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What is Magento?

Magento is a popular ecommerce system that brings a unique combination of power and ease-of-use. Do you want to sell downloadable products? T-shirts from a drop-shipper? Your own hand-made creations? Magento will work for you.

Magento is one of the most popular standalone ecommerce platforms available. It isn’t hard to see why, either. The company is owned by Ebay, which is one of the internet’s largest retailers. The software is available in an Open Source Community Edition, and in a premium Enterprise version.

Key Magento Community Edition Features

The Open Source version of Magento is a complete ecommerce platform, not a freeware preview edition. If you are willing and able to take the time to set up and configure the software, there is very little you can’t do with the Community Edition.

The following list highlights the most important features shared in both versions.

Marketing and Promotionals

  • Display related items on product pages
  • Upsell offers and cross promotionals
  • Highly customizable coupons and special pricing rules
  • Tiered pricing and volume discounts
  • Category Landing Pages
  • Packaged products and bundling
  • Display Recently Viewed items to customers
  • New item promotionals
  • Multiple shipping options, including support for free shipping
  • Polls and Surveys
  • Email newsletters
  • Wish lists and send-to-friend functions

Search Engine Optimization

  • XML Site Map
  • Pretty URLs, with full control over URL settings
  • HTML Meta-data for products, categories and content pages
  • Popular search terms page
  • Google Content API

Site Management

  • Manage multiple sites from one administration login
  • User types with customizable permissions
  • Full customizable theming and templating engine
  • Internationalization and localization built-in, including currency support.
  • Web Services API for third-party integrations
  • Batch import and export of all data (product, orders, customers, etc.)
  • Built-in CMS (Content Management System) for pages, blog posts, announcements, landing pages, and other content.
  • Tax calculation, based on multiple areas and customer types
  • Anti-spam measures such as CAPTCHA

Catalog Management

  • Easy to configure product groups and variations
  • Variable pricing for different customer groups (retail vs. wholesale; members vs. visitors, etc.)
  • Digital/downloadable products and sample excerpts
  • Unlimited product attributes
  • Group custom attribute fields into attribute sets for quickly creating similar products within a class of items
  • Complete inventory management tools, with RSS alerts
  • Batch updates to product groups
  • Automated product image resizing and watermarking
  • Specialized pricing rules with multiple options and conditionals
  • Search term rewrites and result-page redirects
  • Crowd-sourced tags and reviews, with full moderation capability
  • Support for personalized products (embroidering, monogramming, photo printing, etc). Multiple configurable options for customer input.

Catalog Browsing

  • Multi-layered navigation with search results and product categories
  • Filter and sort by price or price range
  • Compare Products
  • Catalog search, with auto-suggest
  • Breadcrumb navigation
  • Category and product specific page designs and templates

Product Display

  • Multiple images for a product
  • Image zoom
  • Availability (inventory)
  • Tiered pricing upsell
  • Product options
  • Grouped products
  • Wish list
  • Send to a friend
  • Share to social media

Checkout, Payment and Shipping

  • Single page checkout
  • Checkout as guest or with account
  • Ship to multiple addresses in a single order
  • SSL / HTTPS support for orders
  • Saved shopping carts
  • Gift messages (per order, per product)
  • Shipping and tax estimates
  • Invoice billing
  • Integration with multiple payment gateways, including PayPal and
  • Accept checks, money orders, and POs.
  • “Bill Me Later” option
  • Flat rate and free shipping
  • Shipping rates calculated by weight, volume, and number of items
  • Order tracking

Order Management

  • View, edit, create and fill orders from backend
  • Multiple invoices per order
  • Shipping integration and label printing, with real-time rates from UPS, USPS, FedEx, and DHL
  • Call-center order-taking interface and assisted shopping
  • Custom Order Statuses
  • Order duplication and re-ordering
  • New order notifications via email or RSS

Customer Accounts

  • Unlimited Ship-to and Bill-to addresses, with default selection
  • Wish list with commenting
  • Tracking
  • Order status and history
  • Reordering
  • Email subscription management
  • Product reviews and tagging history
  • Access to downloadable products

Customer Service

  • Contact form
  • Create and edit orders as admin
  • Order tracking from account
  • Password reset from admin or front-end
  • Automated emails for account and order activity

Analytics and Reporting

  • Easy integration with Google Analytics
  • Admin reports dashboard
  • Detailed reporting on virtually every facet of the store, including sales, tax, cart abandonment, most viewed, top performing products, search terms, review activity, inventory, coupon use, refunds, revenue, and invoicing.

Magento Enterprise Edition

There are two reasons not to use the Community Edition and pay for the premium version instead. The first reason is the high level of support and general ease of use as compared with the DIY nature of the Open Source version. The second reason is that you need access to one or more features only available in the Enterprise Edition. The following list highlights the most important of the features only available to Enterprise customers.

Customer Segmentation, Targeted Promotions & Merchandising — This suite of features allows you to group customers based on shopping behavior, demographics, or other factors, and target promotional offers and other communication by segment.

Dynamic Rule Based Product Relations — The Community Edition provides product-based upsell features. The Enterprise Edition expands this to allow customer and shopping cart attributes to be included in product relationship rules.

Persistent Shopping — A long-term cookie maintains shopping experience across multiple sessions without the customer needing to log in each time.

Automated Email Marketing Reminder — Send automated emails to customers with abandoned carts.

Private Sales — Limited-access products or deals, restricted to certain customers or customer groups.

Page Caching — Pages that don’t need to be dynamically responsive to customer activity can be cached, which speeds up loading time and improves overall site performance.

PA-DSS Certified Payment Processing — Magento offers their own payment gateway, which is fully integrated with the store software.

Gifting Options — Physical & virtual gift cards,  gift registry,  and gift-wrapping options at checkout.

Other Enterprise Edition Features:

  • Rewards Points / Customer Loyalty Programs
  • Store Credit
  • Multiple Wish Lists
  • Return Management
  • Enhanced CMS features
  • Scheduled data import and export
  • Backup and Rollback
  • Staging and Development Environments with sync and roll-back features
  • Administrator Activity Logging
  • Improved Search

Magento Hosting Requirements

Many hosting providers have one-click installation wizards for the Community Edition of Magento. If that’s available, it’s nearly certain all the requirements are met. If you are going to install Magento yourself (either the Community or Enterprise Edition), make sure your host supports the following requirements:

  • Linux x86-64
  • Apache 2.x or Nginx 1.7.x
  • MySQL 5.6 +
  • PHP 5.4 +

Depending on your payment gateway choice, you will probably need to support HTTPS. In this case you will need a hosting plan that supports an SSL certificate. At the minimum, this will require a dedicated IP address. Given the complexities and performance needs of a large ecommerce site, you are probably better off using a VPS (Virtual Private Server) hosting plan, rather than a shared hosting account.

Magento Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Magento?

    Magento is an e-commerce platform, a software application used for building online stores.

  • Is Magento self-hosted or is it a SaaS offering?

    Magento is a self-hosted solution. You have to install it on your own server or hosting plan and manage it yourself.

  • Is Magento Free or Open Source?

    There are two version of Magento, a Community Edition and an Enterprise Edition. The Community Edition is Free and Open Source. The Enterprise Edition is proprietary and subject to an annual licensing fee.

  • Is Magento Community Edition a “real” application?

    Sometimes commercial software providers create “freeware” versions of their software, hoping to get people interested in purchasing the premium version. That is not what’s going on here. Magento CE is a fully-featured, Open Source e-commerce system. If you are technically savvy, and willing to put the work in, there is very little you can't do with Magento Community Edition.

  • Why would I need the Enterprise Edition if the Community Edition is good enough?

    The Community Edition is good enough, but it might not be good enough for you. There are two reasons someone might want to use the Enterprise Edition. The biggest reason is support. The premium version includes a a high level of support that might be attractive to someone not comfortable with the “DIY” nature of Open Source software. The other reason is that there are some additional features available in the Enterprise Edition, which are geared to larger, more profitable sites that can afford to pay for them.

  • What additional features are available in the Enterprise Edition?

    Customer Segmentation, Dynamic Rule-Based Product Relations, Persistent Shopping, Automated Email Marketing Reminder, Private Sales, Gift Registry, Gifting Options, Rewards Points, Customer Loyalty Programs, Store Credit, Multiple Wish Lists, Return Management, Enhanced CMS features, Scheduled data import and export, Backup and Rollback, Staging and Development Environments with sync and roll-back features, Advanced Customer Attributes, Administrator Activity Logging, Improved Search, Page Caching, PA-DSS Certified Payment Processing.

  • Is there one-click installation available for Magento?

    Many hosting companies provide one click installation of Magento Community Edition from their dashboard.

  • What are some alternatives to Magento?

    There are several other self-hosted e-commerce platforms available. Two of the more popular include osCommerce and Zen Cart. You can also build e-commerce functionality on top of a larger content management system like WordPress or Drupal, using a plugin. The most popular options here are two WordPress solutions: WP E-commerce and WooCommerce. Finally, depending on the type of products you are planning to sell, you could use an online marketplace like eBay, Shopify, or Amazon instead of setting up your own online store.

  • Magento vs. Zen Cart. Which is better?

    Magento has more features and a slicker UI than Zen Cart. Zen Cart can be made to do a lot of things, and the UI can be highly customized, but out-of-the-box, a Magento sight will look newer and more “professional.” On the other hand, Zen Cart is less complicated, which might make it easier for some people to use.

  • Magento vs. WordPress with a plugin. Which is better?

    IF you are trying to add e-commerce functionality to an existing WordPress site, it probably makes more sense to use one of the WordPress e-commerce plugins. This is also true if you are starting a brand new site, but you personally have a lot of WordPress experience. If you haven’t used either, and your intention is really just setting up a store (not a blog and content site), it is probably better to use Magento because then you are only having to learn one new thing (e-commerce) rather than two new things (WordPress and also e-commerce). Of course, if one of these applications has specific features you want that the others don’t have, you’ll want to use that one. This is why its important to think about what kind of site you are trying to build before picking your technology.

  • Magento vs. Etsy or Shopify. Which is better?

    Using an online marketplace hosted by someone else has some advantages, especially at the start. It is much easier and faster to get a site up and running on an existing platform than to build your own site. On the other hand, marketplace platforms are less flexible, which might limit your ability to do what you want with your site. Finally, online marketplaces have ongoing costs based on a percentage of revenues.

  • Will Magento work on shared hosting?

    It is likely that you will be able to get Magento installed and running on shared hosting, but it is usually not going to be an adequate platform for this type of website. E-commerce requires a high degree of security and concern for user privacy, which is harder to guarantee in a shared hosting environment. Additionally, an online store is almost certainly a mission-critical website, and shared hosting is not the most reliable option for this kind of project.

  • What is the best type of Magento hosting?

    If you are serious about building a successful e-commerce system on Magento, it is probably best to use a scalable VPS hosting solution. This will allow you to expand over time, and only pay more as you generate more traffic.

  • I cannot afford VPS hosting, but I want to use Magento. What should I do?

    Find a hosting provider that has both reliable shared hosting plans and also scalable VPS hosting, and make sure they have a relatively pain-free upgrade process. This way, you can start on the cheaper plan and move up when you are ready. You’ll probably still have to pay for a dedicated IP address and a security certificate if you want to process credit card transaction onsite.

  • What are the Magento hosting requirements?

    Magento requires PHP 5.4+ and MySQL 5.6+. It works on either the Apache or Nginx web servers.

  • What operating systems does Magento run on?

    Magento only runs on Linux.

  • Can I install Magento on Windows?

    Unfortunately, you cannot.

  • What is SEO?

    SEO is an abbreviation for Search Engine Optimization. This is the art and science of improving the search engine rankings of a web page for specific keyword searches.

  • Why is Search Engine Optimization important?

    Most internet users rely on search engines to find content. If a page on your website appears in search engine results for popular keywords, this can a great deal of traffic.

  • How are search engine rankings determined?

    The specific scoring formulae are kept secret by the major search providers (Google, Bing), but generally the search engines are trying to determine two things: the overall quality of the page generally, and the relevance of it to any specific keyword or phrase.

  • How is the overall quality of a page determined by search engines?

    The most critical factor in determining site quality is links into the site from external sites. The assumption is that people don’t link to sites unless they find something interesting or valuable in them, so links are used as an indicator of quality. Other factors are taken into account as well: linguistic factors, speed, site design.

  • How is relevance to a specific keyword or phrase determined?

    The text of the page is analyzed, as are the words used in things like image descriptions, file names, meta tags, and the URL. The anchor text of incoming links is also looked, as is the subject matter of sites linking to the page and linked to from the page.

  • Can Shared Hosting plans be bad for SEO?

    Yes, but not directly. In the past, there have been rumors that the activity of other customers in a shared hosting plan could negatively impact SEO. For example, if one customer is using the shared hosting account to run a black hat operation, the assumption was that all other customers would be implicated (via IP address) and subject to sanctions by Google. This is generally believed to not be true (and Google has specifically said they do not do this). However, shared hosting can introduce other problems that might negatively impact SEO. In the last few years, Google has specifically stated that load speed is a factor in their ranking. Shared hosting is usually not terribly fast (compared to VPS hosting), and there can be reliability problems (slow downs during peak activity). Search engines also penalize sites that have certain types of security problems. There is evidence to suggest shared hosting accounts are more susceptible to security issues, but this might simply have to do with the fact that shared hosting plans are often run by inexperienced web masters.

  • Will getting a dedicated IP address improve SEO?

    Not directly. There is no evidence to suggest that any search engine specifically rewards sites with unique IP addresses, and the commonly held viewpoint that sharing an IP address with bad actors has been denied by Google. However, a dedicated IP address is a requirement for getting an HTTPS SSL security certificate. Google announced in 2014 that it would start giving a small rankings boost to sites that use HTTPS encryption.

  • Will moving my site from one hosting company to another cause an SEO problem?

    Not directly. If your new host is terribly slow and insecure, that might cause a problem (and if it’s a lot faster, that might improve things). The one danger you might have is slow DNS propagation. When you move a site from one hosting company to another, you are changing the IP address of the site, even though the URLs stay the same. The Domain Name System associates URLs with IP addresses, telling computers where to find the content they are looking for. DNS is a distributed system — there are servers all over the world that keep independent “address books,” and it can sometimes take a few days for updated information to propagate through the whole network. During that time, some requests will go to the new IP address, and some will still get sent to the old one. If a search engine spider accidentally ends up at the old one, and the content has disappeared, this can cause a problem. The solution to this problem is very easy — when transitioning from one host to another, leave you entire website up and running at the old host for several weeks.

  • What is the most important hosting consideration when trying to improve SEO?

    Speed. Related to that are security and reliability. Another important consideration which has an indirect effect on SEO is how easy or hard your hosting plan makes your life. The biggest contributing factor to good SEO is creating good content and sharing it widely so that you can generate back-links. If your attention is constantly being taken by mundane hosting issues, you won’t be able to focus on this.

  • Some web hosting companies advertise themselves as being especially good for SEO. Can they really help?

    Probably not. The most important hosting consideration is speed, so unless the hosting company is specifically talking about that, it probably is just a sales pitch. Often, hosting companies play up debunked SEO rumors, such as the value of dedicated IP addresses, in order to appear as if they can provide some special SEO benefit. A handful of hosting companies actually do specialize in providing particular tools and services to professional search marketers. Unless you expertise in this area, it is best to avoid these services, as it can be easy to inadvertently cross into “gray hat” territory. Many hosting companies offer discounts on secondary services such as SEO consulting. It’s fine to use these services if they are available, but they are not a good reason to choose one host over another.

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