Google's new way of searching, USPS breaks again, PHP 5.4 appears, series 7 Core
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In this edition:

  1. Google's 'Hummingbird' - a change in direction
  2. USPS moves too fast for some
  3. PHP 5.4 now rolling
  4. Series 7 Core now stable
  5. Latest versions review
  6. Recent work by me

Google's 'Hummingbird' - a change in direction

The advertising giant is continuously adjusting the complex algorithms it uses to drive search, having made at least 500 changes in the last 2-3 years. Most of the changes are small and gradual but it's most recent update, named 'Hummingbird', is considered a major step toward understanding the meaning of a search query. Google has stated that this change will impact 90% of queries.

This has come about due to the dramatic rise in mobile phone and small screen device usage and the different way these devices (including Google Glass) require the user to interact with a search tool, including spoken search queries.

People generally tend not to speak in strings of keywords and include all sorts of context related stuff, idiomatic expressions, assumptions and other complex associations. The aim of the search engine is to provide better results, which requires the tool to have a better understanding of these characteristics of speech. The math must be mind-boggling.

What can a small online etailer take from this?
Mobile is where online retail is heading as people browse / research purchases at their convenience, often during work hours. If you're not using a responsive template on your site (by 'responsive' I mean a website layout that responds to the size of the device's screen), I think now is the time to consider it, if only to make a visit to your site an easier read on the small screen.

Good, popular content will always be of value to readers and consequently Google's search, especially if it is 1) of value 2) includes terms and related synonyms about the topic. Marketing plays a part here, especially with a catchy or thought provoking title.

Seo is an ongoing process, mainly because Google makes a steady number of gradual changes over time to what it rates. For this reason it pays to monitor your site's performance through Webmaster Tools and Analytics, or if you don't have the resource or inclination, budget for a local seo expert to provide reporting and measurable actions that produce a return within a few months. It also pays to keep up with the latest developments, because the devices we use for searching force a change in how we search. The Hummingbird update is a response to this change in search behaviour.

Reference: Bill Slawski's article

USPS - November update

In an unannounced move Friday 8th November, right before a long weekend in the States, USPS decided to change the way it supplied rates information via its servers to the many ecommerce carts around the globe who request realtime USPS quotes.

Technically, the change was minor (something called 'transfer-encoding' was set to 'chunked') but unfortunately for many oscommerce-based carts this caused garbled or no rates being displayed. Much fast work was attempted on the oscommerce forum to diagnose the problem (the technical arm of USPS wasn't revealing what they'd done, probably at the fishing lodge already) and various filter code was applied to the already old USPS modules, with less than 100% success.

However one fork (ZenCart) was unaffected - why? Because the authors of their USPS module had the insight to code in two ways of receiving rate information from the USPS server, rather than relying on the one old way that failed. The first approach was to use curl (which worked fine) - the change made by USPS made no difference to performance. The second old method uses the http_client and it was this that broke.

I've coded a solution based largely on the oscommerce USPS module and merged in the zencart curl call as well. It's available here for free:

PHP 5.4 coming to you soon

Soon your hosting company will be running the latest upgrade to the php server-side language, version 5.4.x.

Some hosts will make this change for you overnight and your cart may break. Others may let you know when they're going to do this and offer a grace period on php 5.3 so you can switch between the two and test for breakages.

cPanel users
Did you know that you can control the php version in operation on the server via cPanel? In the Software/Services box towards the bottom of the main interface, there should be a link called 'Select php version.' Here you can select which version of php you want to run, plus a bunch of our version-specific settings that are best left alone (unless you know the consequences.)
php 5.4.x and magneticone modules
One confirmed module that is used by many oscommerce-based carts owners is powerseos and this will break under php 5.4.x, generating hundreds of lines of error notices and basically show your site as a blank page.
Unfortunately an ioncube-encoded version fully compatible with php 5.4.x has not yet been released by M1. I'd recommend staying on php 5.3.x for this reason until they do write an update that is php 5.4.x compatible or contacting their support directly (you'd need to have support credit to do this) and they'll tinker behind the scenes for you.

Loaded Commerce Series 7

Series 7 Core (the free n basic version) was recently released as a 'stable' product. To a certain extent it achieves this degree of stability because nearly half its add-on functionality is still being written.
For example, several modules that are included in the 6.5.x CE (free) version have their Series 7 equivalents projected for completion mid 2014. See the projected list here: 

A quick review then of what Series 7 Core will bring to the table:

- Mobile responsive template - a must for 2013 - now you can sell stuff from a smaller screen
- Stronger code framework; using vQmod (as per OpenCart) - so it'll be extensible without breaking the core code
- Full online documentation for user, developer and template maker. Work has started on this at a high level. This is really good and a real change from the limited documentation provided by the company for series 6.
- The default template's checkout area is not easy to use, cluttered and needs some UX designer time
- The Admin is full of screen bling and limited functionality in some add-ons than in their 6.5.x counterparts
(eg USPS shipping module has no additional services configurable; basic text editor for products compared to the CK editor in 6.5.x)
- Some poor features that still don't work have been brought across from series 6 (eg Product Notifications)
- Some simple procedures have been made harder due to the Admin menus design, eg setting up Tax Rates, forum discussion here:

I think it's a good start but there's just not enough on the bones to make it an easy to use product yet with good functionality, especially in comparison to a number of other free options, including prestashop and opencart.

Keep watching.

Latest versions of oscommerce-based carts:

Loaded Commerce:  
Series Core (20-Nov-13), 6.5.2 (last); series 6.2-6.5.1  (deprecated)
Oscommerce: (stable), 3.0.2  (in alpha); milestone 2.2 (deprecated)
Zen Cart:
1.5.1 (stable); < 1.5.x (deprecated)
Osc Max:
2.5.3 (stable); < 2.5.x (deprecated)
If you're not using the latest version of your store's cart, you raise the chances of security and functionality issues. Upgrade. If your not running a responsive template, upgrade.

Some recent work completed by me:

Early 6.x upgrades to 6.5.2 (using modified 652 installer)

- checkout modifications including popups, confirmation page redesigns
- out of stock mods
- backup shipping modules ( in the event USPS goes down)
- reworked specials modules
Thanks for taking time to read this.

If you'd like support for your site or a quote on work, contact me.

Copyright © 2013 codemehappy, All rights reserved.

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