What's the Best E-commerce Platform?

We get this question a lot. I wish the answer were simple. It isn't. An e-commerce platform is a lot like a car. What you choose depends on who is driving it and where you want to go. How fast you need to get there plays a role as well. You can think of the different options out there like cars. You have some economy models and then you have the custom, italian-leather-seat supercars. It's the same thing for e-commerce platforms.

An e-commerce platform is a lot like a car. What you choose depends on who is driving it and where you want to go. How fast you need to get there plays a role as well. You can think of the different options out there like automobiles. You have some economy models and then you have the custom, italian-leather-seat supercars. It's the same thing for e-commerce platforms. 

You need several tools to do e-commerce. You need an online payment processor with a merchant account. They're different things and you need both. The alternative is to use a payment gateway service like Paypal as both your merchant account and your gateway.  If you want to understand how all of this works in detail check out the full explanation here.

You need an SSL certificate. (This is something you should have anyway if you have an existing website.) For e-commerce, depending on your needs and the number of urls you have, you might need to upgrade an existing certificate. Using the Paypal Buy Now button is one way to avoid these expenses. However, the extra expense and set-up of your own e-commerce web site is worth doing if you want a serious presence. In terms of search engine results placement and even PPC (pay-per-click) ad costs, it will pay for itself quickly. 

Why We Think What We Think

We highly value control over your website and server environment. There's a reason for that. Somehow, sometime, every client we have ever worked with has asked us, can you do X? It was almost always something they really needed to have to make their business grow.

If they were on cloud platforms like Shopify the answer was no. If you're on a cloud system we cannot access the core database and server. We're very limited. Most of the more complex plugins developed for such systems end up having weird workarounds (on separate servers!) that will hinder you either with usability or with SEO (or both). We are not big fans of hacks. 

We also have had experiences where clients were doing significant ad spends on digital platforms. In this case, the quality score for the account determines how much the ad costs and its placement. WordStream says 

"Just as your credit score can affect whether or not you qualify for a loan and how high your interest rate is, Google Quality Score affects how your PPC ads perform and how much you pay for each click."

The client paid more for their ads because of their platform. 

The fine tuning necessary to strengthen the quality score (page speed, server performance) is many times not possible with a third party platform. Organic SEO results will also not be their best with a third-party platform. If you're in a competitive market this matters a lot.   

We also value software quality. Systems that are built on plugins for third-party platforms generally have limiitations and weird interfaces. They have to be hacked up to make them do what you need. You are less likely to use them, because using them will be confusing. 

We care a lot about integration with your inventory management systems and your accounting systems. Because we have experience in e-commerce operations as well as 3PL (Our programmer worked with the industrial engineering department for a large 3PL in another life), we understand all sides of the customer experience. We know the pitfalls you can suffer from. Our recommendations are designed to help you avoid those pitfalls. 

So with all of that said, what's the best system for you? 

magento ecommerce


You want full control, have a large product catalog (over 100 products), and SEO matters a lot.

Do you need a lot of custom functions? Do you want full control over your site? Will you have a large catalog with many products? Do you want to have optimal SEO? 

Then you likely want to go with Magento Open Source

Magento isn't for everyone. It's server intensive. You'll need a server that's set up to run it in order to use it well. Hosting will cost you around $85 a month. But you'll own your system instead of renting it. 

Magento needs to be maintained and updated regularly. It has two versions, the Open Source version and the cloud version. The Open Source version is one you can put on your own server. It's free.  If you choose the cloud version instead, you'll pay for it on a subscription basis, not have any hosting fee,  and lose most customization options. Magento has a thriving developer community, a large number of plugins and themes to choose from (or you can build your own) and a proven history of performance. Magento is the best experience if you want full control for your SEO for e-commerce, which we recommend. It's been around for a long time and was recently purchased by the software giant Adobe. There's a reason for that. It's a crazy good system. 

With Magento, we can do things like make your orders print to your shop printer and integrate with obscure accounting systems. It's built with MVC architecture, and when the caching is set up properly, it's fast and stable. It is not a DIY system if you have no coding knowledge. If multilanguage, multistore and multichannel matter for you, this is the right choice.  It does also integrate with blogging systems like WordPress. We have worked with the cloud version and while it can be customized as well, it's not an ideal environment. But for those who want the power of Magento as a turnkey option where you don't have to worry about hosting or updates, it's a good choice. 


What about a third party solution? If full control doesn't matter. 

If you don't want to pay hosting fees, need a quick turnkey solution and don't need a lot of custom options, then use https://www.shopify.com. It can handle any number of products. We can customize Shopify. Their system is not one you'll be able to easily customize yourself if you don't speak php. They have a lot of plugins that do many things out of the box, but you'll need to try them and test them to find the right one for you. You do lose some control with Shopify, because it isn't hosted on your server. Plugin makers have had to create elaborate workarounds to account for this, which can make some tasks unnecessarily complicated. Actual SEO is limited by the fact that it isn't your server. You can still do some optimization, but things like page load speed can be quite problematic. If you're serious about SEO, we recommend Magento Open Source so that you retain control of your server environment. If you're just getting your feet wet however, Shopify is a good solution. It stands head and shoulders above similar vendors in terms of flexibility and usability. 

Magento's turnkey solution is similar to Shopify in terms of function. We just think the usability of Shopify is pretty darn amazing. Magento Cloud would be our second choice. 


Mals-e E-commerce


You want full control, have a tiny product catalog and SEO Matters a lot

We like Mal's e-commerce for small product catalogs (less than 10 products or non-profit donations). It has a free version. Mal's integrates with any CMS or website. It works via email. It powers hundreds of thousands of shopping carts. It does downloadable products.  It has plugins to integrate with your Quickbooks. It's secure, robust and even the premium version is relatively inexpensive. It integrates with many payment gateways out of the box. The premium version works with even more gateways. The staff is responsive and helpful. The system is secure. It's just a great solution. 

The cart itself works a little bit like a Paypal Buy Now button, with a button being generated using a button generator and then the code can be placed where you need it. All cart functions take place on Mal's server. The button generator can be used if you don't know html but the actual code is simple enough for a beginner to write. There are complex product options available. 

If you bundle Mals-e with Optioncart, you have a more robust solution suitable for larger catalogs. 


If you're on MODX then we like Foxy

Another e-commerce option that works like Mal's and is high quality is Foxy. It used to be called FoxyCart. Foxy works well with MODX sites in particular and is a highly secure and robust solution. It can be used in conjunction with any MODX shopping cart Xtra. Since MODX 3 is coming soon, this is a good solution to look at. It can port to the new system easily. MODX is modular so changes in general aren't super painful.

(But you know we love MODX, right?)

So what about WooCommerce?

We're not superfans of WordPress for e-commerce, but if you absolutely must do it, WooCommerce is the one to use. Small catalogs only. 

We think the worst usability, most confusion, least functionality and most hassle is likely to be found with any system that uses blog software for something besides blogging. But ask us how we really feel. We will tell you at length. You're trying to use a butter knife as a hammer. You're using plugins instead of a native system.  If you're a Wordpress superuser you might be comfortable with that. But in general we advise against it.

We think Wordpress should be used to blog and not much else. A blog and a full website are not the same thing. We really like Wordpress for blogging. But. When you're working with e-commerce, you need to use actual e-commerce software instead of blogging software. Wordpress is a scooter. You need a car. 

If you have only a few products or services and cannot be moved from using Wordpress because you're familiar with it, go with Woo. 

So there you have it, our round-up for e-commerce software in 2018. If you have any thoughts on the subject or solutions to suggest, we'd love to check them out. These are our go-to solutions, the best performing & most useful for us. 

Have more questions? Contact us. 










About the Author

Anne Miles is the owner and Toad-in-Chief at Red Toad Media. A trained graphic designer, Anne has been a speaker at WordCamp and the IRCE Digital Design Conference. She has been interviewed by Inc Magazine and the Wall Street Journal and published a contribution for Smashing Magazine, one of the top web design blogs in the world. You can follow her on Twitter at @redtoadmedia

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