The world of ecommerce is exciting - everyone who works in the space is always striving to improve the customer experience and develop the next step forward for merchants to deliver that. One of those developments you may have heard of is headless commerce.
Today we’re going to dive into headless commerce, looking at what it does for merchants, how it relates to Shopify, and how it affects SEO.
What is headless commerce?
In short, headless commerce is a CMS (Content Management System) solution that decouples the front and back end of your store. Unless you’re familiar with all those terms it can be a confusing concept to understand, so let’s break down the jargon.
Ecommerce stores consist of a presentation layer that customers engage with called the front end, and an operational systems layer called the back end which is where your code, apps, and other business content is stored. Ordinarily, these are handled by a monolithic platform, i.e. the same platform and system, for example Shopify. Both the front end and back end are managed in the same place, which is often more convenient and straightforward. On the other hand, Headless CMS separates the customer facing, presentation side of your store - the front end - from the business side - the back end. The two ends communicate with one another using API calls; these are a set of functionalities that process and output data to allow applications to communicate with each other. In other words, your back end systems would still be run by Shopify, but your front end would be handled separately.
To illustrate with a quick example of how these API calls work, a customer browses and checks out an order on the front end which sends an API call to the back end to process. The back end sends a call back to the front end to communicate to the customer that their order has been successfully processed. They’re independent of each other, but work together to create a complete experience.
Why is headless becoming popular in ecommerce?
There are a number of reasons why merchants are looking to headless as a new solution for delivering their customer experience. Primarily performance, security, user experience, and content delivery. Headless offers ecommerce merchants a huge amount of flexibility that they can’t achieve on monolithic platforms. It allows merchants to deliver content in a wider variety of ways beyond simply desktops and smartphones; because the front end is handled separately to the back end, they can deliver experiences on smartwatches, voice shopping, and even vending machines. You can develop a highly customized experience across multiple different touchpoints in your customer’s life, in a way that’s focussed on performance and experience. The resulting experiences focus entirely on the customer, rather than trying to create an experience that works within the limitations of the platform.
Headless and Shopify
Headless commerce is something that Shopify very much sees a future in for merchants, as they’re currently working on a way to have a headless experience managed within Shopify itself. At Unite earlier this year, they announced Hydrogen - a framework that allows developers to build custom storefronts using the Storefront API. They’re also working on Oxygen, their future hosting platform to host these custom storefronts on Shopify. Moreover they’re making major improvements to their global infrastructure in order to deliver custom storefronts within 50ms of every buyer anywhere in the world using over 100 global servers to directly serve the requests for custom storefronts. This will result in seriously fast load times globally, and demonstrates the commitment Shopify has to facilitating headless commerce for its merchants.
And if you’re a Shopify Plus merchant, headless is already something that Shopify Plus fully supports by allowing you to plug in the tools you need such as ERP, CRM etc., and bring your own tech stack.
Is headless good or bad for SEO?
Now let’s talk about Search Engine Optimization and headless commerce. Is it going to negatively impact your SEO if you choose to pursue headless commerce? The answer isn't quite "yes" or "no".
There are a number of ways in which headless can be of benefit to your store’s SEO. The first is through how headless commerce results in lightning fast stores that can outperform most monolithic ecommerce platforms. Google and other search engines prioritize speed and efficiency in user experiences, and headless delivers that.
Second, Shopify’s URL structure while sound for site architecture can be at times inflexible. By separating that customer facing end of your store, you can gain full control over your URL structure, customizing them and making them suit your SEO strategy. It requires more manual work, however it can benefit your SEO in the long run.
The only true downsides you’ll encounter in developing a headless CMS is in lack of planning, training, and strategy. This should not be done after your headless site is ready to go, you should be planning this well in advance of finalizing the decision to move to headless. Look into if your legacy systems, apps, and integrations will work with your new headless set-up, and what your team will need to do manually.
In general if you plan ahead and follow SEO best practices as you build your headless experience, you’ll mitigate the impact it will have. These include:
- High quality content
- SERP friendly URLs
- Smart internal linking
- Structured data
- Optimized metadata
Whilst some tasks such as metadata will become a bit more hands-on, it can give your team a deeper understanding of the importance of these tasks and how they’ll work and function within your new structure. Moreover, the benefits of headless to your store’s experience and performance may outweigh the cons if your future business plans need that extreme flexibility in customization.
The world of ecommerce is becoming more and more competitive, and for many customers it will come down to experience. Headless commerce is a way for merchants to deliver highly personalized, customizable experiences that put customers in the spotlight and can be a major boost to business. With proper planning and consideration, your Shopify store’s SEO strategy can benefit from this new set-up, and continue to bring more customers to your new, improved experience.