Yahoo! Store: taking care of the basics

Recently I spoke with someone who was considering leaving the Yahoo! Store platform because of the apparent lack of a “crucial” feature. Actually there is a pretty elegant solution to this merchant’s particular issue, but this is beside the point for this post. However it did get me thinking (!) and I thought I’d revisit some of the things I have taken for granted in the Yahoo! Store platform. (*Disclaimer)

The fundamentals

First off, the customer of the Yahoo! Store platform is and should be the merchant. It is not the designer or developer. It’s the merchant that pays Yahoo!. Presumably the goal of running an e-commerce site is to make a profit, so the services designers offer should be aligned with this goal. It is not about giving designers cool tools to work with; it is about improving the bottom line for the merchant.

So, where am I going with this? Let me give an example: The Yahoo! Store editor is essentially an online environment in which you design your site and manage your product catalog. To create an item or section page you fill out a simple form or you upload your catalog in a csv file; templates then have the task of turning this input into HTML files. You get some built-in templates out-of-the-box, but if you want to modify or create your own templates – here it comes – you have to learn a Yahoo! Store proprietary template language called RTML. Yikes!

Yes, RTML is unique to Yahoo! Store and it is quite unlike PHP, Javascript, HTML or any other language you may be used to. But this in itself is not reason enough to dismiss the platform IF this setup is in the best interest of the merchant. It is possible to learn RMTL, just pick up couple of books, invest in some starter templates, and hack around. It is even possible to use a template that has a similar logic to PHP, whereby you use placeholders in your code to fly in “dynamic” content. Ask me what I mean if you are interested.

OK – so maybe RTML requires you to learn something new. But properly set up, merchants will benefit from using this platform. Merchants can do most of the maintenance themselves, such as adding and maintaining the product catalog. If you are a designer, you don’t really want to do this, do you? Focus on providing higher value-added services.

The benefit of the RTML template system is that it generates all the pages in your Yahoo! Store and produces static HTML pages. The search engines will thank you and Yahoo! Stores are known for being search-engine friendly. Google sitemaps is baked into the platform too.

So, a few templates can generate all the pages in your store, whether you have 10 or 100,000 catalog items. And all the pages are static HTML. Which brings me to the next point: the publishing process is completely separate from your published site, so when you publish your store, the site your visitors interact with is completely unaffected. Some background process creates all these pages and your site performance is unaffected. This requires serious horsepower and I wish I knew how they do it. I don’t even want to think about what the data center looks like.

I don’t know if there have been any studies done about performance or reliably of the Yahoo! Store vs other e-commerce platforms, but I think it would compare very favorably. Furthermore, Yahoo! Store uses Akamai to serve up product images in the most efficient manner. But don’t abuse this power – I have seen Yahoo! Stores that have pages over 1MB in size! Even if you have broadband, you want fast-loading.

Best-of-breed or one single vendor?

Should merchants expect to have more and more features bundled into the platform? Accounting, CRM, email marketing, web analytics, etc?

I don’t think so. If you try to please everyone then you will end up not pleasing anyone. Just make it easy to interface with other systems. First and foremost Yahoo! Store has to take care of the fundamentals as described earlier.

But this is one area where Yahoo! Store could be better: to make it easier to get to the data. It would be great to have API access to data so that merchants and developers can innovate and integrate with other systems. It is already possible to interface with other services; it could just be made a little easier.

I also think that user management should be a core e-commerce feature (e.g. customer login, order lookup, store shipping preferences). I am not sure that this would raise conversion rates and it should absolutely be optional for visitors to register, but it should probably be there.

Although no one is asking me, if I had a choice I would take API access over user management.

So to recap:

If you are evaluating an e-commerce platform or are considering making a move, don’t forget to check the fundamentals.

*Disclaimer: my company has been part of the Yahoo! Store developer network for many
years, but before you dismiss this post as biased, I promise to keep
just to the facts. Plus, of course whatever I write in this blog is
just my opinion and you are free to disagree.