Not the Top Ten Extensions for Magento
When you first install Magento the temptation is to go to Magento Connect and look at all the possible extensions. There are literally thousands of them. The next step is to Google things like “best Magento extensions”, or “top 10 ..” or “recommended ….” just to try to whittle down the list to a manageable one. The temptation then is to install some, especially the free ones. This is a mistake.
First look at the date of the blog/forum posting to see when this list was made. It could easily be years old, and refer to a defunct version of Magento. The current stable version is 1.7. Many Magento sites run at 1.6.x. So any recommendation prior to this year is suspect. It is possible that any recommended extension either no longer works or is no longer needed as the core Magento now covers the functions.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a free extension. Every time you add an extension to Magento, you run the risk of introducing more bugs. You add to the work you will need to do when you want to upgrade Magento. Further if the extension has functions you come to rely on, and it is not kept up to date, what do you do when you upgrade?
This is equally true for paid extensions, although they tend to be kept up to date. The trap with these is that many developers only give you free upgrades for a period of time. This means you may have to pay again in a year or so just to keep using the extension when you upgrade Magento.
Finally, just because an extension is recommended, does not mean its right for you. I have seen some lists that include some recommendations that are totally inappropriate for a typical Ecommerce store.
So try to resist using any third party extensions. Try to run your site “out of the box”. Only take an extension if you find that there is a real business need for it and you cannot easily work around it.
Of course this is impossible in practice.
There are must have extensions which tend to choose themselves. For example if you want to take payments from a debit or credit card (and not just use Paypal) then you need to have a payment gateway. Once you have a payment gateway then you need the extension that interfaces between Magento and that gateway. Typically there will only be one. If there is a choice, then ask the gateway for their recommendation, and reasons for that recommendation.
Third party extensions are developed either to fulfil a particular need (for example an interface to a newsletter service, like mailchimp) or because the developer believe that they can do better than the standard function, make it easier to do something, or it adds additional functionality. The sales blurb can be compelling and persuasive, but not necessarily correct for your store.
A classic example of this is the One Step Checkout extension. There are a number of different versions and all say that you get a much better conversion rate than the standard Magento checkout. However if you look at http://www.netmediagroup.com/blog/ab-testing-the-one-step-checkout-magento-extension/ you will see that a developer did A/B testing on one of their clients sites and found a 26% REDUCTION in conversion rate using this one step checkout. The complete opposite to their assumptions. So no matter how persuasive the blurb is, no matter how much you think the extension will help you, you must test it. You must monitor your metrics before and after installing any extension and remove any extension if it proves to damage your sales. Further only add one extension at a time.
I use Magento 1.6.1 and the extensions I find useful are as follows
The Enhanced Product Grid (http://www.magentocommerce.com/magento-connect/enhanced-admin-product-grid.html). I have always used this and cannot imagine trying to administer the products without this.
The next purely admin extension which I find useful is the change attribute set http://www.magentocommerce.com/magento-connect/flagbit-change-attribute-set.html This allows you to change the product's attribute set (which Magento out of the box will not). Without it you are forced to delete a product and re add it when you need to change the attribute set. This extension does NOT WORK if you have the enhanced product grid (the extensions clash) however you can get them to work if you are prepared the edit the extension code. See http://www.magentocommerce.com/boards/viewthread/59416/P15/
The above extensions demonstrate how by picking one you have problems with the second. This is one reason why you should be careful what extensions to use. It is annoying if you have one extension which you use rarely, but having it stops you installing an extension that you really need.
I do not like the default Magento image mouseover and magnification. So I install the Easy Lightbox extension. http://www.magentocommerce.com/magento-connect/magento-easy-lightbox.html. There is another similar extension, but this one simply works and does not rely on the Jquery library.
I do my Google product feed using the GoMage Feed pro (http://www.gomage.com/extensions/gomage-feed-pro.html) because it is easy to use and allows you to filter and exclude products which do not have an EAN or UPC. There is now a core Magento feed process which uses the Google feed API, but I find this export/import feed far easier to understand and thus use.
When I was on a VPS and the site was a bit slow, I found that my conversion rate improved when I used the Aheadworks Ajax Cart Pro (http://ecommerce.aheadworks.com/magento-extensions/ajax-cart-pro.html ), now that I am on shared hosting and my site runs faster I probably do not need it, so I will re-test the conversions at some point to see if it should go.
I also use the Aheadworks Blog extension. (http://ecommerce.aheadworks.com/free-stuff/blog.html ). It is a very straight forward extension which allows you to build a blog as part of the store. You can get a wordpress interface and run a full wordpress blog, but this is only worthwhile if you mean to blog every day.
Finally, because I cannot be bothered spending days maintaining a huge shipping table I use the Flat Rate Shipping extension http://www.magentocommerce.com/magento-connect/ig-multi-flat-shipping.html
That's it. I do not use any other extensions. I have purchased a lot more, but I stopped using them for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I did not need them.
Can't really agree with you on this article. At first you suggest that don't look for common cases, refer to 2 year old survey for specific case (that is unreachable) and at last you suggest something that every client still needs to measure after installation and inspect for code quality to see if those extensions fit their workflow.
E-commerce is not easy and maintaining a successful shop and increasing conversions takes a lot of skill. You are right that most of the stuff just won't work on every site but you are wrong to give examples without measuring specific solution performance against your own site.
During my work I have measured and A/B tested almost ~2000 sites that have implemented simpler checkout solutions on Magento and in overall cases (~ 90%) it improves the conversions. And yes there are cases where the change is not good but you never find out if you don't test or try.
Checkout is the most important part of the site and improving it can't be taken carelessly , choosing payment and shipping methods and promoting them on the site must be analyzed and measured. Worth to be invested in research and development. Sad thing here is the skill of measuring and analyzing is rare amongst the merchants and few can outsource this properly.
Richard Stubbings says:
It is a shame that the article is unreachable as the point I was making, and it was making, was that you should always test any assumption. The article highlighted that they thought that the one step checkout was better than the standard one, and further highlighted that it could have been the type of customers, the type of product sold , or indeed a number of other factors, that caused it to reduce conversions so much.The article tried to say that it should NOT be considered definitive and that the one step checkout could well improve conversions on many sites.
I liked the article because it was well written and the authors were clearly surprised that the one step checkout did not improve the conversion rates for their customers. I wanted highlight that no one should add an extension to their site just because the perceived wisdom was that it would be great for conversion, that it should always be tested. I was not trying to say don't use the one step checkout extension.
I beleive it is always best to test out ANY and all changes to your site to see if they are beneficial to YOUR site, with YOUR particular circumstances.
I gave examples of some extensions that work for me, but what relevance would it be to tell you what affects they have on my conversion? Since I do not want anyone to assume just because they help me, that they will help them.
I found that the Aheadworks Ajax Cart extension reduced card abandonment when my site was performing slowly. Overal conversion rates were up by about the same rate as abandoned carts went down. Thus leaving me to assume that it was the poor speed of adding items to the cart, and the lack of any fast response, lead to the cart abandonment.
I have since moved hosts and the site runs much faster (on a shared host!) and the conversion rate went up a bit more and the bounce rate down. I suspect (but have not tested) that if I removed the extension then the cart abandonment rate (and conversion) would not now go down. So in hindsight I think I would have been better off moving to a better host rather than using the ajax extension.
I agree with you that checkout is a very important part of a site, BUT it is just as important to fix the leaks further up the funnel. I believe that all changes should be tested.
Richard Stubbings says:
I am annoyed that the example I gave is currently unreachable. Can you give others that equally highlight how important it is to test and not simply assume the perceived wisdom will help you?
Mark Bolitho says:
Hi Richard, nice post.
It beats me why so many retailers want to build their own ecommerce sites in the first place! Doing so 'because they can - how hard can it be?' is a pretty silly reason, and the reason why so many end up in a mess - especially with something as potentially complex as Magento.
I work with a number of agencies that professionally scope, specify, build, test and then hand over for in-house teams to work with - avoiding the potential issues you highlight. One of the best properties of Magento is that it can offer the best of both worlds in that respect.
I realise you have a vast experience in IT so you have an advantage over many, but personally, I'd advise non-tekkie retailers not to even attempt to negotiate the extension minefield without pro help and advice.
Richard Stubbings says:
Thanks Mark, Its interesting that you assume that its only the retailers who play with Magento and needlessly add extensions. In my experience there are a huge number of "web developers" who are no more expert than I but nevertheless sell their "expertise" and make these mistakes too.
Unfortunately retailers do not always know enough to realise how to select a proper developer over a self appointed expert.
Stan Dorman says:
Good Post Richard,
I hope Magento gets the extensions collection like the Wordpress have. I miss many plugins in it.
btw which plugin do you use for SEO purposes?
Richard Stubbings says:
Thank you. I did not recommend a SEO extension as they cannot beat proper completion of the meta data fields (title, description, and URL) when you first create a product. That said I use the Mageworx SEO extension as it allows sensible defaults to be set up for these fields and I go back and improve after my staff have added a batch of products.
I have some issues with the Mageworx extension as I used to use it to create the Canonical tag. This tag was then thrown up as a security vulnerability in a PCI scan. It seems the way in which it created it made it appear that a script insertion attack would work. In any case by the time I found this Magento itself had the option to create a canonical tag.
I agree with the point that after installing third party extensions errors may come, that are mostly becuase of changes in magento files which causes conflicts, eliminating these conflicts resolves the issue but at the same time many extensions are developed to enhance frontend performance and style such as Background Images magento extension, they can really offer great benefits and help increase customers.
Peter Johnson says:
Thanks a lot for suggestions and tips.
Good post!! here i just found Apptha's Ajax Car Pro Extension, hope the new magento extension help for magento Aspirants
Richard Stubbings says:
Thanks for your comment, but I wonder if you just posted it to advertise. I use the aheadworks ajax cart extension, not this one you seem to be promoting.
Great Post Richard! And I want to share something that Magento Extensions are powerful tool which take ecommerce business to the highest level! Functionality of your store - increasing store productivity and store conversion rate. Magento extensions will help store stick out from the crowd and add outstanding functionality as well as improve navigation and look of online store. Ilovemage is also a one best store of magento extensions.