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Magento

The Battle of Ecommerce Platforms, Part 2: Magento vs WooCommerce

We compare Adobe's sales powerhouse to the web's most popular hosted ecommerce solution, WooCommerce, and examine which is the stronger contender for your budget.

In our recent article we took a look at what Magento and Drupal Commerce have to offer an enterprise sales outlet. In this second part, we'll examine the merits of WooCommerce vs Magento from the perspective of ecommerce development, as well as consider long-term financial and technical implications, learning curve, help and support resources, implementation, and future prospects.

Ecommerce Solutions on the Trail of Market Trends

Whether it's open-source or commercial, by the time an ecommerce framework has matured into an attractive solution, the market forces that made it a worthwhile prospect are likely to have shifted a little—or even beyond recognition.

For this reason, most of the market-leading PHP-based ecommerce systems have had to adapt to later trends that weren't necessarily anticipated when those systems were conceived. These influences still show, to an extent, in their current architectures.

Magento, for instance, emerged from the golden age of eBay and the early ascendance of Amazon as an online shopping portal. If you strip away the later modules and accoutrements that update it to the current age of content-driven sales funnels, it's still basically a DIY kit for a straightforward 2007-style web shop, outputting relatively inflexible product and category tables by default.

With tight integration into an established content management system, Drupal Commerce seems to have the edge on Magento. After all, it's a later product that issues from the early gold rush of CMS-driven content marketing, from the late 2000s on.

Nonetheless, since it centers on a developer-focused CMS that offers relatively little out-of-the-box functionality, Drupal Commerce arguably also has one foot in the past. It harkens back to the era before user-friendly CMSs such as WordPress and Joomla made custom CMS builds based on the likes of Drupal and Laravel a 'luxury' solution rather than a default position.

Magento and WooCommerce are both playing catch-up with market trends in 2019. Which one is winning?
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WooCommerce Brings Shopping to Mainstream Blogging

A logical progression would seem to be that a dedicated ecommerce framework emerge for the world-leading WordPress CMS. It would give customers all the compatibility of a Drupal Commerce solution while lowering the considerable development costs of configuring a custom CMS build almost from scratch (and practically guaranteeing costly developer lock-in through update and maintenance requirements).

On paper, WooCommerce is that solution: a dedicated ecommerce WordPress plugin that's now owned and managed by one of the key forces behind WordPress itself. Free to use at source and capable of leveraging a huge cloud of relatively affordable developers, WooCommerce also boasts a record-breaking pool of free, open-source, and commercial extensions.

WooCommerce apparently side-steps Drupal's complexity of implementation and Magento's often-terrifying scale-up costs for commercial licensing and hosting, to offer a genuinely free sales and payment solution that can be completely controlled by the end user.

However, Magento anticipates so much essential functionality in an ecommerce portal that it continues to provide solid rivalry, albeit premium end users have to pay for this aspect.

Origins and Available Payment Gateways

Magento

Magento, first conceived and released by US company Varien between 2007-8, achieved early recognition as a powerful standalone ecommerce solution as well as a third-party inventory and shopping cart for existing sites. It was purchased by online retail goliath eBay in 2011 and later by graphics giant Adobe, who have since folded Magento into its proprietary cloud-based ecommerce infrastructure.

Due to the platform’s intimate association with eBay, PayPal gateway integration is strongly featured in Magento. In 2018, Magento introduced Magento Payments, an integrated solution that incorporates PayPal, Braintree Checkout, Payments, and Signifyd fraud protection into Magento Commerce environments—an initiative intended to help conversion and fight shopping cart abandonment.

PayPal, Braintree, and Authorize.Net are supported by default, but there is also provision for enabling custom payment providers.

WooCommerce

WooCommerce emerged out of the WordPress themes supplier WooThemes. WooCommerce is actually a fork, proposed in 2011, of existing open-source ecommerce solution JigoShop. The core developers hired to realize the project had previously worked on ecommerce approaches based around Magento and WordPress.

In keeping with its origins, WooCommerce offers the free and customizable Storefront theme, which has its own subculture of free and commercial extensions and child themes.

In 2015, WooCommerce was acquired by San Francisco-based Automattic, one of the principal contributors to the WordPress open-source repository, as well as the proprietor of Wordpress.com and Gravatar.

WooCommerce lists native integration and extensions for 75 payment gateways, including Stripe, Square, PayPal, Amazon Pay, PayFast, Authorize.net, First Data, eWay and Sage Pay. Custom gateways are supported via plugin development.

Uptake and Reach

Magento vs WooCommerce

Magento

According to W3Techs, at the time of writing Magento is used by 1.7% of all CMS-based domains, which represents nearly 1% of all websites.

Out of the historic total of 956,369 sites known to have used Magento, 192,784 are currently estimated to be live, of which 1.6% are identified as high-volume domains. A clear majority of Magento domains (65,018) are US-based.

Magento users in the high-volume segment include luxury watch retailer Jomashop, underwear manufacturer Spanx, firearms manufacturer SIG Sauer, and many fashion-industry names, including Kurt Geiger, Oliver Sweeney, Missguided, Paul Smith, and Victoria Beckham.

WooCommerce

At the time of writing, WooCommerce is used in 9.1% of all CMS-based domains that W3Techs can identify, which constitutes 5.1% of all websites. WordPress installs with or without WooCommerce represent 34.2% of all sites on the internet.

Of all the known live websites using WooCommerce (it's a slightly ambiguous statistic for practical reasons, see the table above), the overwhelming majority (187,227) are based in the United States. Interestingly, Iran comes a very clear second to the US for WooCommerce usage, with a lively list of 11,581 active installs. The UK is quite far behind at 7,534 live domains.

Taken from the total number of active WooCommerce sites, 2.19% are placed in the top 10,000 for very high traffic volumes. Customers in this segment include Groupon, Hilton, Indeed, Walmart, Fast Company Events, and the Washington State Department of Commerce.

WooCommerce Checkout

As with Drupal and Drupal Commerce, usage statistics can become fragmented when end users cherry-pick functionality rather than buying into the intended CMS/ecommerce integration. For instance, the estimated live install figures for Magento vs WooCommerce (192,784 compared to 3,317,205) reflect the lack of distinction between a WordPress installation on which WooCommerce is installed, and a productive WooCommerce-focused domain.

Although WooCommerce requires a WordPress install for backend management, it can be utilized as a payment gateway portal attached to other content management systems or proprietary domain builds, even without a headless deployment (see below).

Therefore, the usage stats for its checkout system are a little different than for completely integrated WordPress/WooCommerce sites. Neither are these distinct and separate statistics.

In any case, according to BuiltWith, WooCommerce Checkout usage stands at 2,426,521 live and historical sites, of which 559,844 are currently estimated to be active ecommerce domains.

WooCommerce seems to beat Magento by a whopping number of installs when it comes to uptake and reach
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Online Resources and Developer Availability/Costs

Magento

Since Magento is intended as a starting point for code-specific custom ecommerce frameworks, it offers only basic support around issues with core code, managed via support tickets. Any issues beyond the abilities of your project's own development team are deferred to certified specialists.

In addition to the ticketing system and FAQs on the support domain, Magento has a thriving Stack Exchange presence, and, at the time of writing, 37,513 questions posed on Stack Overflow.

Subscribers to more expensive cloud-hosted Magento domains receive additional 24/7 support resources. However, enquiries around build-specific issues are likely to lead to developer fees.

The average cost of employing a Magento developer is $79,371 per annum, according to Glass Door. Anecdotal evidence suggests a range of possible hourly rates as disparate as $35-200, although much lower rates can be found in gig work forums, particularly when outsourcing to India and other economies that contrast sharply with the west.

WooCommerce

Due to the open-source nature of the core product, WooCommerce offers only a limited tier of text-based support, initially deferring enquiries to the online help documentation. It is possible to chat live with a technical support representative about generalized enquiries or problems relating to core code or relationships between native modules and extensions. Third-party theme and extension vendors or any core commercial add-ons will usually provide further layers of support for their own products.

At Stack Overflow, there are currently 20,664 questions specifically dedicated to WooCommerce. However, the additional 159,394 questions around WordPress are likely to have a bearing on many WooCommerce issues.

The ubiquity of WordPress around the internet has made this CMS a popular specialization for developers. Many rival talent pools are catering to captive, non-migrated legacy builds that have too much technical debt to easily switch to WordPress—a factor which, in addition to greater scarcity, tends to raise prices.

Glassdoor currently estimates the average WordPress developer salary at $61,083 per annum—nearly $20K lower than a Magento developer. However, unlike equivalent Magento candidates, not all WordPress coders are ecommerce developers; this skillset can fetch an additional premium.

CodeMentor estimates the average hourly rate for a WordPress developer at $61-80. As with Magento, casual international gig marts tend to offer lower rates.

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Headless Ecommerce

Decoupled ecommerce frameworks allow highly granular access to inventory items without the overhead of an accompanying CMS. This enables the integration of sales funnels into a huge variety of possible online and app-based channels, without losing the cohesiveness of a centrally managed stock repository. Headless systems also allow for easy syndication to ad delivery channels.

It's an idea that has gripped the imagination of the leading ecommerce/CMS frameworks. For instance, Drupal Commerce offers inventory-as-a-service via a dedicated API.

Since headless ecommerce may eventually herald the demise of a traditional CMS/ecommerce approach, neither Magento nor WooCommerce have neglected this emerging trend.

Magento

The highly modular Magento 2 offers benefits of flexibility, speed, and personalization through API-based access to inventory listings. Current owner Adobe has also geared Magento 2 toward the Progressive Web App (PWA) model for the delivery of platform-agnostic syndication. Adobe offers PWA-specific support to developers in addition to the open-source PWA Studio suite of development tools.

WooCommerce

WooCommerce offers a REST API endpoint for headless ecommerce that is a little more mature in implementation than Magento's. 

WooCommerce generating API keys

In this respect, WooCommerce has reaped the rewards of the broader WordPress roadmap, which announced the WordPress REST API in 2013, merging it into the WP core in late 2016. It's one of many benefits of an ecommerce technology that sits downstream of a considerably wider global development effort.

Implementation, Server Requirements, and General Costs

Magento

Magento is available in a free edition entitled Magento Open Source, or MOS (formerly known as Magento Community Edition). However, MOS has more viability as an upstream repository feeding the brand's commercialized versions than as a practical prospect for a license-free ecommerce implementation.

A customized Magento build is demanding in terms of development resources, requiring advanced PHP skills. Launching a functional and scalable Magento sales portal will require a skilled team, the expense of which is likely to claw back any savings that might be achieved by using only the 'base' version of the project.

Magento Commerce offers a host of more professional development resources, including:

  • Staging server functionality
  • A user-friendly back-office GUI
  • Customer segmentation 
  • Automated related product rules
  • Database sharding
  • Integrated advanced quoting
  • Gift cards
  • Elastic search
  • The Visual Merchandiser tool
  • Native customer returns functionality

These and other related benefits offer genuine value in an ecommerce proposition, and represent a notable challenge to replicate or imitate in the free version. To compare, a default WooCommerce installation features very little of this functionality, which will have to be enabled via plugins or additional services.

The highest level of commitment to Magento is found in the Adobe Commerce Cloud subscription, formerly known as Magento Commerce Cloud and Enterprise Cloud Edition. This adds New Relic Application Performance Monitoring, a native implementation of the Fastly Content Delivery Network (with DDOS protection), the Fastly Web Application Firewall, and secure cloud hosting on Adobe's network.

Pricing is bespoke, with custom quotes available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that $2,000 per month is the entry level for Magento Commerce—a minimum that's said to rise steeply with cloud-hosted tiers.

A fully cloud-based implementation, including outsourcing or in-house development, extension licensing, support, and sundry other expenses could run anywhere from $30,000 to $150,000 per year, depending on needed functionality and specs.

Self-hosting a Magento site entails a decently specified server. More than 25GB of SSD storage is recommended for sites with more than 4,000 items in inventory. The requisite 2GB server RAM is unlikely to yield the best performance or to scale well as demand and content grows. Though CDN deployment can help with responsiveness, many higher-volume sellers might be advised to seek out re-sellers that specialize in Magento-optimized hosting packages.

WooCommerce

WooCommerce is a completely free WordPress plugin. Although development costs, extension licensing, hosting and several other factors can easily propel it into a similar band of costs to Magento, there is no official 'professional' tier available, outside of third-party support subscriptions.

It is not possible or fair to compare the out-of-the-box functionality that WooCommerce offers to a default Magento build, since the two frameworks do not operate in quite the same way. Magento is a dedicated solution that integrates multiple useful ecommerce features, and WooCommerce is a basic ecommerce framework that can be made equally (or more) functional via additional plugins.

The advantage of Magento's 'baked-in' functionality is that an update to any individual component will only be released after extensive testing for compatibility with other core components. In the case of WooCommerce (as with any WordPress build), stringing together a feature set via disparate plugins and extensions is more likely to cause compatibility issues from time to time when updates are applied.

Nonetheless, this is tempered by the fact that most Magento installs also make use of non-core third-party plugins or code additions that are subject to the same issues, and that both platforms will in any case require ongoing development resources.

The server requirements for a self-hosted WooCommerce install are additional to those of a basic WordPress setup. These are very basic on paper, with WooCommerce only dictating that the WordPress memory limit be no lower than 128MB. In practice, even a standard site of moderate complexity and traffic is likely to need a better-specced dedicated hosting. Adding considerable inventory loads under WooCommerce will require stress-testing to understand optimal minimum capacity specifications for your server.

WordPress provides recommendations for some of the many sites that offer WooCommerce-optimized hosting:

  • SiteGround and BlueHost for WooCommerce beginners WP recommends
  • Wordpress.com and Liquid Web for SMBs
  • Wordpress.com VIP for enterprise hosting

The more expensive of these hosts offer similarly robust enterprise-level features to Adobe's Magento cloud deals, and similar levels of long-term expenditure.

A customized Magento build is demanding in terms of development resources, requiring advanced PHP skills. What about WooCommerce? Here's a take on this question
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Integration of Content

Magento

Because Magento’s inception pre-dates the current trend toward content marketing, it has had to adapt to the market in a piecemeal fashion, in comparison to WooCommerce. Bolting Magento's rather rigid output into more flexible CMS content streams has often proved a challenge, in terms of theme development and general outlay.

In the last few years, Magento has reversed the traditional content/shop proposition by integrating the Bluefoot CMS module into Magento 2.

Available for Magento Commerce and Enterprise users, Bluefoot provides a capable WYSIWYG editing interface, as well as the drag-and-drop functionality familiar to WordPress users. Bluefoot can embed media and handle social links and SEO functionality.

Adding media content to Magento via BlueFoot

WooCommerce

With a market share of 61%, WordPress is the most popular content management system in the world by an enormous margin. So much effort has been expended over the years in making a default WordPress site friendly to search engines that it pre-solves a great number of SEO issues, giving end users the best shot at visibility and reach.

An ecommerce system that can directly leverage such a popular content framework has a clear advantage—the more so as it can exploit the vast reservoir of free, commercial, and open-source plugins (54,925 at the time of writing).

WooCommerce can easily serve advertising from the same domain as the content that is driving sales traffic, obviating default adblocker mechanisms. However, it should be noted that even same-domain content may, for purposes of analytics or for other reasons, end up being served by networks that can be targeted by adblockers, and that inflexible folder structures for advertising content can also expose an integrated domain to adblocking of commercial material.

Magento vs WooCommerce: A Headless Future?

Debating the merits of frameworks predicated on content/ecommerce integrations might be analogous to pondering whether VHS or Betamax is better in the age of video streaming. Both Magento and WooCommerce are in the process of separating the hard-coded bond between inventory delivery and content streams, and both share a vision of a 'decoupled' future where API-driven sales listing systems become truly platform-agnostic.

We've already seen how the leading ecommerce systems have had to rethink their original missions to some extent in the light of later market developments. Right now it seems that headless is the trend to keep up with.

Therefore, one critical consideration in future-proofing an expensive enterprise ecommerce development is ensuring that you're optimistic about the tools currently provided for headless ecommerce and the framework's roadmap in this respect.

Adobe's considerable resources promise great flexibility and functionality via the PWA Studio and Magento's plans for headless integration of ecommerce content. On the other hand, the adoption of rentier models (SaaS) and the top-tier pricing policies that Adobe has pursued over the last ten years means that this functionality will likely come with a consistently rising cost that the end user cannot control.

WordPress and WooCommerce have made a bold and convincing early entry into API-driven headless ecommerce streaming. If WooCommerce cannot throw quite as much money directly at this challenge as Adobe, it can summon up a far wider and deeper pool of first-class global development talent—much of it well-funded by large corporate concerns that now have an implacable stake in WordPress-based systems.

This early lead, combined with an overwhelming market share for WordPress and an able suite of management tools, currently makes a WordPress/WooCommerce implementation a favorable long-term prospect.

Are we heading into a headless ecommerce future with Magento and WooCommerce?
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Choosing a 'Traditional' Content/Ecommerce Solution

From the standpoint of the frameworks' core missions, choosing between Magento vs WooCommerce depends on whether you're looking to monetize content-based traffic or add content-marketing to a sales platform.

If the former, WooCommerce is adapted by default to your aims. If the latter, Magento has already done a great deal of the work implementing necessary ecommerce functionality and to boot comes with a capable CMS (so long as you are not using the free version).

From the standpoint of cost, Magento will charge a notable premium for this state of readiness. If the platform eventually declines against the competition, it will likely become a less effective 'legacy' offering, surviving on ransomed clients who cannot afford to migrate. If it doesn't, it will likely become even more expensive to implement, license, and maintain. Therefore, the WordPress-based solution wins on this score.

From the point of view of content/ecommerce integration, WordPress/WooCommerce claims an easy victory by offering backend content management facilities where SEO, flexibility, extensibility, and ease of use have been consistently prioritized over the last decade. 

Though Magento has tried very hard to retro-fit its offerings to a new focus on content-driven ecommerce, its 'storefront' roots still show. Additionally, Magento is a more expensive and resource-hungry solution that is struggling to match the continuing, very agile WordPress and WooCommerce roadmap.

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