Magento Blog


Lessons from a Year of Magento U

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As you’re planning for 2014, think about fitting in time to get to know the Magento platform better. Getting educated might seem like an obvious way to gain understanding, but too often we skip those opportunities because we’re just too busy. In 2014, make time. We’re speaking from experience. Hundreds of developers have trained with us, and here are lessons they have to share:

Developers Don’t Know What They Don’t Know
image “The Magento U course has helped me get to know Magento in so many ways, and it has made me realize how much I did not know about the framework,” said Phumlani Nyati from Invent Commerce. Developers tend to be pretty smart and self-sufficient people, which is good because they’re often thrown into the deep end head first when they join a team. No matter how clever they are, without education on the Magento platform, they’ll tend to focus on what they can see, and likely miss useful and important aspects simply because they don’t know they exist.

An Educated Developer is an Efficient Developer
“For the past year I have been blindly working with Magento, but after the week of training I now can see the light. I can't wait to bring my new knowledge back to work,” says Dave Bonillas from Build.Com, Inc. Magento platforms are pretty awesome, but they’re not magical. They need to be implemented and managed by developers, and, since most development is tied to a budget, it’s a really good idea for developers to know what they’re doing. Saving time means saving money.

Experts Are Better at Answering Complex Questions
“The instructor had incredible knowledge of the material and was able to explain and demonstrate real life situations flawlessly,” says Ashley Bush from Ringside. Developers have questions too. Sure, developers can probably “read the book,” but isn’t it better, and often faster, when they can just ask someone? Especially if the person they ask is an expert? Not only do they know their subjects, but experts are often a great source for filling in all of those things you didn’t know you didn’t know, and helping you with efficiency. Because they’re experts. It’s what they do.

Check out the courses coming up in 2014.

Meet Magento U Instructor Kevin Schroeder

Along with being a published author, Kevin Schroeder teaches performance and system optimization classes for Magento U.

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1. Where are you from?
Originally a very small town in Manitoba, Canada. Now, Texas.

2. What classes do you teach for Magento U?
I teach Performance and System Optimization as well as fix broken virtual machines. Sometimes I break fixed virtual machines.

3. What do you love about Magento U?
I like seeing “Oohhhhh, now I get it” in the chat. It’s even better when it happens in my class.


4. What’s the funniest thing that has happened in one of your classes/since you’ve been working with Magento U?
Nothing. I run a completely tight ship, devoid of humor, completely focused on the task at hand. Sometimes I even beat a drum during exercises. Bom, bom, bom be dum.

  • 5. What is your favorite movie? TV show? Musical artist?
  • [Movie] Aliens or Sneakers. The Expendables is pretty darn good too.
  • [TV] Pingu (Nug! Nug!).
  • [Musical Artist] Me! (released two albums and working on a third) Or James Horner (his old stuff) or Danny Elfman (his new stuff) or Chris Broderick or Juno Reactor. In all honesty, I have no idea. Anything without a Banjo… except for the theme song from Firefly. But only because Nathan Fillion is in it.

6. If you could travel anywhere right now, where would you go and why?
Fhloston Paradise, but only because I’m such a big fan of Ruby Rhod.

7. If you were an animal, which one would you be and why?
A giant spider, so I could finally catch those filthy Hobbitses.

8. What is your favorite food?
Usually, whatever is about to enter my mouth. Or Thai.

9. What is a Magento tip you want to share with people?
"We’ll just cache it” is not a performance strategy.

Want to know more about Magento U instructors? Visit us on Facebook!

Upcoming Magento U Courses:

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Proper SEO Implementation on Your Web Store Can Make a BIG Difference

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Search Engine Optimization or SEO is a long-used, vague term that elicits a set of conflicting emotions for merchants. In its most general sense it defines a set of actions merchants take to make sure their site shows up when customers search for their products via a search engine.

Proper SEO implementation on your web store can make a big difference in its visibility and sales. Ragan.com put together a list of SEO statistics that should help you understand its value. To highlight a few key points:

• Search is the No. 1 traffic driver to sites - 3 times that of social media
• 75% of search engine users never scroll past the first page
• Almost 40% of customers come from search

While Google claims that having relevant content that users love is the key to ranking high on searches, SEO practitioners will tell you that there are other things you can and should do in order to improve your search engine rankings.

Content Checklist

● Product names and descriptions
Do your products contain the search keywords you want to attract? If you have a large catalog and tend to upload your product names and descriptions from your suppliers, you should make sure that you are customizing the product names, descriptions and short descriptions to include important keywords. The same rules apply to category names and descriptions.

● CMS pages
A lot of time goes into writing and creating content for the web. Making sure that your site has informational pages with well-written, keyword-rich content will help you attract customers interested in your products. CMS pages in Magento are a great place to feature product guides, videos with descriptions or summaries of their content, and other types of information that are important information. One company that uses the CMS format to their advantage is Kirby Allison’s Hanger Project. His shoe-care guide is an excellent example of high-value, keyword-rich content.

● Blog
Blogs are important places to feature high-velocity content, which can help improve your rankings. Ideas for the holidays, comments on topics trending on twitter or in the news media are great subjects for your blog and will help you attract short-term search engine traffic. While Magento itself does not offer blog functionality as a core function, there are several extensions available that allow you to incorporate a blog in your store.

● Reviews
User-generated content is a magnet for search engines, and product reviews by actual purchasers are a great way to encourage users to add information to you site (besides the fact that shoppers find them useful). You can either use the built-in review system that comes with Magento or a service like YotPo that helps solicit reviews for you.

Meta Data: Use Title and Descriptions Effectively


Meta Data is information on your web pages that is not visible to your users (though the title does show up in the browser tab) but is used by search engines to display results. While optimizing your meta data only has a nominal effect on search engine results, it does help improve your click-through rates when your results are displayed. The meta-title shows up as the link text and the description is the text below it on most search engines.

Meta-titles should be about 60 characters in length and descriptions should be limited to 155 characters (Magento shows a 255 character limit, but search engines have recently decreased the number of characters they display in search results.).

While the meta-data is not visible on your web site, it is in the html section of the code that creates the pages. If you want to see the metadata on your page without viewing the page’s HTML source, visit Exadium’s Meta Data Analyzer and type in the url of the page you would like to see. If you use Google Chrome, you might want to install an extension called META SEO Inspector, which produces a pop-up window showing your site’s meta data.

Kill The Keywords

In Magento and many systems there is a space to enter keywords about a specific page. In the old days of the web, search engines used this information when determining page rankings. However, all major search engines have disavowed the use of this field because of rampant abuse by keyword spammers. In fact, that keyword field is now a negative as it signals to your competitors what your keyword strategy is. We highly recommend you remove any text you have in the keywords field.

Use Canonicals, Please!

If you don’t know what canonical tags are, don’t worry. Magento will take care of them for you automatically. Just make sure you have them turned on in System > Configuration > Catalog > Search Engine Optimizations.

Be sure to choose YES next to both Use Canonical Link Meta Tag selections.
And, by the way, canonical tags simply help you avoid communicating duplicate content to Google and the other search engines… a major faux pas!

Focus, Focus, Focus

By focus, we mean focusing the search engines on the relevant sections of your site. Let’s face it, you don’t want Google to crawl your site and index your account log in, cart, checkout and other pages as they confuse Google as to what your site is about.

You should have a 3-pronged strategy for this
● A good Robots.txt
● Submit an XML sitemap
● Use robots meta tags

A well-crafted robots.txt file should be sitting on your server. Google has a nice explanation if you aren’t familiar with it, but it basically tells search bots to ignore parts of your site. If you don’t have a robots.txt file on your server, the search engines may get confused trying to index your site. To find out if you have one, simply add robots.txt to the end of your url, e.g., "www.yourstoresdomainhere.com/robots.txt". If you get a 404 error instead of something that looks like this, you don’t have one!

You should also be submitting a sitemap to Google and Bing webmaster tools accounts. There is a great blog article on the mechanics of it. It doesn’t require any tech knowledge to set up, though you may have to adjust the permissions of a folder on your site. Your xml sitemap will help the search engines focus on the important pages of your site.

image Research has shown that page load times on retail sites are increasing. As we cram more and more code and content into a single page thinking to increase appeal, we may actually increase bounce rates and erode search rankings. Google has been very public about its initiative to speed up the Internet and punishes pages that take longer to load. We recommend our recent post on page load times to explore this area more.

There Is More To It

As a merchant, you should develop a passion for SEO but realize that you don’t have to be an expert at it (or, even hire one) to improve your site’s search engine visibility. For a slightly more technical review of Magento’s SEO capabilities, Yaost has provided a nice overview.

If you need assistance with these or other SEO tasks, you might want to consider reaching out to a certified Magento developer for help. We also encourage you to take a look at “Growing Your Business with SEO on Magento”, an on-demand course hosted by Magento U that’s ideal for merchants.

Learn What You Don’t Know – Top 10 Questions for a Business Leader to Ask His Technical Team

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Magento merchants tend to be dynamic, energetic and resourceful people. They pride themselves on their ability to research and learn the technical knowledge required to manage and grow an online business. However, because there is so much to learn, most people on the business side have only a surface understanding of the technologies and terminologies.

Even the most adept merchants often feel they are speaking to someone from another planet when dealing with developers. Almost every merchant has been in a meeting in which they were buried in a deluge of indecipherable acronyms and buzzwords.

While one article cannot solve the merchant-developer communication problem, we would like to present some questions (and the RIGHT answers) merchants should ask their technical folks to help ensure their site is in top running condition.

1. What is our current resource load and how much of a spike in traffic can we handle?
Merchants who run promotions need to be prepared for spikes in traffic. If your server is already running close to capacity, it may slow down, deny access to some users, or, heaven forbid, crash during an important marketing campaign. To make sure you have sufficient CPU power, RAM and disk space, you should provide traffic forecasts to your developers and ask… can we handle it?

2. What are we doing to keep our pages loading fast?
Page load time is critical! Your developer should be able to tell you which caching methods they are using. If you are on a cloud resource pool you will maximize your speed if you are using Nginx (rather than Apache) and have implemented APC caching. If you get a lot of traffic from other countries you should probably be using a Content Distribution Network.

3. What benefits of Magento Enterprise Edition are we using?
It is surprising how many Enterprise Edition users are not taking advantage of full page caching, one of the key features available to improve page load times. Most often, it is turned off because your design (theme) conflicts with it. If that is the case, you should be asking how you can modify your design to allow for it. You should also make sure you your team knows how to segment customers, add banners to timed promotions, set up private sales, stage content and other features unique to Magento Enterprise Edition. It’s important to test, test and test again to determine what works best for your type of products and services.

4. How can a non-technical person update an image or content on my site?
Your developer should have set up CMS blocks that are easy to update for content like banners that are updated frequently. You should also have special users roles set up for designers, writers and other content creators and make sure they understand how to use them.

5. How are we keeping the server secure?
If you have not had this conversation with your developer or server administrator, have it soon! They should make sure only the ports necessary are open, that all passwords are not default and are unique, and, wherever possible, user access should only be allowed from specific IP address.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

6. How are we set up to handle cases when we need to roll the site back to a stable, previous version?
If the answer is, ‘we aren’t,’ you may want to consider a new development resource! The best answer is that a version control system of some kind is in place. You should also have both a production server and a development or ‘staging’ server in place. All of your experimentation should be done on the staging/development server. Changes should only be passed to your production server when it has been thoroughly tested.

7. Who has access to my server?
If your developer or server manager doesn’t know, it is time for them to find out. Ideally, only they will have root access. If FTP access is set up, each user should have their own user name and password. Whenever possible, SFTP not FTP access should be granted and only to trusted users. Access to the staging/development server can be a little broader, while access to your production server should be limited to a highly-trusted core of users.

8. Which version of Magento are we using?
If you're more than 1 version behind the latest Magento release, you may be missing out on some important features or security patches if you are running an older version. Visit the Magento web site to see the latest version of Enterprise Edition. If you are more than one version behind, you should ask why.

9. What modules/extensions have been installed on the store and what do they do?
It's important to know which extensions you have installed to make sure you are using each one to its fullest extent. You may have functionality available to you that you are not aware of. Also, if the list is very long, you may want to look for extensions that handle the functionality of more than one extension. Extension conflicts do happen and managing your portfolio of install extensions will help keep your Magento site lean and mean! Your developer can easily find these by looking in the appropriate folder on your server and if they are maintaining your web store, they should know what each one does.

10. Is any core code or templates overwritten?
Overwriting core code is at the heart of many performance problems and can lead to problems when making any upgrades in functionality (new extensions or when moving to a new version of the platform).

To ensure that you are getting the most out of Enterprise Edition, make sure you are working with a certified Magento developer. Developers spend hundreds of hours learning the Magento code in order to become certified and show their dedication to the Magento platform by taking (and passing) a rigorous test.

Developer Spotlight – Sergey Ostapchik

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In the spotlight today is Sergey Ostapchik, Magento Certified Developer Plus at aheadWorks, and a Magento Platinum Industry Partner based in Minsk, Belarus. His recent projects include the aheadWorks Advisor Project, an eCommerce Gamification Module, and the OnePulse mobile administration extension.

How did you make a decision to become a Magento developer? Was it made by chance?

I decided to be a programmer about eight years ago. The choice was not accidental, because I’m that kind of a person who is always eager to simplify, accelerate and automate processes.

I got acquainted with Magento while applying for a job at aheadWorks. Now it makes me smile, but back then it was not particularly fun. I had to deal with a great flexible system containing a bunch of components and options and at the beginning I got really scared. Over time I reached a “comfort zone” in relationships with Magento.

That initial experience enriched me with an excellent knowledge of Magento functionality, the most common mistakes and good practices that I still try to use in my work.

What types of projects have you worked on?

Usually I’m busy with various projects as long as we release several extensions per month and constantly update 100+ modules in aheadWorks.

The last project of mine was the Magento Product Color Swatches module. It allows merchants to replace configurable product options with swatches and show different product images according to selected attributes.

You passed Magento Developer Plus Certification in April 2013. What changes has this certificate brought into your life?

Now I feel that my Magento knowledge base, proved by the certificate, is truly solid. This milestone gives confidence to me and sets the bar, which I’ll try to outperform.

What dreams do you have as a Magento certified developer?

I am planning to make a tool to simplify the development of Magento Enterprise Edition modules—so-called “two clicks” for generation and configuration of a new module database. Currently, there are two issues Magento developers face every time they create new modules manually:

  1. Too many similar actions.
  2. Very often logic blocks need to be overwritten anew, despite the availability of numerous ready-made solutions.

We can observe a slight improvement in this field. Several modules have been already created on the basis of such a tool.

Do you have funny stories related to your Magento experience?

Once, when I was too tired after spending the whole day focused on a new module, I began to talk in my sleep. The most amazing thing is that my answers were absolutely meaningful and clear. My wife told me about the night talk the next morning and specified it was something about stores reinstall connected to the move to a new server. That moment I realized how deeply Magento affected my daily life.

What is your favorite quote? Of course if you have any.

I have several, but my favorite one says: “The most severe illness in the world, it is the habit of thinking. It is incurable.”

What could you advise to junior Magento developers?

I would recommend looking for solutions in the Magento code, not in Google. As practice shows, most of the Google search results are not optimal and are often obsolete.

Don’t create interfaces and processes that are too complicated. Try to follow the principle of one click, one button and so on.

Read a lot and spend time on self-education. Browse through web-based resources covering Magento-related news (like aheadWorks Magento blog) and stay tuned to Magento community.

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Free eBook: 3 Segmentation Tactics to Ignite Conversion Today

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Online merchants are under more pressure than ever to deliver targeted and optimized experiences to their customers. As a leader in eCommerce, we know segmentation is essential to improving conversion. In collaboration with expert marketing strategist, MarketingProfs, we created this eBook to help merchants improve conversion through segmentation best practices.

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    Get key insights on how to:

  • Create more targeted messaging to increase conversions
  • Encourage visitors to self-segment on your site for a better experience
  • Help drive sales through a more targeted segmentation strategy

Presenting relevant content and promotions to individual buyers can translate into more sales and larger orders on your site. Download our newest eBook now and start increasing your conversions today!


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Magento U Class Recap: Performance & System Optimization

One of the most common engagements Magento's Expert Consulting Group (ECG) has is that of the Performance Review. Issues around performance and scalability are, more often than not, the driver for customers to seek ECG's assistance when doing implementation assessments.

The reason for this is no secret. Magento is a full featured application and framework, and that expandability does come at the cost of performance, and the decreased performance, though easily justifiable from a development cost perspective, does have an impact on customer interaction and retention.

Oftentimes many of these issues can be minimized through a good understanding of the components that are used to support Magento and how Magento interacts with them from an infrastructure's point of view.

One of the ways we work with customers is through our training program, and a good course to help you wade through the ins-and-outs of Magento is the Magento Performance & System Optimization for System Administrators course offered by Magento U. Most of our courses are aimed at developers learning how to make customizations to Magento, whereas the purpose of this course is to give sysadmins the information they need to help them work with Magento in high-performance, scalable environments.

There are several core topics that we look at in the class:

Load Balancing and High Availability
While these are two distinct concepts, often their implementation is tied together. But there is more to high availability than just adding another server and more to scaling Magento than simply adding more servers beyond that. Understanding some of the different options available for both load balancing and high availability can definitely have an impact.

Supporting Services
Everyone knows that Magento uses MySQL, but many people do not know how to tune MySQL for Magento's use, or often which parameters will yield the most benefit. MySQL is not the only service that Magento uses. Caching plays a big part in how Magento works and there are multiple different caches that can be implemented. And while the web server is a given, understanding the differences between how different web servers work can be critical to developing a stable and scalable infrastructure.

Instrumentation
One of the big things that Administrators often miss (and never mind developers!) is proper instrumentation of their site. It's not that they don't have it but that they don't often know what to look for or they may not understand how certain values affect Magento. One of the things we do in the performance course is take a look at various numbers that tools such as atop, top or vmstat generate and what those numbers mean.

In the following video snippet from one of the recordings from our Performance course, we describe how PHP works on a low level, and how opcode caches can be used to increase performance, complete with benchmarks to prove it. We take this approach of low level explanation followed by demonstration and exercises for several different topics such as web servers, load balancing (DNS, hardware, software), scaling MySQL, using caches, instrumentation and load testing, plus several more topics.

This course goes beyond simply having someone recite words from a script. Instead we have real-world administrators who have real-world experience demonstrating real-world examples to real-world students.


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About Kevin (from his blog profile):
I have been a sys admin, programmer, consultant and evangelist. Over the past 5 years I’ve spent most of them at Zend Technologies, spent a 6 month stint trying to start a mobile company (too little, too late) and I am now the Technical Manager for Education and Consulting for Magento at Magento U and ECG. I’ve done some writing. I am co-author of
The IBM i Programmer’s Guide to PHP and the book You want to do WHAT with PHP?, which has nothing to do with the IBM i Series, and I'm now working on a third book that should be completed in early fall. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn or , unless you’re a spammer. Ignore this if you’re a spammer.

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Page Load Time - The Silent Sales Killer

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Who hasn’t been frustrated when visiting a slow web site?

Having a faster site is a priority for most merchants, especially for businesses with large catalogs. Here are some important statistics on why a faster site is a crucial component for helping a merchant increase sales:

  • Page abandonment rates increase most steeply between one and four seconds
  • Mobile users expect pages to load just as quickly on their smartphone as they do on their desktop
  • 79% of shoppers according to the noteworthy Gomez and Akamai studies will avoid shopping again at a site where they had a poor experience or that was too slow
  • Large internet merchants have performed studies showing that conversion rates can improve by as much as 10% for every second of speed improvement
Kiss Metrics, an analytics service provider that focuses on marketing, put together an infographic that summarizes the issues in a quick-read.

Page Load Time Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is an acceptable page load time?
A. That’s a great question, and the answer is the faster the better. SEO experts often quote the two second rule (which has nothing to do with eating food you dropped on the floor), but, in reality, even a page that loads in a second can stand for improvement so a page that takes more than five seconds to load is most certainly going to have a material effect on your conversion rates.

Q. What causes a page to load slowly?
A. There are many causes to slow page load times including poor server configuration and images that are too large and have to be re-sized by a browser. What can you do about it? Keep reading.

Q. How do I determine how fast my pages load, and how can I compare my times to my competitors?
A. A non-tech person can use Google’s Page Speed Analyzer to check the page speed rating assigned by Google. There are several advantages to using this tool:

  • It’s Google’s test and Google uses page speed, in part, to determine search rankings
  • You can easily see how you compare to competitors by looking up their pages
  • You can input any page on your site to see how it performs (though it doesn’t always work well for checkout and cart because of coding that protects personal data from customers)
  • It produces a list of suggestions for you to implement in order to improve load time

Google has also added tools in Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools. All of these are accessible and easily understood by non-technical users.

Q. Does page load time affect my search rankings?
A. Yes! Since 2009, Google has been consistent in their messaging about the increasing importance of page speed in their algorithms.

Q. Are some pages more important than others?
A. In general you want your entire site to be fast because customers tend to abandon a site more often whenever any page takes too long to load. That being said, if your checkout pages are slow, it often becomes a question of trust with the shopper which can kill a transaction. The general consensus is to keep your checkout pages clean and simple to increase their speed.

Q. How important is my host to page load time?
A. Not all hosts are the same, which is a good thing because merchants have a wide variety of needs. However, your hosting environment makes a material difference in page load times. Even with the same server specifications, some hosts are speedier because they have more connections to ISPs, their SAN array is faster, and their load balancing is more efficient. Even a site that is properly optimized for content and server configuration can be slow if the host is running slow. We strongly encourage you to thoroughly research hosting services to ensure they meet your needs before choosing one.

The Big Q. What can I do to speed up my site?
A. There is rarely one cause of slow site speed. Optimizing site speed is really a collaborative effort and often requires creativity from and collaboration between design, tech, and network resources.

When mustering troops to address the issue, you will probably have projects in three main areas:

1. Content optimization: Are the images the right size for the site? Do I have too many images on a page? Do I have large Javascript files that have to download before the page renders? These issues can usually be addressed by your front-end designers, but your server team may need to help identify the priorities.

2. Catalog size: The larger your catalog, the greater the burden on your server(s) to load pages, especially when we’re talking about SKUs tipping over 100K.

3. Your server: If Google’s Page Speed Analyzer is telling you that your server response times are a problem, your team should make sure that your server has enough resources and that they are deployed appropriately. You may have enough resources but you're not using the server effectively. Solving this issue will require collaboration between your server or network maintenance folks, and your hosting organization.

We also recommend you explore Magento Enterprise Edition. With its latest product update, the focus was on performance improvements, specifically around speed. Find out more about Magento Enterprise Edition and see how it can help with your site performance.

Moving Forward

Page load time is a silent killer and you may not even know it is a problem it until your sales start suffering. Teamwork between designers, content managers, developers and network administrators, and working with knowledgeable service providers are the best way to address the problem and regular monitoring is a must.
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