fully realizing Varnish’s potential requires careful consideration.

As with all extensions, Turpentine is optimized for a default Magento installation. Full integration with customizations or third-party extensions may require additional Magento development. Even an unmodified Magento installation may require customization to achieve certain goals. Turpentine is designed to integrate with what may be considered the “official” method of defining Magento page layouts. However, even within the core code, alternative methods are occasionally employed (for perfectly valid reasons). These are areas where Varnish may require complex workarounds.

Further challenges extend beyond the details of technical implementation. A great benefit of Magento is that so much of what is needed to create a rich e-commerce site is included natively, or “out of the box”. With Varnish, business owners, designers and developers will likely find the need to scrutinize features that previously took care of themselves. Customer interactions, inventory changes, mini-carts, promotional content, related products — these are all areas where built-in dynamism can often be taken for granted. With Varnish, it is necessary to carefully consider how these should be optimized for a given site. Moreover, it is vital to keep an eye on the overall effect so that the user experience remains polished and intuitive, rather than disjointed due to content appearing at unpredictable intervals.

Varnish is a powerful technology, yet it requires considered direction and careful implementation to employ effectively. Turpentine brings this process well within the range of experienced Magento developers and allows them to tailor its benefits to suit an organization’s business goals and complement its design standards.

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magento-security

24 Jun Magento Security

There is something that is rarely talked about during the initial phases of a Magento build. It’s just not that sexy. Beautiful design excites people, and cool features may give your marketing department a racing heart, and then there’s this other thing, which happens to be a nebulous cloud of worries for most folks or perhaps even an afterthought.

Yep, that something is SECURITY.

Rather than step down and explore the various Magento exploits, attacks, and protocols, this article is aimed at a pragmatic approach to security – the 30,000-foot view which just might get the attention of decision makers.

First of all, there are always breaches, exploits and attacks on all systems. For example: In 2015, $75 billion…that’s right “seventy-five billion”…was spent on cybersecurity. For all that, it is generally assumed that almost all Fortune 500 companies have ongoing security breaches of some kind. That’s the reality.

Wow, that’s scary. What now?

Rather than living in a constant state of trepidation there are approaches you can take to mitigate the risk. Your company should be budgeting for a solid security program. This will keep your site as profitable and as healthy as possible within your budget and available resources.

I’m ready, where do I begin?

Let’s frame this discussion properly. Most Magento development and design companies are not security companies. Sure, a lot of web agencies understand security and build sites in as safe a way as we know how. We apply patches as soon as they’re released and we’re versed in firewalls and best practices. But development agencies are generally not security experts.

Here is an overview of what you should be aiming for with regards to Magento security. Make sure to fold this into your overall website plan and budget. There may be more steps depending on size and risk of your company.

Step 1: Security / Data Protocols

Let’s start with you, the client. Yup, that’s why this is number one. Clients need to establish proper website protocols and contingencies in case of data theft, site breach or site disablement. This should be shouldered by the business. Also, be sure to adhere to PCI compliance in-house, store as little customer/order data as possible, use tokenization, maintain strong complex passwords, obfuscate the admin entry gate, don’t write credit card data down anywhere, etc. etc. There are many companies that can help write a proper protocol for your business.

Step 2: Magento Hosting (e.g. Nexcess, Zerolag, Snapfast)

Always aim for a Magento-optimized host. It’s not only important for optimization and troubleshooting; it’s essential for security. What does a host (https://www.nexcess.net/about/security) do? Well, for starters they are responsible for OS-level patches, physical security, back-ups and network-level security (depending on the plan). Most Magento hosting companies (e.g. Nexcess) worth their salt are also hyper-familiar with the Magento code base. They can help triage outages and platform oddities.

Step 3: Magento Corp.

Magento, the corporation, is constantly releasing patches (https://magento.com/security) for vulnerabilities in the Magento core libraries/themes but they generally occur are made available after they have been identified (hopefully by friendlies). The Magento programmers are constantly rewriting, refactoring and reviewing code vulnerabilities. Keep abreast on these updates. We’ll do the same as your advocate. (https://magento.com/security/best-practices)

Step 4: Magento Extension Companies

Every extension that has been pulled down from the Magento Connect/Marketplace is prone to vulnerabilities. Respectable and “active” companies will provide updates to their extensions as soon as new Magento releases or exploits have been identified (again, hopefully by friendlies). Keep up with these releases. Sign-up for support and read those emails!

Step 5: Magento Development Agencies (Hey, That’s Us!)

Our role is to apply Magento patches as they are made available either by extension developers or from the Magento mothership. We will also implement any needed upgrades or updates from the extension marketplace. We are constantly implementing best practices with our code and proactively helping (when applicable) our clients make good/better decisions.

Step 6: Monitoring

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, determine which business-appropriate risk management suite (such as https://sucuri.net) you want to use. These security companies use all sorts of technologies to protect you against attacks, breaches, exploits, injections, etc. They also can run various analysis and reporting for you. If you do find a breach, the good outfits can help you clean it up. Definitely a win/win here.

Starting the conversation internally and have a plan. Those proactive steps will help temper the worries, reduce the risk and, really, it’s just good business. Enjoy time away from work when your security plan is robust and working while you’re not.

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asap

08 Jun The ASAP Syndrome

“We want the development done ASAP but don’t really want to spend a lot.”

Let’s pause right here and say that there has yet to be one instance in any project we have ever done where a client wants it to cost a lot and take a long time. As Warren Buffet once said, “Who wants to get rich slow?”

Just about every eCommerce agency understands that cost and time are two factors that are already baked into every project and business in any sense. We understand this. So we recommend something radical  let’s change the conversation.

  • “We want it done right and on schedule.”
  • “We want someone we can trust to get it done…period.”
  • “Let’s both work on the requirement document so that it makes sense for both parties given the time and budget.”

This new conversation may seem totally idealistic but it is possible. We have seen it work and work well.

It’s instructive to spend a couple minutes dissecting this all-too-common directive.

#1 ASAP is Totally Subjective

Sure, we get it. You want it ASAP. Who doesn’t? But the acronym doesn’t really say much. As Soon As Possible is subjective and dependent on each party’s internal timelines and schedules. Deliverables are much better outlined with an actual date and/or time. If you are always leaning on ASAP for tasks to be done, perhaps that speaks to some internal organizational issues which should be sorted out before work begins.

#2 ASAP Initiates Hurried Work

You have now set the pace for not entirely thoughtful work but rushed work that may have little brainpower baked into it. That’s not to say we don’t understand. We’ve been clients and store owners. Who wants to slow-boat their development into next year? Still, we have found that ASAP work generally ends up with subpar results. Many clients arrive at S+C’s door because of bad ASAP experiences in the past that actually took more time and money than a disciplined timeline.

#3 ASAP + Not Wanting to Spend a Lot

Together, no time and little money broadcast an unfortunate message. Sometimes it’s not even on purpose. It’s a social construct that many, many people use but the message still stands. This somewhat silly sign says it best.

fast_cheap_goodSo what’s more constructive than ‘Get it done ASAP’?

Bring everyone (stakeholders, vendors, etc.) together and establish an approach and project plan. It could be as simple as a kick-off meeting or a few emails before embarking on the project pathway. This is aimed at reducing the amount of chatter, inquiries and concerns later in the project which invariably slow the process. When things get bogged down, many clients throw up their hands and give in to the ASAP syndrome.

Record the details of business/task/project first. Many times the simple exercise of writing the steps and goals of an initiative will yield some fruitful conversations. That, in turn, will help accelerate the process. Wait, what? Yes, speed up the process. Most business don’t know that actual coding of most eCommerce projects takes very little time compared to the proper planning and the vetting of the work.

Have regular check-ins with your agency. This is rather paramount for a healthy project. This will maintain focus and help the entire team navigating along the timeline. Fruitless meanderings and unnecessary rabbit-hole expeditions can be curtailed before they waste too much time.

In conclusion, our experience has taught us that…

  • ASAP+No Budget does not get things done faster
  • ASAP+No Budget does not create great work
  • ASAP+No Budget is not a cornerstone for a healthy relationship

So again, we challenge you to change the conversation. Sure, this doesn’t always sell well to the C-level people or other decision-makers but if you want a healthy, high quality project this is the path that leads to eCommerce success.

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SEO-magento

23 Feb Magento SEO Methodology

Right ‘out of the box’, Magento has a solid SEO friendly architecture but understanding the areas for SEO is critical for long term success with your store.

Now, there are plenty of blogs you can read for all the settings you can make in the configuration (e.g. dropping the .html in the URL) but this article focuses on a hybrid approach or an “updated SEO approach” for Magento. This is also not an exhaustive piece on Magento SEO, it’s a an overview written for the layman. It’s summary / methodology that we like to follow and a practice we have seen bring results.

It’s aimed at you, the prospective client!

SEO Basics for Magento

Your meta title tags, meta descriptions, image alternative text, URLs and link anchor text should all follow a pragmatic guide. Rather than drag you through yet another guide on these simply head over to Moz.com for full tutorials on best practices. This is an important area but’s not the only one.

Example: If I have a product in Magento called “Variable T-Shirts for Men”, then that is what I will have for the product name, meta title and URL. I may also write a meta description like “Variable t-shirts for men come in red, white, and blue”. I will follow that up with a decent on-page description of this shirt as well. Something unique, clever and relevant. The image I upload will be named “Variable T-Shirts for Men”. These are the basics although these also use to be (many, many years ago) what

The Code (simplified):

  • URL: http://www.variabletees.com/variable-t-shirts-men/
  • <h1>Variable T-Shirts for Men</h1>
  • <meta name=”description” content=”Variable t-shirts for men come in red, white, and blue” />
  • <img src=”http://www.variabletees.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/…/variable-t-shirts-men.png” alt=”Variable T-Shirts for Men”>

Semantic Writing

Keeping your writing semantic when you build products, categories and articles is important for a.) human legibility b.) great for the this virtual index cards Google and the other search engines hold. Again, head over to Moz.com for in-depth information on semantics in your descriptions and page structure.

Write for humans and not just for web crawlers. Paragraph should be paragraphs. Headers should conform to some hierarchy.

Localization and Personalization

This is an area that a lot of prospective and even a few current clients often forget. Google doesn’t just serve up one massive result for all googlers out there. They now weigh in your search history and your physical location. What does this mean? Well sometimes not much if you have a really specialized niche but for the majority of us it means the results for a New Yorker may be different from someone searching for the same terms in Utah. Wait, what? Yes, Google is taking your location and your search history and weighing that against a long string of other variables.

Social Media

Get involved. Even if it is a Linkedin company profile, this at least gives your company some “street cred”. Use Twitter to handle your customer support or to keep track of deliveries. You may simply just want to use it to garner feedback from the community or broadcast events. Once you make a post don’t ignore it, be sure to comment back or re-tweet, to extend the conversation as much as makes sense. Sharing other content, and having a genuine conversation will make it more likely that your followers will share and comment on your content, helping your SEO rankings.

Technical SEO

This is a tough one to fully understand but one things resonates with everyone; speed. How fast does your site pull up? How fast do deeper pages pull up. How fast do you pages pull up from an Ipad, Android phone, and laptop? Google has specially stated that this will affect ranking and results. If your server often goes down or is not tuned for speed, it sends an instability alarm to Google and other search engines. Mobile and desktop efficiency is key. Are you loading a separate mobile app vs. a responsively designed site?

Backlinks

Well, this is no surprise and continues to be a huge part of your Magento SEO strategy but quality will win out from quantity. Your backlinks should be coming from a plethora of sources now. There are bloggers, networks, review engines, shopping sites, government sites, educational institutions, etc.

+++

The biggest takeaway from this article is simply a bullet list you should be checking in with or vetting when talking with new agencies.

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birds

11 Feb The Big Magento Migration

A note for future Magento clients and prospects: review this primer to be prepared for the big move.

Now that your company has made the decision to migrate or start a new Magento store, we’ve compiled a must-have checklist for your new venture. This short guide is aimed at keeping the project moving, helping to meet your expectations and keeping communication healthy along the way. With any sort of migration, you need a plan and you need people. If your developer is not telling you this, then you need to find another more competent Magento agency to help you. It takes teamwork and a lot of cooperation on both sides. This is no small task.

1. Get Involved Right Now

Real use case: We once had a client who assigned his marketing person to the entire project. That’s fine if that person can sign-off on everything and will be held accountable for all quality assurance and major decisions throughout the project. This can work but this particular client was an edge-case. The decision maker didn’t become totally involved until eight months into the project and even then, he had a very different view of what should be done, basically usurping the marketing person’s early foundation and started adding items that were clearly out of scope.

This pattern of involvement is obviously not the best approach. Whoever owns the project on the client side should be involved on Day One. To be clear, Day One of a project like this is the day the contract is under review (before signing) so any addendums or base additions can be made. This is also a healthy, proactive way to start the education portion of the project.

2. Be Ready to Explain Your Data

This may sound complicated but if you already run an eCommerce site this will not be difficult or in any way surprising. Encouraging you (the client) to explain the data is a lot more economical in both time and money. Now, given, there is always a question and answer session to determine what each piece of data means to the store, but you should also have someone assigned to this task who focuses on this explication. The end result is a beautifully mapped legend of products that everyone on both sides can understand and propels the project into action.

Example: You assign someone to export your entire product database. A .csv, .xml, or .txt file. Great, one step done. Now that person should also be able to document what each column indicates and if there are any dependencies. Yes, it’s a tedious step, but a necessary step at that.

3. Who is Your Go-To Person?

During the entire life of the project you absolutely need to assign someone tasks like note-taking, feedback and internal project management. Some weeks are very light, some are not. Generally a schedule should be created but things happen and the project manager needs to be flexible. Projects thrive on great communication. It is no secret that communication is the trump card in most projects around the world, regardless of the industry. Your go-to guy or gal needs the power to make decisions but shouldn’t keep you in the dark on any key points of the project.

4. Quality Assurance

All clients need to be prepared to shoulder quality assurance (QA) –a lot of it. This is your business. This is how you make money. We are good but we are not perfect. We need to hear your point of view. Having your team perform thorough QA is a major component of expectation management and getting things right. Test or review each step: design, development, extension additions with your own workflow. Successful businesses will tell you how important this step is.

Magento is a flexible, scalable proven platform and it might be just the thing to help raise your business to new heights. As effective as your development company might be (and we think we’re pretty darn good), a migration needs you. So get involved, buddy up with your data, grab your right-hand man/woman and check the work at every step. When it comes time to turn on your Magento store, you won’t be unduly stressed or frantic, you’ll just smile knowing the restraints of your old platform are gone. Now you can concentrate on all those other great ideas to grow sales, roll out new products and make your mark in the eCommerce world.

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