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Archive for September, 2008

5 Important Zen Cart Modules

September 28th, 2008
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While Zen Cart is one of the most feature rich open source shopping carts out there, almost every developer ends up using a handful of modules from the free software add-ons of the official Zen Cart site. Here I include a short review of the 5 Zen Cart Modules that I find most useful in our implementations of client’s shopping carts:

1. Ultimate SEO

One of the must-haves for every Zen Cart shopping cart. The Ultimate SEO for Zen Cart module modifies the default clunky URLs to a more Search Engine Friendly (SEF) URLs. This means that instead of certain parameters in the URL, such as product id, category id, easy page id, etc, the actual name of the article is used.

What is nice about this SEF URLs module is that uses a technique that makes use of regular expressions and identifies the type of the page to display by a letter: ‘p’ for product page, ‘c’ for category page, etc. and it adds the specific id number at the end of the URL. While some claim that this may lower the relevance of the page for the more important keywords I have never seen a proof. On the flip side, due to the same reason, it is possible to display the same page with multiple URLs: great little feature that can be used in certain SEO strategies. Please be careful as it may also result in de-listing from Google.

2. Easy Populate

For store managers that wish to manage their entire catalog of products, categories, images, prices, etc. from a single excel spreadsheet. The Easy Populate Zen Cart Plugin was migrated from a similar plugin that wa originally designed for osCommerce. The Zen Cart Module has been adjusted for the tweaks in the DB architecture and some features were added in more recent versions of the module.

Once installed, this module offers downloading a tab delimited file with all the information laid out in a single big table for your entire catalog. This is key if one needs to manage a large number of products on a regular basis. Some tips to remember when using this module:

  • Before uploading any new products, download the latest spreadsheet and use it as a template for uploading new products or for updating existing products information.
  • The product model number is your anchor: this is the only value that does not change, anything else can be edited in this method. If you need to change the product model number, you will need to erase the old one and create a new one.
  • To delete a product change the action code to 7 and make sure the product model matches.
  • Never touch the last column – it serves as a control for the parsing function.
  • Always review the logs once you upload – this way you will reveal any anomalies like unusual characters in the product description that may throw off the rest of the table and hence introduce random irrelevant products or may even damage your DB.

3. Simple Google Analytics

Unless you are using a different analytics tool, the Simple Google Analytics Zen Cart Module makes it effortless to include the necessary code in all your pages. Once installed, copy and paste your Google analytics code.

While it is not important which specific tool you use for analytics (some are better than others, and some cost more than others, while Google Analytics is free up to a point), it is important that you track entry pages, exit pages, referring sites, etc. to your shopping cart. This is like the dashboard for any site that takes SEO seriously.

4. Time Zone Offset

Ever wondered why when you place an order at 9am you receive an email with the order information which confirms that your order was placed at 10am or 11am? the difference rises from differences in time zones between the business time zone and the server actual time zone. Some servers are physically hosted somewhere in the east cost while the business that owns and operates the store resides somewhere on the west cost. Hence the time difference. The Time Zone Offset Zen Cart Module comes to remedy this issue. Simple to install, and simple to use.

5. Backup MySQL Plugin

How can you backup your current state of Zen Cart? well, you need both the full set of files (which you most likely have) and a copy of the DB – which contains any recent live orders, customers info, modules settings, etc. The Backup MySQL Plugin makes it easy to extract a copy of the DB. Once installed, it takes backing up the currect DB is a matter of clicking a link.

While there are hundreds of modules all available for free for you to download and use on your Zen Cart, we have found that only a few are actually useful and will cause no headaches. The above list is a shortlist of Zen Cart modules that we have found useful in our implementations.

What modules do you find useful? What’s in your Zen Cart?

eCommerce, Web Development, ZenCart , , , , , , , ,

ZenCart and Magento for eCommerce

September 22nd, 2008

Anyone who is involved with an online shopping cart and was considering open source solutions probably stumbled upon two major ecommerce providers: ZenCart and Magento Commerce. ZenCart is an evolving and older shopping cart with roots in osCommerce, while Magento Commerce is a newcomer to this category written from scratch on top of the new Zend Framework. Since we support both platforms, we often are asked to provide a basic comparison analysis for the business owners and this is what I will try to do in this article.

ZenCart

This is a great open source shopping cart that can power almost any size eCommerce sites. We have successfully used ZenCart for sites offering 20 products all the way up to tens of thausands of products and variations (which by the way is connected to a POS and kept up to date to the minute). Since its fork from osCommerce ZenCart has gone through extensive development and now offers much broader extendability and robust template system. Some of the underlying systems that make this shopping cart so robust are: template system, initialization system, object autoloaders, plugins a-la observer design patern, flexible and extendible configuration system, and more.

One of the biggest disadvantages for ZenCart is that all these great systems were built on top and in an after thought to an existing platform. Hence, there are many dependencies and the learning curve for professional grade customization and development is steep. For example, one of the tasks that current core developers are working on is to transform additional funcitons to object oriented design, in other words, they are still trying to get rid of the spagheti code left from the osCommerce days.

Nevertheless, ZenCart is a true workhorse that has proven itself many times and with hundreads of thausands of stores world wide. In fact, it has excellent support for multiple languages and multiple currencies stores.

At Activo, Inc. we have developed many modules to enhance various aspects of the store: front end, specialized templates, taxes by zipcode, easy search suggestion tool, even a real QuickBooks integration module and a real time Point of Sale (POS) integration with RunIt systems.

One more thing that ZenCart excels in when the right modules and the right setup is applied is SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Once setup correctly, ZenCart is one of the most SEO friendly stores out there. I have seen multiple times where a brand new ZenCart store with some SEO efforts generating more than $50,000 per month in sales (within 2-3 months of Go-Live).

ZenCart bottom line: Great solution if you want to see a solid and proven shopping cart with mostly standard features and you do not care about the type of technology that powers it. Currently, for best and fastest deployment ZenCart is second to none.

Magento

Magento is a brand new (about a year old as of writing this article) and it is now beginning to see community and developer adoption. Magento is written on top of PHP5 and Zend Framework. A bit about the framework: the new Zend Framework is sponsored by industry leaders such as IBM and Zend and is largely based on the MVC design patern. In a way, it is the answer to the .NET framework in the PHP world. There are similar frameworks and they may even be older and more mature, like Symphony or CakePHP. However, since the Zend Framework is backed by both IBM and Zend it is very likely that this framework will become the industry standard.

Magento was developed from scratch and in an object oriented manner on top of the new Zend Framework. Therefore, it is expected to have better extendibility options for developers and much better module/plugin management consules in the back-end however will probably come at the expense of instability in the short term. Magento’s templates out of the box look sharp and eye candy. Its creator definitely placed an emphasis on the way it’s admin panel feels & looks and the way its demo templates look & feel. Additionally, almost all aspects of the UI feels a lot more like Web 2.0 with many AJAX features and many time saving UI features.

One of the biggest downsides to Magento is its current speed since it lacks an effort in optimizing its DB and overall structure. Hence, it is relatively heavy and requires a bit of advanced know-how when installing and setting it up. It’s forums seem to be gaining traction with developers and many developers say that once you migrate a store to Magento you will never look back.

Magento bottom line: While it is definitely a matter of time until we see the real value, Magento does seem to have some advantages over any other open source eCommerce system. Merely the fact that it was developed from scratch recently means that a whole lot of best practices are thought of right of the bat instead of showing as an after thought (which we as developers have to deal with it). Nevertheless, Magento’s forums indicate that the product has yet to have reached maturity. If you are ok with somewhat unstable solution and looking for the absolute cutting edge shopping cart Magento is for you!

eCommerce, Magento, PHP/MySQL, Web Development, ZenCart , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Steps to Increase Your Website’s Traffic with Popular Keywords

September 21st, 2008
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These days it is all about SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing). Especially now with the financial and real estate markets in turmoil, businesses seek to conserve resources and perhaps try the alternative to online advertising; seo with keyword targeting.

Keywords from A Tweeter User (Tweeterstats.com)

The following three steps will help you refine content based on a list of selected keywords:

1. List Targeted Keywords

Make a small list (5-15 keywords) of keywords that relate to your industry. Only you will actually know what keywords relate best to your business and services. What you want to remember is to list keywords that you assume your target audience will search for not necessarily keywords that describe your services directly. Notice that keywords can also be key phrases, meaning 2 or 3 keywords that are joined together into a phrase.

2. Refine the List of Targeted Keywords to Targeted and Popular Keywords

Use one of the following free services (or all of them) to refine your list:

These free tools give you a list of related keywords and key phrases with the relevant popularity and lots of other statistics. For example, we provide services for clients who power their ecommerce sites with ZenCart. I typed ‘zencart’ into Google Adwords Keyword Tool and it shows that some of the most popular key phrases are ‘zencart hosting’ and ‘zencart templates’. As a result, pages that relate to ZenCart should have these key phrases in the text. Perhaps I will separate the zencart list of keywords from the rest of the keywords, etc.

3. Develop Content Based on Targeted Keywords

Now that we have a list of refined keywords, it is time to do something about it. Develop or refine your content around these keywords.

Of-course in each website there will be a hit or a miss. Keep exploring for new keywords on a regular basis and make sure to keep tracking the results or any changes that occur as a result of your refined content.

Do you want to share your methods of achieving high levels of targeted traffic?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Web Development, ZenCart , , ,

SEO vs PPC: is SEO the preference these days?

September 7th, 2008

Since the days that Overture mastered PPC, even before AdWords was born, I advocated for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and overall SEM (Search Engine Marketing) over PPC (Pay Per Click advertisement). Recently, blogs, news, client requests, and Google Trends show an ever increasing attention toward SEO at the expense of attention to PPC. Site owners are starting to realize that PPC is not the only solution and certainly not the best.

There are many reasons which will lead businesses and individuals to shift their resources and efforts from online advertisement, PPC in particular, to SEO. Some of the reasons that come to mind are: slowing economy, advertisement saturation, lack of ROI, and perhaps realization that SEO has superior value. The facts are obvious: more businesses look for SEO than ever before. Here is a recent comparison of SEO and PPC in Google Trends (from today 9/7/08):

It is true that with paid online marketing such as AdWords or Panama, it is fairly easy to see results fast. However, once you analyze the ROI in almost any business and on almost any product now a days, the data will tell you that you did OK, and nothing more than OK. In other words, you will get results but a simple glance at all your options will reveil similar or, in some cases, better ROI with other venues like Press Releases, Public Relations, Good old fashion marketing, or even … SEO. In fact, you might discover that if you try using a newsletter to promote your products you may get better ROI. This occured more than once with our clients, where their customers enjoyed the personal attention and the on going discounts that we saw a continuous boost of 30-50% in sales the day of the newsletter compared to the entire month. The bottom line: you must try other venues not only PPC advertisement!

As for the negative part of PPC, I will cover it very briefly just because I do not enjoy discussing the negatives. Watch for click fraud! Avoid paying for syndicated advertisement – it almost never shows results! Ok, I am done.

So why SEO? I have managed websites where the owner consistently spent north of $100K on paid advertisement per month with a single PPC vendor. While it worked and the results were there – the ROI compared to other solutions were never great. In comparison, take one month pay away from PPC and put it toward SEO at least once a year and you shall see greater results over time. The upside to PPC is that it is immediate, once you turn it on you see hits. With SEO you got to give it time and nurish the process. Typical results are showing within 3-6 months and nothing is guaranteed. These are the main reasons that businesses shy away from it, but they shouldn’t. Remember, once you gain momentum in SEO it is very difficult to take it away.

Never forget that SEO is only one of many tools or aproaches that you need for any website. Marketing a website requires a mix of efforts, one of them is SEO. Efficient website marketing includes SEM (Search Engine Marketing), Press Releases (with links), Working on raising the number of links into the site, etc.

Conclusion

The fact is out: a trend of increased attention to SEO over PPC is on. The reason for this trend is not fully understood but it can be attributed to the slowing economy, lack of ROI, or better awareness of SEO value. Regardless, many SEO projects have shown that SEO can deliver better ROI than PPC over time. Do you prefer SEO over PPC?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Web Development , ,

Joomla vs Ektron

September 5th, 2008

We have been receiving a lot of comparison inquiries lately and I wanted to put this simple Joomla vs Ektron content management systems comparison table out there. Have in mind that much of the decision of which CMS to choose for your company or organization is usually made way before this comparison since the two systems are different in such a fundamental level. However, this is a comparison of those fundamentals plus some of the ‘interesting’ features.

Joomla vs Ektron

Joomla vs Ektron

Feature/Item Joomla Ektron
License Model Open Source Closed Source, Compiled
Price Free Starts at $15,000
Web Platform PHP ASP.NET 2.0
Database MySQL MS SQL (Express version OK)
Extendability Options Plugins, Components, Mambots. Joomla 1.5 went through significant development that now offers many hook-ups for plugins without hacking any core files. Plugins (Observer Method), Ektron API (via ASP.NET code behind), Extensive Web Services API
SEO Options Search Engine Friendly URLs (Joomla 1.5)
Meta tags controls
Full template overrides, clean HTML
Search Engine Friendly URLs (CMS400 7.6)
Meta tags controls and consolidation
Content Tagging
Full template overrides, HTML is often not so clean (part issue with .NET as well)
Social Networking None, unless using a third party component or a plugin. Many features built in: Personal profile, personal area, connections between profiles, forums, blogging.

Thoughts?

Content Management Systems, Ektron, Joomla , , , , , , ,

First Google Chrome Screenshots

September 3rd, 2008

Google Chrome is new (still in beta) and I went a head and installed it on one of our VMs. It seems like a lot of the functionality from the popular Firefox extension ‘FireBug’ is built in. Here are the screen shots:

Google Chrome Screenshot 1: Main Page

Google Chrome Screenshot 1: Main Page

Google Chrome Screenshot 2: Search right from the address bar

Google Chrome Screenshot 2: Search right from the address bar

Google Chrome Screenshot 3: Browsing History

Google Chrome Screenshot 3: Browsing History

Google Chrome Screenshot 4: Incognito Browsing

Google Chrome Screenshot 4: Incognito Browsing

Google Chrome Screenshot 5: Right Clicking a Link Uses Google Gears

Google Chrome Screenshot 5: Right Clicking a Link Uses Google Gears

Google Chrome Screenshot 6: Inspecting Page Elements a-la Firebug

Google Chrome Screenshot 6: Inspecting Page Elements a-la Firebug

Google Chrome Screenshot 7: View Source

Google Chrome Screenshot 7: View Source

Web Development, Web-based User Interfaces , ,

New Web Browser by Google: Chrome

September 2nd, 2008

Google is now officially in the browser business. I guess that the google bars wasn’t enough of a penetration into the browser market and Google wanted/needed additional features (and feedback?) from users. Anyway, Google now offers a new web browser: Chrome. Google also explained briefly why they have decided to launch a new browser. So, what does it mean for us, web developers?

  1. An additional browser to pay attention to and run tests for. When Google launches a new browser, it is not another niche browser that we can skip in our testing. It is probably going to have a sizeable market share.
  2. Visit the ‘For Web Developers‘ page posted by Chrome. You will find useful information for what we do. Once piece of advice is if we tested our sites on Safari 3.1 – then the page will work fine on Google Chrome. However, they still post some tips and testing tools.
  3. Explore and learn V8 – the underlying engine that powers Google Chrome. According to Google V8 is a platform that will help power the next generation of web applications. As mentioned on their ‘Why’ page: “We also built V8, a more powerful JavaScript engine, to power the next generation of web applications that aren’t even possible in today’s browsers.”

It is never boring in the world of web development, is it?

Web Development , , , , , ,