Creating an ecommerce site with a content management system (CMS) has a few advantages for the non-developer: You can control your site’s content quickly and easily; you can update inventory on the fly, and some basic administrative tasks like optimizing SEO and integrating payment options can be handled without a ton of programming experience.
So, of all the options out there, which platform is best for you? Selecting an ecommerce platform hinges on what you need, how much functionality it requires, and what degree of performance you need. A general rule of thumb for CMSs and site builders is what you get in ease of use, you lose in flexibility, and vice versa. The more customization and power under the hood, the more you’ll need a developer’s expertise to help you get up and running.
In this article, we’ll look at two platforms on the more complex end of the CMS spectrum: WordPress and Magento. (Note: For the purposes of this comparison, we’ll specifically be talking about WordPress ecommerce plugins and Magento’s community version, not the Enterprise version.) While they are essentially in totally different leagues—plugins like EasyCart and WooCommerce are lightweight plugins that can be added to a WordPress site, and Magento is a massive, fully fledged, standalone framework with a complex architecture—it’s common for businesses to want to weigh the pros and cons of such popular platforms when picking the ecommerce solution that’s best for them.
Both of these options are open source and require a bit more heavy lifting than quick setups like Shopify, but they offer a ton of flexibility in return. And while neither is categorically “better” than the other, depending on things like your or your developers’ expertise, the size of your shop, the number of SKUs, your hosting budget, and what addons you need, one will end up being a better fit.
Let’s look at how the two stack up, and a few pros and cons to help you decide.
What do you need from your ecommerce store?
You’ve probably heard of the ecommerce CMS juggernaut, Magento—a platform with a ton of flexibility and functionality that powers some major brands’ online storefronts. Magento was built solely with ecommerce in mind, it’s standalone, and it’s owned by eBay. However, a big question with Magento is, “But do I need all that functionality?” For WordPress devotees, there are plenty of plugins, like the WooCommerce platform, which allow you to build an online store with a ton of flexibility in the way of ecommerce themes and extensions—there’s no shortage of shipping, payment and inventory options that keep it on par with Magento.
A good place to start is by outlining what you need from your store, which can help you match those goals up with the platform that offers the best solution for you.
- How big is your shop? Consider performance of your site if you’re planning on having thousands of SKUs and a high volume of traffic. Magento can support super complex sites, but will require a lot of server power to do so. A plugin like WooCommerce also offers unlimited product uploads.
- What’s your budget? Both are free and open source, but “freemium” style, in that addons, extras, and paid subscriptions can add up. Magento also often requires dedicated hosting, which can get expensive.
- What’s your timeline? How soon do you need it developed? Depending on your site, development with Magento can take longer (and more developer hours) than WordPress because of its complexity, while a WooCommerce site could theoretically be launched in a day.
- How simple (or complex) are your products? Do you need to list products with many different categories, attributes, sizes, shapes, colors, personalizations, etc?
- What’s your server capacity? You’ll need more RAM to run a bigger store, regardless of the platform you choose, but Magento in particular tends to work better up front with more GB.
- How many users, contributors, or admins are you going to have? How many different users (and user permissions) will you need to have set up? WordPress makes it very easy to add a number of users with its standard roles and permissions.
- What’s your skill level? This is going to be one of the biggest differentiators. Magento can easily use the help of a developer on your team to make the most of its offerings; WordPress has a very user-friendly UI/UX that makes it much easier to work in.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the two.
An Intro to WordPress
WordPress grew from a blogging platform to a fully customizable site framework powered by an array of plugins that give it extended functionality. That level of customization and the installation of more complex builds often require the help of skilled WordPress developers, who will also make sure your site’s up-to-date with the latest versions and plugins. That’s a key to WordPress: staying on top of updates keeps your site secure.
With WordPress, themes, plugins and integrations are the easiest ways to take a basic site and turn it into exactly what you need—and the same goes for its ecommerce functionality. The WooCommerce framework by the creators of WordPress offers embedded ecommerce functionality and customizable themes like the popular Storefront theme. When you install a WooCommerce theme on your WordPress install, you can add plugins and extensions with Shopify, Paypal, Square, Stripe, Amazon payments, UPS, USPS, ShipStation, and more.
WooCommerce and the like are great for small to medium stores, but it can definitely scale up to thousands of SKUs if you need it to. The power is in the plugins.
A note about plugins: You’ll always want to look for a plugin that was built by the company itself (i.e., Shopify) or a reputable development team so you can be confident the developers behind it will maintain the code and stand behind their project over time.
- Super intuitive dashboard. Magento’s UX/UI is the main source of client complaints, and some have found it requires frequent help from a developer. WordPress on the other hand is incredibly user-friendly.
- Plugins for everything. Nearly any third-party add on you need can be found in a plugin.
Some of the best SEO in market. WordPress is very well engineered, which makes SEO plugins like YoastSEO soar when used in conjunction.
- Upgrades are easy. Upgrading the code and databases happen seamlessly in the background. Magento upgrades have been known to be costly, and problematic.
An Intro to Magento
Magento is a powerful, open-source ecommerce platform that is known for its flexibility, scalability, and wide array of features and extensions. It’s also big, and pretty rigid. Ideal for medium to large online stores, Magento offers an Enterprise Edition and has some pretty high-profile brands in its roster.
Keep in mind that what you get in the way of customization with Magento you also get in complexity, so you’ll probably want to hire an experienced Magento developer to help you maintain the long-term health of your site. The Magento platform is one of the more complicated platforms on the market.
- Any third-party service can be configured as an API with a bit of XML code.
- Browsing made easy: Enhance your customers’ browsing experience with images, reviews, wishlists, and more. Enable product filtering and comparisons for a catalog-style browsing experience.
- Marketing add-ons: Take advantage of coupons, promotions, and discounts. Magento also has powerful SEO support to improve your store’s visibility in search.
- Customer account management: Customers can review their order histories, track orders and shipments, set up default billing and shipping when they create accounts, create wish lists, subscribe to a newsletter, and more. Communicate what you want with your customers when they’ve made a purchase with customizable emails.
WordPress vs. Magento
Now that you know a little about both platforms, let’s look at how the two stack up.
- Both are built on PHP. WordPress is built on PHP. Magento is built on PHP as well, specifically the Zend framework.
- Both have excellent developer APIs. Magento APIs allow integration with CRM platforms, create mobile apps, or integrate with CMSs. The WordPress APIs cover everything from metadata and HTTP to databases, theme customization and plugins.
- Themes allow you to customize look and feel. Free and premium plans are something both platforms share. A Magento theme can look virtually any way you want—pick a theme and customize it, or design your own. WooCommerce’s themes (and WP frameworks like Genesis) offer amazing customization, too.
- Both extend core functionality with add-ons. Magento pretty much offers anything under the sun in the way of e-commerce extensions and add-ons. Magento Connect is an extensions marketplace full of add-ons organized by category, from blog support and paid search marketing, to AJAX-powered features and integration tools. WooCommerce offers extensions that give sites shipping, payment, and inventory management extras, like the Product Add-On, which allows you to add product attributes.
- Database integrations. Magento uses an EAV-based database model (entity, attribute, value), so all aspects of a transaction, from customer information and shipping data, are tracked in your database. Magento and WordPress both support integration with MySQL and MariaDB, but you can use an extension to work with PostgreSQL.
- Both are free and open-source. With WordPress.org, you will need to arrange your own hosting and domain, but the software is free. Premium themes and plugins can cost more, too. Magento is open source, too—but does have a paid Enterprise version.
- Both require installation, setup, and hosting. Unlike a hosted ecommerce solution like Shopify, both of these options are self-hosted, and require you to download the CMS, install it, and set up hosting and purchase a domain. If you need a developer to help here, note that Magento developers are a little harder to come by than WordPress developers, too.
- Shipping options are flexible: Magento and WordPress both offer access to different carriers, and the option to ship to different addresses. Also, Magento comes with internationalization capabilities so you can sell overseas. WooCommerce offers integrations with carriers like USPS and UPS.
- Both offer mobile responsive themes. Magento Mobile Shop lets you build a mobile app for your Magento-powered store quickly and easily, but you can also get mobile themes from Magento Connect.
So which ecommerce platform is right for your project?
In summary, the comparison between these platforms really comes down to two things: your skill level, and the size and complexity of your store. WordPress has a pretty massive following, and it’s easy to see why: it’s easy to learn and not hard to find your way around. For anything from simple marketing sites to bigger multisite installs, WordPress is technologically easier to use and also very well engineered. Magento is going to ask a bit more from you to make the most of its amazing features, but it can rise to the occasion of the most complex of stores.