From 0 to 0.1: the Journey of Bootstrapping a Small E-commerce Plugin to a Scalable Business (Part 3)

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Fierce Competition & Commodization

Well, it’s been 3 and a half years after I published part 2 of the series. Since I was busy working on different projects, I didn’t have the time to update the series for a while. Time flies. My app has changed a lot and the Shopify ecosystem is very different from the early days.

For my Shopify app, SEO Product Optimizer (SPO) is slowly growing with more than 1,000 merchants joining on board. The first version of SPO was published in Dec 2016. After 4 years of bootstrapping, I don’t make a big-money but I feel very proud of myself to keep everything going.

During the time, I didn’t ever stop customer support work for one single day and I had consistently deployed fixes to SPO. Now the app becomes more stable in terms of performance. However, the Shopify apps market is more competitive. As a maker, I am too focused on the making process. Distribution is more important to up the game.

Let’s make a quick recap!

What I’ve done: 💪

  • Launched an URL shortener called SocialPort.io
    In 2017, I tried to separate a core social sharing function of SPO into a separate project. It could help users to set up a custom link preview in a minute for any URL. Unfortunately, there were too many spammers abusing the service.

    Though I’ve enforced more measures like porn detection, whitelist, I couldn’t stop new spammers trying to game the service. My server was shut down by the service provider Digital Ocean several times. So I had to close down the service.
  • User Growth
    The user number was slowly growing. But now the organic growth is stagnated. There’re simply too many SEO apps on the AppStore. I need to find a way to reignite the growth engine.
  • Revenue
    Pass through $1000 MRR and the total revenue passes through $20,000. It’s not a big money but I believe a small success will lead to more lucks.
  • Side projects
    • Launched the fastest Startup / SaaS Product Name Generator called 3sName.com.
    • Launched a SaaS affiliate programs collection site called AffTable.com
  • Clone app

What I’ve mastered: 😎

  • Technical: I am good in web development with Django / Python, Vue, server setup with Docker
  • Business: How to deal with Shopify merchants. How to get them onboard. The upcoming trend of the Shopify platform.

Is Shopify AppStore still a profitable market for bootstrapping? 💰

Yes and No. In 2020, the competition is at an unprecedented high level. You can find at least 10 apps in any category. For SEO, it’s even worst. There are more than 50 apps in this single category. Many companies try to commoditize the market by providing free apps.

I believe these companies are trying to use their apps as a lead magnet to upsell other services like themes, custom development services, etc.

My Strategy:

  • Focus on solving real SEO problems 🔎
    While other free SEO apps are providing a basic version, I will focus on solving real SEO problems, which merchants are eager to solve them. Listen and focus.
  • Make SPO as an Investment 🤑
    Under the COVID-19 pandemic, most merchants are trying to lower the cost due to dropped revenue. I definitely feel the pressure from merchants to perform cost-cutting. When the market strains, merchants can only keep the necessity to stay afloat. My app costs $15.99 / month, which is very cheap. However, I definitely have to change my marketing preposition to be at the top of the mind. In other words, SEO => more organic => more revenue
  • Share precious resources to my users
    How can a paid app win a free app? What’s better than free? A paid app can share a precious resource to its paid users while free apps can’t do the same. There are simply too many free users to drastically increase recurring costs.
  • Develop a new app with synergy 🌟
    While I won’t spread myself thin to develop many apps, I will consider investing in a new app if it’s possible to upsell to my existing users. Though I will take the move cautiously. If it’s possible, I hope I can launch a free app as a lead magnet.

Fake reviews 💬

Now many apps are filled with hundreds or even thousands of reviews. Newcomers can hardly win the incumbents without a strong market reach. The opportunity left for indie developers is obviously smaller.

Some app developers like Booster, Avada, Hextom are trying to dominate a category with reviews. The strategy:

  1. Develop some free apps to accumulate a user base
  2. When they find out a high potential category, they will become the predator. Just replicate the functions of the existing players and publish their own version.
  3. Boost the app ranking with incentivized reviews in a short time. It’s a sure-win formula. Unless Shopify takes action, small players can hardly compete.

Recently, Shopify took the Booster apps off selves as a publishment for malpractices. I hope Shopify will continue its effort to make the AppStore as a level-playing field for large companies and small developers.

Unfortunately, it’s getting hard to discover good apps for merchants. All apps are filled with hundreds of 5-star reviews.

Shopify upcoming changes in August 2020:

Though the competition is keen, Shopify has improved the app ecosystem. After watching the Shopify Partner Town Hall, I will share the highlights here:

  • You can charge annual billing for your app
  • The authentication flow has changed to JWT. The processing time is significantly reduced (not tested yet)
  • There’re more than 1M Shopify stores. Instead of selling physical goods, more users are using Shopify to sell digital services, subscription services, b2b / wholesales which means more opportunities to theme designers or app developers.
  • There will be more developer tools rolling out to empower Shopify partners like Shopify CLI tool

Personally, I think Shopify support for Python is quite bad. The whole development system leads toward Node.

What’s next for me?

I am not sure yet. I’ve been trying hard to add new features to SPO. SPO is gradually pivoting to an All-in-one SEO app instead of focusing on solving a single problem. But the marketing work is not catching up.

This year, I am trying to research which niches are profitable and doable for me. I don’t limit myself to Shopify apps only. However, I don’t find any field suitable for me at the moment of writing. Finding an idea is easy. But it’s hard to find a profitable idea suitable for me.

You may ask “What are the profitable fields?”

If you have a good understanding of the problem space, then it’s a good niche for you. A developer can easily copy the functions in your app. But he can hardly copy your domain knowledge.

Keep Grinding!

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What is AMP and why is it useful for my Shopify store?

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What is AMP?

AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) is an open-source framework developed by Google in collaboration with Twitter.

AMP creates better, faster experiences on the mobile web. At its core, the framework allows you to build lightweight experiences for mobile by simplifying the HTML and following streamlined CSS rules.

Read more What is AMP and why is it useful for my Shopify store?

SPO v2.0 update – support structured data with JSON LD

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Hi SPO users, 👋

After the last update, I’ve been working on stability and performance improvement. In the meantime, JSON LD (structured data / rich snippets) has been added to generated rich results on Google. We mainly support organization and product schema now.

New

  1. JSON LD has been supported by our latest liquid file. For existing paid users, please enter the product listing page once and SPO will automatically update the liquid file to the latest version
  2. JSON LD will support social media profile links. Your rich search result on Google will include these links
  3. Bulk edit supports editing products under a collection
  4. Added Google PageSpeed testing in Setting

Fixed

  1. Stability and loading speed has been improved in the listing page
  2.  In Setting tab, you can click “Submit Now” button next to Sitemap Submission to notify Google to re-scrape your sitemap. Google will update its index after that.

If you want to give us feedback, please email us via support[at]seo-product-optimizer.com. We’d love to hear from you! 💬

Reference:
JSON LD format for Product: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/data-types/product

10 Google shopping ads Strategies to up Your Game in 2020 (Guest Post)

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Google Shopping Ads Campaigns has been taking the eCommerce world by storm. Ads on mobile and desktop devices have been garnering more clicks and seeing a rising trend when it comes to PPC management. For any brand that is into eCommerce marketing, Google Shopping Ads Campaigns cannot be missed.

The date says they are worth it and the amount you make, you get back more via Return on Ad Spends (ROAS). If you’ve ever wanted to learn what Google Shopping ads are, how to create and optimize them for better performance, then this post will give you a nice walkthrough.

Read more 10 Google shopping ads Strategies to up Your Game in 2020 (Guest Post)

Show your products for free on the Google Shopping tab (US only)

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On 21st April 2020, Google announced its plan to make it free to sell on Google. Search results on the Google Shopping tab will consist primarily of free listings.

For Shopify Stores, it means that your products can be shown to more consumers even you don’t pay for Google ads. You can get free exposure. Initially, the plan will be opened to the US before the end of April. And it will gradually expand to more countries before the end of 2020.

If you are an existing user of Merchant Center and Shopping ads, you’ve already opted into the program. There is no further step for you. For new users, please continue the reading.

According to the requirement, merchants must submit a feed through Google Merchant Center and meet the additional eligibility requirements for enhanced listings to appear in these results. 

Luckily, Shopify has made the process simple. With Shopify’s Google Shopify App, it will help you to sync, submit, and optimize your products to the free listings.

Install Google Shopping App to your store: https://apps.shopify.com/google-shopping?itcat=blog&itterm=384225345570

Shopify’s official announcement: https://www.shopify.com/blog/google-shopping-listings

Share your story to boost SEO for free!

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Since Dec 2016, SPO has been helping niche sellers to improve organic traffics and social presence. Nowadays, the world is in a serious crisis that everyone has to change our daily lives and many of us even lose our life. The logistics are down. You can’t ship the product from your supplier. There are fewer buyers to shop online. I know that it’s a tough time for all of you. As an indie maker, I’ve been thinking about how I can assist more online stores to survive during lockdowns, border closures, etc. Though we are small companies here, it doesn’t that we cannot help other people who are suffering from the CoronaVirus now.

The Challenge 😟

While I am working from home this week, I am trying to research what are the killers for new stores trying to launch. After reviewing 30 stores, I find that one of the most common issues in eCommerce is traffic-no-sales, a.k.a low conversion rate. It’s so painful! You waste your budget on Facebook or Instagram ads but you don’t know what’s going on. I am sure some of you tried very hard to get through it in the early days. Other new stores are having the same problem too. I can see that there are new stores desperately asking for feedback on Shopify / Reddit every day.

According to my research in the Shopify community forum, the causes are mainly:

To conclude, I would say that the reason is due to

lack of experience and no marketing sense 📚

To help more merchants to stay afloat, I would like to start a new initiative by interviewing some successful SPO users to share their stories in the early day. How did they start from small and grow? How can they optimize the store to go through traffic-no-sales? What are the challenges and how did they tackle them?

People will usually block out sales pitches, but everybody loves listening to stories.

How it works?

In particular, I would define a set of questions. The merchants will prepare the questions and send it back to me. I will edit the story and post it on this blog. Regarding the style, the format will be similar to StarterStory but tailored for niche online stores. You may wonder Why would a merchant share her valuable experience with the others. What are the benefits?

Your Benefits ⚡

Well, when a merchant conducts an interview, it will create a history for his store and transparency leads to trust. This is the very first step to create branding. Imagine when a potential customer is considering buying from your store. She will definitely google your store to read reviews. An interview on a 3rd party site will definitely give him more confidence to purchase. Today, consumers are not only buying for features. According to Forbes, more consumers purchase from purpose-driven brands aligned with their personal values.

For each interview, I will add a link pointing to the store. An external link from a highly relevant site will greatly boost SEO. This is because Google loves unique content. The content marketing technique is called “guest blogging”, which is well known in the tech world for years. Personally, I also wrote about my startup story in the series From 0 to 0.1. It is proven to be a highly cost-effective channel to reach customers.

Giving Back by Sharing! ❤️

The opportunities will be primarily reserved for our users with > $3K MRR. If you’re interested, feel free to fill in the form. The enrollment will be made on a first-come-first-served basis. If there are more responses, I will purchase a new domain and put these interviews into a separate site. In this way, your store will be put together with other relevant interviews. It will definitely give you more SEO juice. 🧃

Feel feel to leave your comment below if you have any questions!

* The deadline is 30th April 2020
* The service is completely free as an initiative to support other small businesses under covid-19
* Priority will be given to SPO paid users

Credit: Banner Photo by Gabriel Bassino on Unsplash

Research data for traffic-no-sales: https://airtable.com/shr3ESTjhmfo3rGuS

How is the Coronavirus affecting your Shopify business?

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Since Jan till now, there are more than 100K confirmed cases of Coronavirus all over the world. How many of you have Coronavirus business contingency plans? Feel free to leave a comment below.

In my home town Hong Kong, everyone is wearing a mask as a precautious measure. The business is really hard here. Luckily, there are not many cases here, just 170 (with 7.5 million population) at the moment of writing. Obviously, the global economy is severely impacted by the virus. If you are in Europe / US, I am afraid you’re having a hard time now.

During the downturn, I hope all of you stay safe and keep your faith in the hard time. According to my SARS experience (17 years ago), Ecom will be boosted temporarily since everyone cannot go out. So just think of it as an opportunity. As a tech guy, I work all day in front of a computer. TBH it doesn’t affect me very much. For me, I will take a sabbatical to think about my next move. Probably just listen to podcasts, hack something cool and stay open-mind about new opportunities. As a maker, I hope I can build lifeboats for the people who lose their jobs. Though I don’t have any concrete idea now.

Just remember:

What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger!

SPO v1.9 update – Introducing Bulk Edit Product Link Preview

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Hi SPO users,

Since some users are requesting bulk edit regularly, I’ve been secretly working on this feature for a month. With bulk edit, you can

  1. input your title and description with a template
  2. select the product image to be used as the link preview image

For more details, please refer to a new tab “Bulk Edit” in SPO.

At the moment, this feature is pretty simple. We are trying to roll out to stores with less than 300 products. If the experiment is successful, we may consider supporting stores with more products. As the feature keeps our server occupied for a long time, it will only be reserved for our paid users under the Basic plan. Otherwise, our server will collapse very soon. If you are interested in more options under bulk edit, feel free to submit a feature request. We’ll consider implementing the most popular options in our future releases.

Just leave your comments here or email me. We’d be happy to hear from you!

New

  1. Bulk edit product link preview

Fixed

  1. Cannot accept Chinese for title & description in the store tab
    .
  2. Link previews not updated with custom templates for pages including collection in the name
    .
  3. When there are less than or equal to 10 products, tab view in the dashboard will be broken

 

SPO v1.8 update – Responsiveness Improved

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Hi SPO users,

Happy to see you in the new year! Since my last blog post, I’ve been upgrading SPO to make it more stable and responsive. As usual, here is the summary of the changes:

New

  1. Support Page (in-app and via admin link)
  2. TinyMCE html editor has been upgraded. It can support <script> tag. Other shopify apps may put some codes into your product / page content. Our editor can be compatible now.

Improved 

  1. App responsiveness in the listing page. Faster paging.

Fixed 

  1. Keyword search volume may not be able to display occasionally
  2. Review pop up cannot be disabled
  3. Admin link to edit collections & pages. You can directly “jump” from your product, collection, page & blog post detail page to SPO 

New Planning

Currently, we are planning for new done-for-you service packages or features:

  1. Keyword research and product content optimization
  2. Customized blog posts writing to boost SEO and good for social sharing
  3. bulk edit feature for SPO, probably editing link previews (requested by some users)

Please feel free to leave your comments here or email me. We’d be happy to hear from you!