So you decided to try your hand at creating your own ecommerce store. But with all the options out there you don’t know which platform is right for you.
Creating an ecommerce store is easier than ever but the number of options is dizzying. In this article I’m mainly going to cover two of the biggest options: Shopify vs Woocommerce. Although this store runs on WooCommerce, I originally set things up on Shopify, and I promise to give you a balanced view if you’re torn between the choices. I certainly agonized over the decision and in the end I chose to run with WordPress with WooCommerce.
The Main Features of WooCommerce and Shopify
The deciding factor for choosing WooCommerce in our case was:
- lower running costs
- more free options for adding functionality
- no limits to the amount of customization possible
- more options for themes
- technical expertise to run a self-hosted solution
- prior experience with WordPress
- more control over SEO
Now, a lot of these points are debatable and to be perfectly honest with you, Shopify is a great platform and probably ideal for many people who want to start their first ecommerce store. Here are some of the reasons you might want to go with Shopify:
- ridiculously easy to get started with zero experience
- no need to understand the technology
- great ecosystem of apps to add any functionality you’ll need
- it’s the fastest growing ecommerce platform right now
- more security by default
- awesome mobile app (especially for iOS)
- there’s a great community of growing users (many first timers too) you can connect with for knowledge and expertise
- access to various sales channels like Facebook Shops, Amazon Merchant Accounts, Facebook Messenger and even exclusive integration with Pinterest
According to some recent research, the top 4 ecommerce platforms are:
- Magento 29.1%
- WooCommerce 26.5%
- Shopify 10.9%
- PrestaShop 9.4%
The main thing to note is that Shopify is growing the fastest. They do not have an open source or self-hosted version of their ecommerce platform. They are a publicly traded company with plenty of resources to invest in driving their offerings forward. Additionally, Shopify does an amazing job at incentivizing third party developers to expand their core functionality with freemium apps.
Managed or Self-hosting?
Ecommerce platforms come in a variety of packages too. The main flavors are managed and self-hosted. The main advantages of managed (or as some call it, hosted) are:
- less headaches managing technology
- new features added constantly
- keep up with trends in the industry
- more help available (public forums and support from the company)
For most people, not having to worry about managing servers or keeping your software updated is worth its weight in gold. When you use a hosted solution you never have to lose sleep or worry about your site crashing. Of course, you are vulnerable to site-wide issues but you can see from Shopify’s status page that things are remarkably peaceful and showstopping incidents are very rare. Many people with a strong technical background choose a hassle-free hosting solution simply because they know the headaches involved and value their sanity and time.
Security wise, with all the sensitive information you handle running a store, a managed solution will usually be much more secure. Although it depends on the company in most cases, security is a life or death situation for a hosting company. A service provider will always be proactive about ensuring their platform is secure. Since Shopify doesn’t publish any of their source code, they are less vulnerable to that type of attack. However, they are a bigger target and growing so any potential security breach can be catastrophic.
Although WordPress/WooCommerce is always getting better, there have been numerous security issues and scares in the past. Anyone who has experience with running a self-hosted WordPress site will certainly have more than a few battle scars from getting their site attacked by hackers. When you manage your own site you must always keep your WordPress installation and plugins up-to-date and pay attention to security releases and notifications in your dashboard. Most hosting companies, especially the smart ones, don’t even give you an option. They will force software updates to mitigate security risks even if it breaks your plugins or other customizations.
Now, the main advantage of self-hosting is absolute control over your servers. While it means more work and due diligence when running the software, it’s peaceful for the most part. Even when you’re going through growing pains, most issues are fixed by scaling up (using bigger and better servers). Hosting solutions whether it’s Amazon AWS or other providers are getting cheaper and better all the time. Some of the biggest technology companies are scaling their websites with commodity services and building their entire infrastructure on top of AWS or a similar cloud platform.
With self-hosting there is always a greater risk, especially when handling customer information along with other sensitive information regarding your business (such as orders, revenues, and various api keys you integrate with including payment gateways and more). WordPress is definitely a huge target for hackers seeking to compromise websites and steal information because it powers so much of the web, is open source (so experts can scour the code for vulnerabilities), the source code is huge (meaning there are likely to be more undiscovered vulnerabilities), and many people running the sites are either lazy with security or not as knowledgeable as they should be.
On the other hand, with self-hosted solutions you get absolute control over every aspect. You can easily relocate servers and there is less risk of getting shut down completely if there is a customer dispute (although, payment gateways and banking will always be your achilles heel no matter what platform you choose so long as you do ecommerce). You can control and schedule how often and how thorough you want to backup your data.
So Why did We Choose WooCommerce?
Now if you read all of the above, you might wonder why we would switch to WooCommerce. Shopify still seems like a great deal doesn’t it? The main reasons for migrating the store was better SEO options and lower running costs.
If you look at Shopify’s pricing page, you’ll see that plans start at $29 per month. They have a lite option at $9 per month but that’s only for selling through existing websites, social media, or messenger. Even though $29 per month is very reasonable for most people, the unfortunate truth is that anyone creating a serious store will end up having to install several apps from the Shopify marketplace. Even though there are many free apps, most of the good ones are paid or are freemium offerings where they give you limited functionality for free.
All the paid apps are billed monthly whereas most WordPress/WooCommerce plugins are either one time expenses or yearly. While some apps are $10 per month or less, there are many that are much more expensive. This is understandable since the plugin developers usually need to buy server resources to host their apps. This is the other thing about hosted platforms and third party apps, you will always be granting a certain level of access to your store to third party developers to use their apps.
Also, it’s very rare that you need a paid or premium plugin with WooCommerce since there are usually free options. Most of the time you’ll need to buy a plugin license if you’re looking for very specific functionality or more powerful pro features.
By the time I was done setting up my Shopify store, my monthly bill ended up around $60 and that was before my first sale. I just couldn’t see myself paying this much money for something that seemed basic. Also, the truth is that most ecommerce sites fail after launching and never manage to get a sale. The single biggest factor in quickly launching an ecommerce store is figuring out how to effectively leverage paid traffic whether it’s Facebook ads, Google AdWords, or paying Instagram influencers for promotional posts with backroom deals. The other way is to build organic traffic with SEO through regular blog posts or building up your social profile. If you already have a blog with a targeted audience, adding WooCommerce to your blog might be a no brainer.
Although Shopify does do a great job of SEO by default and include many of the options you’d want, they do have some mind-boggling restrictions. For example here is the url for the MVMT Watches blog. If you look at the url structure it’s “blogs/the-mvmt” for the blog and “blogs/the-mvmt/article-permalink”. Ugh. Whereas with WooCommerce you could structure your url however you want but as you can see on this blog, individual posts are “domain.com/permalink” and the blog is “domain.com/blog” because I wanted the shop to be the main focus. With Shopify you simply cannot change the url structure of your blog nor can you use another blogging engine like WordPress within a subdirectory. Honestly, I have no idea why Shopify doesn’t provide more flexibility in this department. I would image there are many people who would love to migrate their blogs and everything into their platform. I honestly didn’t want to invest any time blogging on the Shopify platform since their url structure was non-standard and I didn’t want to build up a separate subdomain (which many SEO experts believe are treated like a separate website, hence less benefit to your shop).
Since my Shopify store was running on my own domain (purchased elsewhere), I was able to map any product listings to valid rules (even though I did end up inheriting Shopify’s url scheme for my catalog). I feel much better following standard practices rather than having a funky url structure I need to recreate so long as I run the store (or a mess of sacred redirect rules). Also, for SEO, WordPress has much better plugins to tweak and research your blog posts, not to mention a wealth of external writing tools you can use for greater productivity (like MarsEdit on the MacOS).
On a little sidenote, when you run your site on Shopify, your store is easier to spy on since all Shopify stores operate on IP address ranges owned by the hosting company. If you achieve a certain degree of success with a niche it makes it that much easier to spy on your store and copy ideas.
The other big thing was the amount of functionality and customization available for free. This is definitely a double-edged sword since you can get lost customizing your store to get everything “perfect” and trust me it will never be. I enjoy tweaking and playing with plugins/themes/settings that it seriously set me back for a while. When I was on Shopify I could just focus on building my catalog and running ads because my options for customization were limited and most of the good solutions were too expensive anyway.
There are a lot of awesome things you can do with WordPress thanks to amazing plugins, such as checkout your Google Analytics directly from your WordPress dashboard. There are also a lot of powerful WooCommerce plugins for abandoned carts, upsells, and popups that would cost you dearly on Shopify. I definitely wanted to keep my running costs low and setup fees up front. I also wanted the option to simply quit ecommerce and focus on blogging if needs be. However, when all the running fees of WooCommerce are part of your WordPress installation, there’s really no need to worry. Even if the shop doesn’t generate revenue for a while, I can always focus on organic traffic with blogging and plan for the long-term. Hosting costs are around $9 per month right now. Should traffic increase and require a beefier server, that shouldn’t be a problem and it will be more than affordable with more traffic.
If you want to launch quickly and focus on your store and only your store (products and marketing), definitely go for Shopify. Many of the ecommerce groups springing up are more or less focused on Shopify. It’s a lot more easier to get help on Facebook for Shopify issues and questions. If you want greater control, already have a blog, or know what you want to do with SEO, WooCommerce is a great option. I love the platform and enjoy using it so far.
Whatever option you choose be sure to do it on your own domain so you’ll always have the option to shop around for when you need to switch ecommerce platforms. On any given day there are plenty of stores that switch from Shopify to WooCommerce and vice versa. You just need to carefully assess your options and pick the platform that’s right for you and fits your business.