In episode 46, I have the pleasure of chatting with Jason Cosper at WPEngine. And today’s topic is fine-tuning your eCommerce web site. We are in the middle of Web Week, where often when traffic is lower between the holidays, it’s the perfect time to do a tuneup on your online store. Jason brings his experience of working with clients of all sizes on their sites and what you should make sure and revisit throughout the year.
We chatted about:
- Cleaning up the clutter on your WordPress site
- What red flags to look for when improving your product images
- Tips to buff up your SEO and what to look for
- Ways to improve the search on your online store and other issues you may want to consider to help customers find the right product
- Hosting and what to think about when making the decision of if your host is right for your needs
If you are a WordPress developer, WPEngine has a free staging site for you. Go here to request your site.
Thanks To Our Podcast Sponsor: WP Engine
You can download the transcript of this show at: The WP eCommerce Show Transcript December 28 2016
Bob Dunn: Hey everyone and welcome to episode 46. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Well, as we wind up the year, you may or may not know that we are right in the middle of Web Week and our sponsor WP Engine is stepping up for today’s show. I’ve taken the liberty to call it eCommerce Web Week. What do we mean by Web Week? A lot of sites find the time between the holidays, and with the lower traffic, it’s a perfect time to get your new site ready or, even better, tune up your existing site. As we all know, your site needs to be a finely tuned engine. Even more so with the eCommerce site. It’s critical that your online store is running smoothly year round.
Today we are going to be looking at tuning up your eCommerce site. Now we know this shouldn’t only be done at the end of the year but also regularly throughout the year. Get ready as we chat with Jason Cosper, Senior Technical Advisor and Developer Advocate with WP Engine. By sharing his experience and knowledge, he’ll help you construct a plan for that tuneup. Hey Jason. Welcome to the show.
Jason Cosper: Hey Bob, it’s so great to be here. I’m a big fan of everything you’ve done and it’s great to actually to get the opportunity to come on the show.
Meet Jason Cosper, Developer Advocate at WP Engine
Bob Dunn: Thanks so much. All right, I’m glad this isn’t actual a visual thing because my face would start to turn a little red now and I’d go, “Oh.” So it’s great it’s just audio. Well I am so glad you’re able to join us. This is a busy time for everyone and I know we all have plans for the week so let’s just dive right it, get the show on the road. Before we get into the questions, for those who don’t know about WP Engine or what you do there, give us an introduction.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, so WP Engine is a managed WordPress platform. We host websites for WordPress, only WordPress, so a lot of shared hosts, a lot of other VPS solutions, things like that. You can bring in whatever you want. However, WP Engine specializes in WordPress. It’s what we do. We live, sleep, breath it, preach it from the mountaintops and really we want to make sure that everyone who hosts with us gets the best possible WordPress experience that they can have.
What I do over at WP Engine, as you mentioned, I am the Developer Advocate over there. I get to talk with plugin and theme developers and work with them. If they have a problem on our platform, if something happens where their plugin is problematic or plugin theme whatever is problematic, if we have a problem on our platform where we’re doing something that’s interfering with their plugin or theme it is my job to be the advocate for them and try to get that fixed in as timely a manner as possible. Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet gig. It’s cool work if you can get it.
Where should site owners start cleaning up their WordPress online stores?
Bob Dunn: Excellent. I’m thinking right now that this is great because you work with so many developers and so much of what we’re talking about today is around plugins, themes and stuff, so I think you are the perfect guest for this. I’m going to just dive into this very first question. Cleaning up clutter is always a good thing to do year round obviously but it’s a good time now because of lower traffic as well. Do you have any thoughts on what site owners should start cleaning up with their WordPress online store?
Jason Cosper: Yeah, for sure. As you touched on, the cleaning is something you should be doing year round. Spring cleaning, or in this case winter cleaning, shouldn’t just be for the winter or the spring. You should be doing it year round. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Marie Condo or not.
Bob Dunn: I’m not, and I was going to click that name through but I thought I’d rather have you explain who she is.
Jason Cosper: Marie Condo has written a book where she talks about basically the life-changing magic of de-cluttering. Basically anything that doesn’t … You’re supposed to go through your house, anything that doesn’t spark joy in your life, anything that doesn’t have a use you’re just supposed to get rid of it.
Bob Dunn: Okay.
TIP: A rule of thumb: does it bring you traffic?
Jason Cosper: Thank it for its service and get rid of it, effectively. With apologies to Marie Condo, I really think that you should look at your plugins, your themes, your media, et cetera and ask if each of those things, instead of sparking joy, if those things bring you traffic, if those things do what you need them to do. Now, before you go throwing all this stuff away, before you get rid of it, I’ve got to encourage you to back up first. Always, always, always be backing up. Even though hosts, a lot of hosts, have nightly backups or in some cases a little less frequent than that, it’s always a good idea to have a secondary backup. Before you go doing any of the stuff on your site, back up. VaultPress is a service from Automattic that is fantastic for this if you’re not already backing up. It’s fairly inexpensive. I believe at this point it’s actually even built into Jetpack, so if you’re running Jetpack it’s inexpensive to … I think it’s like $4 a month for …
Bob Dunn: Yeah, it’s very affordable.
TIP: Always back up first
Jason Cosper: Yeah, and then also I would be remiss to not mention BackupBuddy as well. BackupBuddy is a fantastic plugin. If you are not a fan of Jetpack, and I understand some people aren’t. I like Jetpack. I use it on a number of my sites, but for the folks who just want a backup plugin BackupBuddy is fantastic and on a long enough timeline, even if you spend the cost of BackupBuddy, I can’t quite remember off the top of my head what the price is per year on that, really having a backup when something goes wrong is priceless, especially if you’re making money off your WooCommerce store and I assume that if you’re listening to this you are or you want to make more money. Having no backups is devastating. It could ruin your business. Having a backup and the 40 or 70 or whatever dollars a year that BackupBuddy is or the $4 a month that VaultPress is, those are both worthwhile things. Okay, now that I’m done talking about actually adding something to your site potentially, let’s talk about what to get rid of.
Do you have a collection of disabled plugins on your site? I don’t know about you Bob but I will install a plugin going, “Oh, this looks cool.”, and then I’ll install it, maybe run it for a little bit, forget about it, sometimes disable it.
TIP: Get rid of inactive plugins and themes
Bob Dunn: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, I’ve been there.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, and then you have disabled plugins, inactive plugins on your site and you have a list of 25 of them and you’re like, “Where did all these come from?” You go through the list and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I must have added that thing two years ago, used it twice when app.net was the hot thing to cross-post your site to for five seconds and then completely forgot about it. Get rid of that. Nobody uses app.net anymore.”
Bob Dunn: Right.
Jason Cosper: No one uses Plurk or any other crazy social network to cross-post. If you have a collection of disabled plugins or just ones that you are like, “You know, I’m really not using that anymore,” get rid of them. If you have a backup, worse case scenario and you’re like, “Oh man, I needed that, the developer hasn’t put it out anymore,” you can go back and save it from the fire. It’s all right. Same thing with themes. I will install a theme just to try it out, to put it in staging or something like that, but sometimes I can be a bit of a cowboy coder and, especially on my own personal site, I’m ready to let that be my live testbed, I’ll throw a theme on, I’ll look at it in the customizer, I’ll go, “Oh, this is cool, but I’ve got to put some work in on it. I’ll do that and I’ll look at it,” and never really get around to actually customizing, I go, “Well, my theme is good enough, the one I’ve got right now.” Next thing I know, again, I’ve got another five, ten themes just hanging around. Or if you’ve made a change recently and changed your theme, you don’t need that old copy of your previous theme hanging around, especially if you have a backup copy of it in your backup. Get that out of there too.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, that’s excellent because I’ve done the same thing. I’ve gotten better at cleaning up but, yeah, I go through, I try to do it more often than not nowadays.
Jason Cosper: If you’re running a backup plugin, this is something that it can become a year round practice. If you try something out and you don’t like it, get rid of it. You don’t need to be holding on to this stuff. Same thing with unattached media. I don’t know how your media library is Bob, but …
Bob Dunn: Man, I won’t even tell you.
TIP: Remove your unattached media
Jason Cosper: Are you familiar with seeing unattached media in the media library?
Bob Dunn: Yeah, but tell our listeners a little bit about that though.
Jason Cosper: Okay, when you go into the media library one of the options in the dropdown where you can select what type of media to display, one of the types you can actually look at is unattached media, which means that it’s not attached to a post, a page, in the case of WooCommerce a product. It’s basically something that you uploaded and then either never attached to a post or you ended up detaching it from a post. It could be an old header image, but if it’s a header image it should actually show up as attached. All that stuff is just sitting around still in your database with all of the post meta, all of the files are hanging around, things like that. Why chew up extra storage?
I know that a lot of hosts offer ‘unlimited’, and I use air quotes around that, storage but if you can get rid of your unattached media, if there’s things that you’re not going to come back to, and again pointing back at those backups, you’re really getting rid of this and you still have a way to go back in and get it if you have backed it up. If you have unattached media, delete it. Give it the boot. Plugins, themes, and unattached media you can get rid of all three of those things and actually make your site tidier. In the case of plugins and themes, you can basically decrease the level of potential attack vectors if you’re concerned about security, and I hope you are. Even if a plugin or theme is inactive, if the code still exists on your site, occasionally when exploits have been released for plugins it doesn’t matter if they’re active or not on your site. That’s enough to use the exploit in some cases, not in all of course.
I don’t want people to be like Chicken Little running around, “The sky is falling.” However, making sure that your site is tidy and reduces the amount of attack vectors you can have in the future is, as Martha Stewart says, a good thing.
What are the red flags in your product image inventory?
Bob Dunn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You talked a little bit about images and media, which I think you’ve already given us a great tip on that. In fact, that makes me think of a post I should do just around that as far as looking for unattached media. Now, if you have an online store, your product shots are critical because, hey, that’s what you’re selling. Your products, they got to look good. Do you having thoughts about checking your image inventory besides the unattached and where you might see some really big red flags?
Jason Cosper: Everybody knows high quality images help sell products. People want to be able to see what you’re selling, they want to get good detail. I hate when I go to a store and I’m like, “Oh, that shirt looks really cool, it’s got an interesting pattern on it,” and I click through and it’s a 500 by 500 image. That’s the zoomed in version of the image. Then I start looking around at other shops to try to see if someplace has this shirt or whatever else. Things like that.
TIP: Consider an image compression plugin
The higher the quality of the image though, the bigger the size, right? And the bigger the size, the slower the page load. You have this super high quality image that you get handed to you by whoever’s shooting your product shots, it might be you, it might be a photographer and it’s an 8-meg image. You’re not going to expect your customers to download an 8-meg image every time, and hopefully you’re resizing before you’re uploading. The bigger the size though, the slower the page load and the slower the page load, the worse your SEO and customer satisfaction. One of the biggest red flags that I look for when going through image libraries is how big the image size is. Now, you’re not going to go through one by one and look at all this, especially if you have a larger store. There is a plugin called Imagify. It’s made by the folks who do the WP Rocket caching plugin. Have you ever used it before, Bob?
Bob Dunn: I haven’t. Is it a compressing type of plugin?
Jason Cosper: It is.
Bob Dunn: I’ve used SmushIt and I took it on and off and stuff, but I do need to be looking at another one here soon so I’m anxious to hear about this one.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, Imagify is great. It does bulk optimization so that you can basically set it loose on your media library and have it go through and optimize each one of your images. It will automatically go through and optimize your images, and they let you pick, basically, how hard you want to go with image compression. They have three levels, normal, which is lossless compression which basically removes some thumbnail data, something called EXIF data. If you’re a photographer, you know what that is. If you’re not, you probably don’t and it doesn’t matter in most cases. It removes a lot of things that basically don’t need to be downloaded to be viewed on the web.
The second level, after normal, is aggressive which is lossy compression. It is tuned to the point where it’s lossy, which actually means that you are losing some image detail. However, it’s so negligible it’s barely even noticeable to the naked eye.
There’s a third level called ultra which is lossy and occasionally noticeable. In a lot of cases it’s not. I actually ran ultra on one of my sites, used the ultra setting on one of my sites and only noticed some minor pixelization in, I’d say, maybe four images out of several hundred. The nice thing is if you notice some pixelization, you haven’t lost the actual original image. They’ll let you roll back to the old uncompressed image so you can recompress it again at a different setting. If you decide, “Okay, that one didn’t look so great, let’s dial it back one or let’s dial it back two,” whatever. That will actually end up compressing the images enough that your customers will thank you. You’ll still have a high-detail, high-quality image but you’ll save bandwidth, your pages will load faster. It’s definitely a large improvement.
Bob Dunn: That sounds like a pretty cool feature actually, that rollback, especially with product shots because if you did find one that was a little bit, “Ah, that’s a bit too much,” you could do that easily without having to hunt it down again, resize it, go through all that work.
Jason Cosper: Yeah.
Bob Dunn: This sounds like a very cool plugin for sure.
TIP: Watch your thumbnail image sizes when you change themes
Jason Cosper: Yeah, and also if you switch themes at any point, we touched on this when we were talking about cleanup, if you switch on any themes during the life of your store you may or may not be aware, but they may not have the same thumbnail size. When you create a post basically WordPress goes in and depending on what’s set in the theme there could be some different defaults than what is set in WordPress. It will generate thumbnails for particular sizes. You may switch your theme and have a whole new set of thumbnail sizes but WordPress, because it doesn’t want to go back through every time you switch a theme and recompress or resize all of those images, it just goes, “Okay, well we’ll just us,” it intelligently says, “We’ll use the old images until the thumbnails have been regenerated.” There’s not an easy button you can click to generated thumbnails though. Sometimes, because those thumbnails are regenerating, you could be sending your customers an image that’s either too large in most cases or sometimes too small. It could be pixelated and turning customers off of a particular product because the shot doesn’t look well. What you can do is there’s a plugin called Regenerate Thumbnails. It’s on WordPress repository. Have you ever used Regenerate Thumbnails before Bob?
Bob Dunn: Yeah, actually it’s one of those plugins that I have to delete because I’ve changed my theme so many times that I’m always installing it and then I deactivate it and it sits there and I think, “Oh, I don’t need that.” Yeah, I’ve used it numerous times.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, and it’s really handy. It runs really great. If you are a nerd like me, I might be talking out of turn, but I believe it has even a WP-CLI command if you’re the sort of person who uses WP-CLI command line interface from the terminal you can actually regenerate thumbnails that way as well. Basically, the nice thing is you install the plugin and, again, it lets you go through and regenerate thumbnails and make sure that you have the right size thumbnails for your posts. Once you regenerate your thumbnails, actually this is probably the first thing you should do. If you’re going to go through and compress your images you don’t want to compress your images then regenerate your thumbnails and then have to compress your images again.
Bob Dunn: Right.
Jason Cosper: It’s a good idea to do that first but by doing that you can make sure that you’re setting the right size along rather than something that could be too large or too small.
Tips for buffing up your SEO
Bob Dunn: Okay, excellent. Wow, those are, again, really good tips for the images. Like I said, that’s such a critical piece for the online store. Let’s talk SEO. We always got to throw SEO somewhere in the mix.
Jason Cosper: Of course.
Bob Dunn: For those who don’t know what SEO is, it’s Search Engine Optimization. Of course most people do. It’s something we deal with whether we hire somebody or we’ve learned it organically. Do you have any tips on how someone might buff up at least their existing SEO?
TIP: Consider using an add-on
Jason Cosper: Yeah, definitely. SEO, I think one of the biggest problems with SEO is that people will download a plugin, in a lot of cases Yoast SEO which is a fantastic plugin. I use it on most, if not all, of my sites. There are some that I’m just not concerned with page one, silly things that don’t need an SEO plugin. In the case of Yoast SEO, they sell an add-on for WooCommerce that is supremely helpful and you should definitely take a look at that, yoast.com. They actually have WooCommerce add-on for Yoast SEO that is worth the price of admission if you want to buff up your product listings and how they’re displayed and how they’re picked up in Google. Something that I’ve heard and parroted and truly believe is that the best SEO out there is good, relevant content.
Bob Dunn: Mm-hmm (affirmative), exactly.
TIP: The best SEO is quality content
Jason Cosper: Yeah. Some people, they’re not great writers and that’s okay. We can’t all be perfect at everything. If you’re concerned about the quality of your writing, you can hire a copywriter. I know for some folks, they may not be at the level where they can afford to hire a copywriter. However, it is a good idea to at least take a look at hiring a copywriter. There is a site called Upwork where you can hire folks to do particular tasks and things like that. I passed along a link that you can add in the show notes that effectively is tuned for copywriters who have worked at least 100 hours in the past year, that are well-reviewed, above a 90% success rate, things like that.
I’m not saying that all of these folks will be perfect, but I’ve done what I could to help folks who need a copywriter, who need someone who can help them punch up the copy on their site to make that as easy a process of finding someone as possible. I think there’s several hundred folks there for you to choose from. That’s really the biggest SEO tip, is having good, relevant content. Go through, look at the things that you’re talking about when it pertains to your product. Look at what’s going on for your product listings, that you’re talking about all of the pertinent details of the product. You don’t want somebody to get, again to use the example of a shirt, say you have a shirt with fine detail on it, some fine stitching, embroidery detail and you don’t mention the fact that maybe it has that embroidery. It’s like, “Well, the product photo speaks for itself.” Product photo should never speak for itself. You should also be speaking for your product photos.
Bob Dunn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
TIP: Run SSL across your entire site
Jason Cosper: Having those things. Make sure that the people who buy your stuff have no surprises so they will come back to you when it’s time to buy another whatever that they’re buying from you. Also I should mention, Google gives a ranking boost to properties using SSL across their entire site. I don’t know how many of you have set up SSL on your site. I would hope everybody who’s selling something is setting up SSL. I know in some cases if you’re using the PayPal Extension you don’t necessarily need to set up SSL, but if someone’s buying something from you you should at least have SSL running on your cart, your account page, login, checkout page of course. But by running SSL across your entire site, you’ll actually get an SEO boost. It’s minor but they will rank you a little higher in the search rankings, and Google has actually said this.
Bob Dunn: That’s a good tip because I think a lot of people are so used to, “Oh, I just need it when I sell things or use Stripe,” or something that requires SSL but online stores and even regular sites now it just seems like that’s the direction we’re moving to so it’s a good idea.
TIP: Do everything you can to make your site faster
Jason Cosper: Definitely. Also, as I touched on with resizing your images, you want to make your site faster and it’s good to do everything you can to make your site faster. The speed of your site effects your rankings. Now, to find out about how fast your site is, there’s a few things you can do. Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool, and I’ve sent you a link to add to the show notes, has been pretty solid for checking the actual speed of your site, giving you tips on what you can do to improve it, things like that. Just very plain things that you can do to improve the speed of your site and boost your search rankings. For a lot of folks who maybe are new to this, not necessarily concerned with making your site fast or worried about performance, folks who maybe came into it, set up WooCommerce, set up a theme and a shop and are just now getting into optimization, getting into fixing those things, it’s going to seem overwhelming at first. I understand that, but it’s one of those things that everyone’s going to constantly be striving for 100% and it’s super hard to get 100%. I’ve been doing web work since 1996 and I still have sites that haven’t hit 100% on the PageSpeed Insights.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
Jason Cosper: If you look at it and you’re like, “Man, I only got 88 out of 100%.” It’s like, “Hey, you’re going great. You’re doing better than a lot of other folks out there.” Do what you can to boost everything that you can but you’re not going to be perfect. PageSpeed Insights is great but there is a new tool from Google called Test My Site. I’ve sent that link along as well. The Test My Site tool wraps PageSpeed Insight results in something that’s actually a little easier to digest for folks. If you’re working with a client and want to show them a report that actually looks like … “Okay, here is some of the work I need you to do on your site,”et cetera, et cetera. It’s a lot easier to show somebody. I’m like, “Here’s what I need to do.” Here’s what Google is seeing when they look at your site. Test My Site is something that is a little more user-friendly, a little more end user-friendly I should say. That is definitely something that you can help us to buff up the speed of our sites.
Bob Dunn: Great. Yeah, we’ll definitely share those two links. I know you’ve given me quite a few links which will be perfect to put in the transcript so appreciate that.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, happy to do it. Now, at the end of the day though, really honestly as far SEO goes, Rebecca Gill, who is fantastic SEO and works in the WordPress community, has a bunch of great talks up on WordPress.tv. She says that SEO is a process and not a plugin. It’s great to install Yoast. It’s great to install one of the other ones that’s out there, push a few buttons and then to borrow from the old Ronco infomercial, “set it and forget it”. You can’t just set it and forget it. It is a process and not a plugin. If you want to do a deep dive on SEO improvements, actually she has a Youtube video up that she did with iThemes on suggestions for eCommerce SEO. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it Bob, but it is really fantastic.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, I have seen that one. Yep, it is really good.
Jason Cosper: Yeah. Again, another link for the show notes, this is definitely something that you can spend the rest of Web Week on and even into the new year, just working on learning this stuff, making it a process. This is something that it’s great to spend this week on. Of course, hopefully, in the conversation we’re having, I’m going to help you grow a little bit, go down that path of continuing to grow.
More SEO help
Bob Dunn: Yeah. I’ll even add a couple to the show notes or the transcripts as well because I’ve did a review on Rebecca’s SEO online course, which is incredible. I went through that, and boy if you want to really dive into it and figure it out, it’s actually explained in a way that is easy for the normal person to understand. We did also have her on the show here, believe it or not. I can’t remember the actual episode but I’ll make sure and get that link in, so we’ve scattered Rebecca all over the place here. She is really good. She’s really good and she did a really great show on eCommerce and SEO that, again, I’ll put a link to.
How can we make finding our products easier for our customers?
We’ve talked SEO, now let’s go to something that some people think of, some people don’t. We know that being able to find and get to the right product on an online store is so important to your customers. Make it easy, less clicks the better. Any thoughts on how you may want to revisit this on your site?
TIP: Fix the broken links
Jason Cosper: Yes, definitely. I won’t go on as long as I did about SEO but basically one of the biggest and best things you can do is make sure that your site isn’t really riddled with broken links. You don’t want a link to something that doesn’t exist anymore. That can detach back impact your SEO, especially if it’s an internal link. You’re like, “Why is this product I added never …?” and of course WordPress handles a lot of that linking internally now. It’s made it easier but, “Why is this product that I added two or three years ago before when I actually had to manually add the link rather than let WordPress handle that for me, why is that not getting picked up? I’ve made the product a little better,”whatever. Going through and making sure that there’s not broken links is super important.
I’ve seen a lot of plugin-based checkers though, totally crater servers, really just kill the heck out of them. I’m not going to name and to shame, but I will gladly share a desktop-based alternative. LinkChecker, it’s an open source cross-platform desktop link checker. You download it. It’s available for Mac, Windows, and even Linux if you’re one of those desktop Linux people. I don’t have any judgements. I’ve been looking at it myself. I’m a Mac person myself. There is another Mac program that I love to use called Integrity that is really great for this. Again, it’s a desktop tool. Integrity is freely available, but LinkChecker is one that is cross-platform. It’s been around for a number of years now and it works great.
You just basically give it your site URL, let it crawl your site for you and it will tell you, “Hey, here’s a link that didn’t go anywhere,” like it’s getting a 404 error or a 500 error. This is a redirect. You can look at where all the links that you follow on your site are actually redirects, and if you want to fix those you can go back in and do it. It’s really handy. It’s not as integrated and easy to use as a plugin-based link checker but, like I said, when you’re crawling your site, I’ve seen really well-built manage servers just die on a broken link checker plug-in. It’s crazy. There’s a reason that most of the broken link checker plugins that are out there are … We have at WP Engine a disallowed plugins list. I can’t think of a single broken link checking plugin that is actually allowed on WP Engine.
Bob Dunn: Interesting.
TIP: Optimize your search function
Jason Cosper: That should tell you something about … Imagine if it doesn’t work well on our platform, how well do you think it works on a shared host? Now, also to touch on being able to find and get to the right product. Finding the products you want is important. Just being able to pop up into the search bar and actually search for what you’re looking for. I never browse to a page on Amazon. I always hit the search bar and try to actually find a product there. There’s no doubt that people are actually doing the same thing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this Bob but the search capability built in the WordPress, I’m not trashing the project, it’s not very good.
Bob Dunn: Oh, it sucks big-time. It really does.
Jason Cosper: Yeah. You know it’s a problem when … I’ve talked with WordPress core developers, and again I won’t necessarily name names, but I’ve had a lot of them go, “Yeah, I really wish we could have something better as far as search goes or I wish we could just outright remove it because it’s not very good, but people would riot.”
Bob Dunn: Exactly. Yep.
Jason Cosper: It’s slow and it doesn’t use any intelligence when it returns results.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
TIP: Consider using an alternate search implementation (don’t lean on Google)
Jason Cosper: Using an alternative search implementation is good. Now, there’s a few products out there you can look into. Swiftype I believe is one of them. A lot of just pick it up off the shelf, use an external service, pay them X number of dollars a month and they’ll crawl your website and give you some more relevant search results. I know that folks lean on Google and use Google Search for their site. That’s fine, but you’re effectively sending folks to Google to get search results for your site. That isn’t really a great experience. What’s going to stop them for searching for something unrelated in Google after? You want to keep them on your site. I suggest looking into Elasticsearch. Have you ever worked with Elasticsearch?
Bob Dunn: I’ve been using this other plugin for a while but I’m a bit curious about that so I want to hear what you have to say.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, so Elasticsearch is an open source project much like WordPress, much like Linux. What Elasticsearch does is specialized. It is a product that only does search. It returns incredibly relevant search results. It catches spelling mistakes so if someone were to switch, not remembering the i before e rule or something like that, Elasticsearch would catch that as to where the WordPress search would just go, “Nope, I didn’t find anything.” It’ll catch those spelling mistakes and it’ll search for what are known as near neighbors, which basically mean if you search for shirts it will also search shirt.
Bob Dunn: Okay.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, so it’ll search for the singular or plural forms of particular terms. Elasticsearch uses its own server to run. Now, I’m not expecting any one of your listeners to be server admin. But I’m sure that there are a couple in the audience.
Bob Dunn: I’m sure there are.
Jason Cosper: To my fellow nerds, I say welcome, thank you for listening. It basically runs outside of WordPress and you’d have to have your own server for it. Basically, you can actually buy Elasticsearch service that you can pay X number of dollars a month, install a plugin, set it up on your site and just let it run in the background like you would with a CDN. If you don’t have a CDN included with your hosting plan, I know some hosts include that, WP Engine includes that, and if you have a CDN, it works like that. You buy the service. You pay for it monthly. It does what it’s supposed to do in the background. There is a company called Bonsai who sells Elasticsearch. They manage the entire thing, so they’re basically the WP Engine of Elasticsearch. They sell access to one for as little as $20 a month. If you have folks who do a lot of searches on your site, if that is something that is worthwhile to you, $20 a month for a little buff or boost … I don’t know what level of products that every one of your listeners are selling, but I’m sure that that’s a single or a couple of units of something to make sure that your customers find what they’re looking for when they view your site.
Bob Dunn: Right.
Another cool search plugin
Jason Cosper: Once they have an Elasticsearch instance, there is a plugin from 10up called ElasticPress. ElasticPress is practically turnkey once you actually have a service. All you need to do once you have it, and they have great documentation, you can drop your Bonsai, or whoever you decide to go with, server info into the settings, save it out, and then push a button and the plugin will crawl your entire site for you and funnel all of your search information, all of your plugin and product meta, all of this stuff up to the Elasticsearch servers.
When a search is performed on your site ElasticPress basically says, “Hey, hold up WordPress, I’ve got this,” and will actually run the search there rather than onward press, pass back the relevant results, pass it back with, like I said, catching the spelling mistakes, finding the near neighbors, making sure that when you search for shirt it actually returns shirts and not just something that says shirt in the description, things like that. Those might be ranked a little lower than something that’s actually tagged “shirt.” For the really nerdy folks in the audience, you can get elbows deep in the code and actually change weights and stuff like that. It’s really cool and really fun and you could spend the better part of a few months really dialing stuff in to make your search amazing. If you sell a lot of product it might be worthwhile for you to do that.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. I think that the search is huge in the online store. Again, like you said, if you have a lot of products, some of these stores have thousands of products, it’s well worth the investment.
Jason Cosper: One extra thing, a little bonus. Now, okay so 20 bucks to some folks might seem like a lot for just adding some search to their site. ElasticPress has an additional drop-in plugin that you can actually install from the Elasticsearch plugin. It is also free like ElasticPress and it has additional WooCommerce optimizations that not only help with search but also with site speed. You can offload some product and search and et cetera queries to ElasticPress which is built for very fast queries effectively and make your shop and product pages faster by offloading some of that stuff to your external ElasticPress service. You’re not only paying 20 bucks a month for the search service, you’re actually, if you’re really smart about it and enable that additional WooCommerce extension, making your site just a little bit faster, in some cases a lot faster through that ElasticPress extension.
What should we look for when searching for the right host for our online store?
Bob Dunn: Oh, excellent. Great. That’s good to know. Let’s talk hosting. I did have David from WP Engine actually do a whole show around eCommerce and hosting. He brought up a lot of the good things to be looking for. I’m going to just ask you for more of a checklist or highlight a few things that our listeners should be asking themselves to make sure that they have the right hosts and what they should be considering, especially for their online store.
Jason Cosper: Yeah, okay. To touch on this really quick, if you’re making a living with your WooCommerce store and you’re still using cheap shared hosting you’re going to run into headaches. You may have already, over the holiday season, run into headaches and run into bottlenecks with your store, especially if you start getting more traffic, more sales, things like that. It’s really not a matter of if, but when. When is always going to be at the worst possible time. It’s like, “Oh hey, cool.” I had a friend here in town who runs a flower shop. They just got picked up by Martha Stewart.
Bob Dunn: Wow.
TIP: Consider managed hosting
Jason Cosper: They’re locally owned, everything else. They got mentioned on Martha Stewart’s site just a few days before Christmas and of course there’s a bunch of people last minute who now want this product that they’re selling, and they’re getting inundated. Now, it’s great to be successful. If their site can’t handle that, if all of a sudden you’re on cheap shared hosting, you’re expecting to get mentioned on CNN or on just even local morning news or whatever, you don’t want your site to go down. Five bucks a month for cheap shared hosting running your WooCommerce site, that’s great to bootstrap yourself, but eventually you’re going to want to upgrade.
In some cases, like WP Engine offers a plan starting at 29 bucks a month. I understand that that might be a little too rich for some folk’s blood, especially if they’re still just getting started. There are other manage solutions. A lot of shared hosts actually offer some manage packages that start out fairly inexpensively and they’re specialized for handling higher volumes of traffic. If you can afford us, great, preferably. Personally I hope that you would consider using us, but I don’t want to point you away from another solution if you may be priced out of using us to start. Looking into a managed host is definitely something that you should consider, especially when your traffic is low. That’s the perfect time to move your site somewhere where you’re not really seeing a lot of sales, a lot of traffic, things like that where folks are just taking it easy in that time between Christmas and the new year.
Bob Dunn: Right.
TIP: Make sure those cache results are accurate
Jason Cosper: Now, no matter where you’re hosting, if you’re using caching for the WordPress sites that you host, you really need to make sure on these manage hosts that if you’re going to move to them make sure that they put in exemptions in place in their caching for your cart page, your checkout page and your My Account page. Cart and checkout are really the most important ones. You don’t want to have somebody seeing a cache result when they go to cart. If they add something to their cart and then they go to the cart and they don’t see their product or they see a product that someone else added, they’re just going to go away from your site.
Bob Dunn: Exactly.
Jason Cosper: Making sure that those cache results that are in place when someone visits one of those pages is super important if you move hosting to a manage host that has caching in place. Most of them, at least the ones worth their salt, do. Another big thing to look into is if you do move hosting or if you stay on your existing host really take a few minutes and familiarize yourself or try to find your host service level agreement. A service level agreement basically states if your site goes down what your host does for you. If you do see a lot of traffic and your site goes down or if they have a problem with the server and your site goes down, what is your host going to do for you? In some cases they’ll give you a service credit. Sometimes I know that some hosts after a particular one, two, four hours, whatever will give you a credit for the month, things like that. Multiple months in some cases.
TIP: Ask what the host’s service agreement says
It’s always good to know what that service level agreement is. Educate yourself on that and make sure that you know what you’ll get if and when your site goes down, either if that’s on your existing host or, if you decide to move, on your new host. It’s important to note that if that service level agreement is valid only after you file a ticket. In some cases, some hosts out there will say that your site is down or whatever. Like our support isn’t going to know that, like definitely our admin team will know it, but our admin team isn’t dealing with it, your support is so they’ll require you file a ticket before the host will even think about crediting your account. Just make sure that you know what’s going on with that service-level agreement, knowing what you can get if there is some sort of catastrophe with your site. It may not be useful in likely immediate future but being educated on that in the long term is definitely something that can help you out.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t take the time to do that they think, “Oh, just another agreement to read,” but that service one, those are good points. I’m glad you shared that with us because I think we just, “Oh, another thing to read. No, I’m sure it’s all cool.” Yeah, some good stuff to look for there. Appreciate that.
TIP: Ask how easy it is to get to your backups
Jason Cosper: Finally, there’s one last one. Basically you have to ask yourself how easy it is to get to your backups. We talked about backups at the top of the show, but you really have to figure out how easy it is, no matter if you’re staying on your host, if you’re moving, how easy is it to get to them? If you need them do you have to request it from support? Is it just as easy as a button click and a panel? Can you download a zip file? Is it going to restore over the top of your existing files? Things like that. It’s all important to know because if you want a backup on your site to work on, say a locally, if you’re the sort of person who has a local development environment like desktop server or you’re the kind of nerd who works in a vagrant or what have you, or in the case of a catastrophe and say you’re still at that shared host and you’re like, “Man, I should’ve listened to Jason. I should’ve upgraded to a managed host.” How hard is it going to be to get your files and go somewhere else?
Bob Dunn: Right.
Jason Cosper: Knowing that information is super important. Knowing it before the catastrophe strikes, before something goes pear-shaped, it’s pretty useful.
Should we have more than one backup?
Bob Dunn: Yeah, I actually have three backups in place. Of course my WP Engine. Then I use ManageWP and then I have VaultPress. I have everything going and it’s great, but I’ll be honest with you, when it comes to restoring, WP Engine’s the easiest. It’s like okay, restore, get an email. It’s restored. I’m on. I love it. It’s one of my favorites.
Jason Cosper: We pride ourselves on that.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, yeah.
Jason Cosper: I actually think you’re doing a great job by having three backups. There is an old, I feel like it’s been attributed to either the Marines or the Navy, which is “Three is two, two is one, and one is none.”, which means if you only have a single of something and it fails then you don’t truly have a backup.
Bob Dunn: Makes sense to me.
Jason Cosper: If you have two you have a backup, but what happens if your backup of the backup fails? Those three backups, no matter what goes wrong, if there’s a catastrophe and your site accidentally gets wiped out and somehow ManageWP servers also, “Oh, that backup was corrupted,”,or whatever, you still have one more that you can go back to.
Bob Dunn: Exactly.
Jason Cosper: That is intensely useful.
Bob Dunn: Yes that’s it. I’ve learned my lessons the hard way over the years. Well, I think we have given enough information to keep our listeners busy for the rest of the week, for the rest of the year, which is basically the same thing, or for into next year. A lot of stuff, a lot of good stuff so I want to thank you Jason for sharing all of this great info with us.
Jason Cosper: Bob, you and your listeners are so welcome. I am so happy to do that and I’m happy at any point to come back and share any additional knowledge. I think that making sure that everybody is educated is super important.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
Jason Cosper: I appreciate you taking the time to let me yammer on for the past hour to make sure that folks really have the tools that they need to be successful.
A shoutout to WP Engine, our sponsor
Bob Dunn: My pleasure. It was a great show and, like I said, tons of information. Listeners, I want to give another huge shout-out to our sponsor, WP Engine, where you will find some of the best WordPress manage hosting around.
Also, for you developers who are nice enough to come and listen to the show, make sure to check out their free staging site available to you. You’ll find a link on our post for that as well. That’s a wrap for 2016. It’s been a great year here and we are looking forward to our next year of shows. If you have a chance to head over to iTunes during Web Week and are enjoying our show, we would love a review. Until next time, have a fantastic New Year celebration. Be safe and here’s to an awesome 2017. Cheers and see you next year on the WP eCommerce show.