How is your WooCommerce website performing these days? As more holiday (and every day) shopping is now done online, it’s probably had quite a workout over the past couple of months.
Now that you’ve finished accounts for the holiday season and (hopefully) caught up on tasks like updating your email capture, look at your site from the front end, where your customers are. Go shopping on it. Take note of the experience:
- Did the pages load quickly?
- Were you able to easily find products and relocate any you looked at earlier in your visit, or perhaps on a previous one?
- Did you notice any surprises on the final bill, such as an unexpectedly large (or maybe free!) shipping charge?
You should do this at least a couple of times every year, especially after any major software updates or after you’ve added a sizable number of new products. You want to be sure everything is accurate and working flawlessly from the customer’s perspective.
Most of all, you want to avoid the dreaded empty shopping cart.
All the plugins e-commerce sites use to tempt customers to shop more—suggesting related products, sharing items “similar customers” have purchased, or even calculating discounts—can slow a site down and result in lost sales. Don’t be that site!
Speed Rules on eCommerce Sites
Customers want a reasonably fast shopping experience. Yours isn’t the only store out there, and they won’t hesitate to abandon a shopping cart that doesn’t move quickly along the checkout line.
Put simply, speed is non-negotiable for anyone selling goods or services, particularly online.
No doubt, you’ve addressed the need for speed and performance for your online store. You understand that running WooCommerce or any other open-source platform requires constant effort to make sure load times are instant and that your site can handle traffic spikes.
Have your efforts been successful? If so, can you take this a step further and create the ultimate store with insane speed? Can WooCommerce be scaled for better performance?
Yes, but not the same way that you’d try to scale performance on a WordPress blogging site. Let’s start by digging into key aspects of high performance on WooCommerce. It can be done!
A Dedicated eCommerce Host Will Give Your Site an Extra Boost
If you’re running a pretty big online store, or you’ve seen dramatic growth over the past couple of years, it may be time to step up to a host that’s dedicated to eCommerce or specifically to WooCommerce. An experienced eCommerce host understands that there are different systems at play on these platforms—there isn’t just content to manage but a ton of processes that handle everything from blogs to emails to highly secure payment processing functions.
I don’t mean to diss small hosts. They’re the lifeblood of thousands, if not millions, of small businesses, including small eCommerce businesses, and yes, small WooCommerce sites. But the truth is that the average WordPress host isn’t the best choice for large eCommerce websites, particularly during heavy traffic periods. And as Chris Lema has pointed out, some hosts see high traffic as a threat to a potential DDOS and may take steps to limit incoming visitors. That’s not the response you want!
It pays to work with a host who understands eCommerce and has its eyes wide open about why there would be an upward spike in traffic—and not make false assumptions—and can quickly accommodate and adjust. While a WooCommerce site is, at its core, a WordPress site, it requires management that’s very different than what a standard (content-oriented) WordPress site requires.
Scale WooCommerce to Focus Speed on the Website Front End
A WooCommerce site needs more of everything to deliver a seamless, enjoyable customer experience: more time on site management, more attention to front-end tasks that affect speed, more development skills, and more power. Not all hosts can deliver on this.
WooCommerce can be scaled but perhaps not as easily as a standard WordPress site. You should make careful choices about where you want to dedicate and sacrifice site speed, and the focus should be on the front end where the customers are hanging out.
Look at your own shopping experience. Few things are more frustrating for an eager or time-pressed consumer than waiting for a product description to load or for a shopping cart to recalculate cost after adding a discount or changing a quantity. Make an administrative decision: what speed functions on the back-end can be sacrificed to make the front-end work faster? Here are a few examples:
- Sending customer fulfillment emails is a best practice, but does it have to be instant? There’s nothing wrong with sending this email several minutes after an order has been processed to let the customer know the details. (Writing “Thank You” in the subject line also increases email opens and clicks back to the website.)
- Similarly, don’t insist on getting instant uploads to your email list. A welcome email can come several minutes or even hours after someone signs up.
- Go easy on auto-update options, which may be timesavers for you and standard on WordPress blogging sites, but are actually security risks. Services like WordFence will alert site owners when a plugin needs to be updated, but will only update actual site software, and then only if the site owner hasn’t already done it within 48 hours of notice. Get used to performing updates several times a week.
What’s Good on WordPress Might Not Work As Well On WooCommerce
As you become more familiar with WooCommerce tools, you’ll notice that the site functions quite differently from a WordPress site. What might be a good practice on WordPress could have a negligible or even harmful impact on a WooCommerce site?
Many eCommerce site owners try to handle front-end speed issues on their own, with limited success. In over 10 years of helping customers, I’ve seen several instances where front-end elements that work well on WordPress sites cause major speed concerns on WooCommerce sites, which as we know, is all-important to shoppers.
Here are a few areas where front-end “fixes” have caused more problems:
- Caching. Probably the biggest mistake online stores make occur during caching. This essential function stores data so that future requests for the same data can be quickly and easily delivered, creating a faster and more pleasant shopping experience.
Caching is often the main component to managed WordPress hosts and it’s a great thing for content-heavy sites, but on a WooCommerce site, it can be very disruptive if it isn’t properly configured.
Online stores have a completely different purpose than marketing websites and blogs. Each shopper on your site has a unique identifier on your shopping cart. In fact, WooCommerce has very helpful guidelines on configuring caching for your store. They explicitly state that the cart, account and checkout sections should always be excluded from being cached.
What should be cached? Browsing history for customers who abandon shopping carts or who never started one. Make it easy for them to review what they looked at last week or ten minutes ago, whatever makes sense for how they use your site.
Lema also suggests auto-logging customers off after they make a purchase because many want to continue browsing the site. Logging them off lets them browse anew, and increases their own security a bit as well. If they log back on, they can review their recent purchases and browses.
- Plugin or Extension Overload. WooCommerce itself is a WordPress plugin, albeit one with an ecosystem entirely its own. There are thousands of extensions (sometimes referred to plugins as well!) that work with the WooCommerce plugin. WooCommerce and WordPress developers have created suites of them that automate processes like checkout, payment processing, fulfillment, shipping and lots more.
Keep in mind that loading too many plugins or extensions can noticeably slow down the site and impact the customer experience. And as we noted, some WordPress plugins like caching may be good for a content site but need to be used strategically on an eCommerce website.
We’ve seen successful eCommerce businesses that have added tons of plugins and extensions they intended to address functionality. Unfortunately, the result was a jumbled Frankenstein mess of a website that ended up compromising speed on page loads and other places.
- Theme Options. We work with a lot of WooCommerce themes and know that some of the options they offer eat a lot of speed for little return.
Coupons: How complicated does a coupon have to be? I’ve seen coupons that allow for settings that restrict particular payment methods or only work with “matching” products. How in the world does this serve the customer? I get that it may bring you, the merchant, a small discount from Visa or a particular brand you sell, but is it worth frustrating customers with such restrictions? Not to mention that the added complexity can compromise page load and website speed!
Themes with “Skins”: Be careful about selecting themes with lots of “skins,” which are nice design options that may add more complexity to a site. Some skins are pretty benign and allow you to select more contrasting colors (good for browsing), while others allow for layout designs that add to the intricacy and don’t add much, if anything, to the user experience. (Keep in mind, too, that if a sizable number of your customers use their mobile devices when they visit your site, you want to keep the design simple for those smaller screens.)
Speed / Complexity: When it comes to themes, you’re trading speed for complexity. WooCommerce themes offer wonderful tools, but you may not need many of them. Sometimes the default settings put everything on and even if they aren’t actively doing much, just switching them off can reduce the complexity of your site. It’s worth a review to turn off the tools you don’t need or use.
Customization: If you want certain functions that aren’t in the theme you’ve been using, don’t jump to the conclusion that you must install a new one or find a suitable plugin or extension. Hire a skilled designer who understands how WooCommerce works and can customize a theme or create a specific extension.
There are ways to determine just how to configure the best front-end experience for your customers online. They ultimately depend upon your theme and the elements that load when a customer lands on your site the first time. Choose wisely, and you can get that insanely fast website that meets most, if not all, of your customers’ preferences.
Is WooCommerce Worth This Effort? Yes!
I’d venture to guess that web management isn’t the type of business you want to be in, but here you are. You’re running a great online store that requires maintenance the same way a brick and retail store or a warehouse would need, just in different areas.
At this point, you may be wondering if WooCommerce is worth the effort! The answer here is a definite “Yes,” without any qualification!
WooCommerce is the best choice for your online business.
- For starters, it grew out of WordPress and already has the same tools that can help generate an insane amount of organic traffic to your eCommerce website.
- Because WordPress and WooCommerce are dominant, there are a lot of developers and experts out there who focus their efforts on those platforms.
- As an open source platform, it’s friendlier to developers than the closed garden places like Shopify. Why do you care? Because if you identify a unique need or function for your site, odds are very good that you’ll find an expert who can deliver on it.
Most marketing experts suggest the future is truly a marriage between content and commerce. There is an entire (and huge) conference dedicated to this topic. And as you know, WordPress delivers top-notch content management.
If you decide to beef up your product descriptions beyond a couple of sentences—most experts recommend 350 to 400 words—consider Yoast’s customized tool for WooCommerce. (Yoast is one of the those “must have” WordPress plugins.) In addition to recognizing the different nature of SEO on eCommerce sites, it boosts social share, particularly on browsing and sharing sites like Pinterest.
What About Magento?
While we usually avoid “what about” conversations, we recognize that WooCommerce and Magento are more or less equal market leaders – actually, WooCommerce has the edge but some older statistics show Magento has it.
Most eCommerce experts give the two sites a draw, although nearly all cite WooCommerce for its user-friendliness and lower maintenance expenses. Many also note that WooCommerce is more scalable than Magento, which seems to be built for large operations, rather than growing ones (one reason why WordPress and WooCommerce are such natural partners).
Keep in mind, too, that as eCommerce becomes more open to content as marketers suggest it will, WooCommerce users already have a built-in blogging environment via WordPress. Magento, on the other hand, has a blogging plug-in that doesn’t have the near-universal familiarity with WordPress; blogging, it seems, is an afterthought.
WordPress and WooCommerce are both proven commodities. Both have outlasted well-financed competitors (remember Microsoft’s FrontPage?). Moreover, both have strong local support communities eager to share knowledge and skills. This benefits the site owner in so many ways you just don’t see in other software communities:
- Serious attention to issues like security educating users about best practices
- Leadership role in user-friendly (UX) design
- Close cooperation with Google to boost SEO and site effectiveness