A Comprehensive Guide to Headless Shopify: Everything You Need to Know

Headless Shopify Guide

One of the top five leading eCommerce platforms, Shopify had a market share of 3.69% as of April 2021. It is one of those platforms that have consistently rolled out new features. That’s what made Shopify so popular in the first place.

But the eCommerce universe has become more dynamic than ever. Customers are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, the cost of customer acquisition is rising, and building personalized shopping experiences is becoming necessary.

Although your Shopify store can handle most of these things, it’s not enough if your brand is scaling fast. The native Shopify features may fall short of helping you expand your reach, increase your conversions, and keep reeling in new digital touchpoints. That’s where headless commerce (or headless Shopify) comes in.

In this Headless Shopify Guide, you will learn:

A. What is Headless Shopify?

This is a headless commerce setup where the back-end (Shopify plus) is separate from the front-end (the presentation layer). An API forms the connecting link between the two. However, in a traditional Shopify platform, both the front and backend are tied together.

In headless Shopify, you can choose a technology or framework you like to build the front-end from scratch. The back-end is usually Shopify. So, you get the agility, security, and user-friendliness of Shopify Plus and the creative freedom that goes well beyond Shopify development.

The question is, why bother separating the front- and back-end?

  • For starters, it offers you the freedom to create highly personalized digital experiences, a necessity for building brand loyalty.
  • Secondly, you have no limitations in regards to programming languages, technologies, or content channels.
  • Whether it’s a smartwatch or a TV screen, you can reach your target audience just as easily and quickly.

That’s the kind of freedom eCommerce stores want in an increasingly diverse digital universe.

B. How Does Headless Shopify Work?

As said earlier, headless Shopify consists of two independent fractions, the front-end, and the back-end. And the glue holding these two parts (head and body) together is the API, or application program interface. It essentially exchanges the information between the presentation layer (front-end) and the database or the back-end.

You can use any of the following systems to build your back-end, which houses and manages the content that you want to share with your customers.

  • Content Management System (CMS)
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
  • Digital Experience Platform (DXP)
  • Progressive Web App (PWA)

The good news is that Shopify is built with headless commerce capabilities in mind. So, transforming Shopify-powered websites into more agile headless commerce stores can be seamless.

C. Understanding Shopify as a Headless Structure

While headless commerce sounds like a pretty sweet deal, it’s not all roses. So, before you jump the gun, you have to understand the headless Shopify structure inside out. Here are a few things you need to consider before moving to headless Shopify.

1. Theme and Rich Text Editor

We all know how the Shopify theme editor made our life easy. Theme customization felt like a breeze. Unfortunately, this nifty feature will be missing in the headless commerce environment.

Likewise, the rich text editor is also an integral part of the Shopify platform. But, this too will be missing when you move to headless commerce. That means formatting and styling the text would be ancient history. Think product descriptions, blogs, CTAs, etc.

You have to keep this in mind, especially if your online store can’t do away with these two features.

2. Native Functionalities

Like the theme and rich text editor, you will lose several other native functionalities when going headless. For example, you will lose Shopify analytics and Shopify scripts. Instead, you will have to rely on third-party tools like Google Analytics. It can affect your productivity if you rely heavily on Shopify analytics.

Similarly, you will not be able to replicate your previous storefront using a particular Shopify app. You can get the relevant functionality with the help of an API. However, that may not always be possible.

3. Shopify App Store

No one can imagine the Shopify platform without its app store. With so many apps and plugins to choose from, your Shopify development becomes a lot smoother and faster. Unfortunately, you can’t use apps and plugins to add new features to your front-end after going headless.

You may be able to use some of the plugins and apps with additional integrations. But if you can’t, be prepared to say goodbye to more than one app/plugin. The only silver lining is that you can continue using apps/plugins that operate in the back-end. Remember, your back-end is still Shopify Plus.

4. Customer Accounts

Another critical point you need to understand is the loss of customer accounts. Shopify’s customer accounts will not be available in headless commerce. And without an account, your customers can checkout only as guest customers.

However, you can create a custom solution with the help of Shopify Admin API. Here, your customers would be able to add their details manually. You can use cookies to save consumer details if necessary.

D. How to Go Headless with Shopify? (Set-Up)

Once you decide to go headless, you will need to plan the entire process first. Usually, going headless with Shopify-powered websites involves the following steps.

1. Select the Right Technology for Your Shopify Front-end

The first step in going headless with Shopify involves choosing the right front-end technology. Most Shopify development agencies rely on the following four options to build a robust, scalable, and intuitive Shopify storefront.

a) Hydrogen & Oxygen

Shopify announced the launch of Hydrogen and Oxygen at Unite 2021. Hydrogen is a developer toolkit with a few react components that allow you to build front-end solutions with unique styling and design features.

On the other hand, Oxygen lets you host Hydrogen storefronts directly on the Shopify servers. You can enjoy faster load times and don’t have to worry about dev ops.

The only drawback of this duo is that it is still new. You will find very few real-life use cases. So, you are likely to be on your own when using this storefront solution.

b) Frameworks

You can also use a front-end web development framework like Next.js​​ or Vue Storefront to build your Shopify front-end. There are many other frameworks you can use. You can host them on Shopify’s Storefront Cloud service.

However, building a front-end from the ground up using a framework is time-consuming, even for the most seasoned developers. It often requires custom integrations, custom and tested implementation for shopping cart management, and rebuilding functionalities from scratch.

c) Front-End as a Service

Another relatively easy and fast way to build your Shopify front-end is to use a front-end as a service. The most well-known are Shogun Front End and Builder.io. They are nothing but PWA-builders with pre-built connectors.

d) Front-End Middleware

The fourth option is to use API-first commerce middleware such as Nacelle. Middleware like this usually consolidates e-commerce platforms, CMSs, and microservices into a single API. This is the bridge connecting your Shopify front-end and back-end.

2. Understand the Shopify Storefront API

All front-end development options discussed in the previous point use Shopify Storefront API. In other words, you will have to familiarize yourself with Shopify Storefront API before moving to the next step.

Shopify Storefront API is available with GraphQL. So, understanding GraphQL is a must if you want to leverage the potential of Storefront API. You can check the GraphQL guide for more information.

3. Create an Access Token

Next, you will need to generate the access token. Here’s what you will have to do.

  • Log in to your Shopify admin
  • Go to the Apps section and click the Manage Private Apps button.
  • Now, click Create New Private App option.
  • Add an app name and email.
  • Go to the Storefront API section and select the checkbox for Allow this app to access your storefront data using the Storefront API.
  • Next, select the data types you want to expose to your app.
  • Click Save.

After saving, you can see the generated storefront access token at the bottom of the Storefront API page.

4. Build Your Front-End (Shopify Storefront)

After creating the access token, you can start building and/or customizing your Shopify storefront. But first, you should take a look at custom storefront example applications for Shopify front-end development. If you are building a React-based front-end application, make sure to go through the react-js-buy repository.

  • When building a React.js application, you will need to install the JavaScript Buy SDK using NPM or Yarn.
  • After installing the SDK, import the Client object into your application code.
  • Initialize the Client and start making requests to the Storefront API.

Make sure to check the JavaScript Buy SDK docs and Shopify’s official API documentation first. It’ll help you understand what data is available.

E. Top Headless Commerce Powered by Shopify

Many Shopify-powered websites have taken the headless plunge to help scale their brand. Here are five eCommerce stores/websites that have mastered their headless approach, that too, with style and sophistication.

1. Kotn

When this sustainable clothing and homeware brand Kotn needed a fast-loading online store, they turned to headless Shopify. And they never looked back since. The website boasts an exceptionally intuitive front-end with features like quick add.

2. Allbirds

Another sustainable clothing, accessories, and footwear brand, Allbirds has an extensive catalog of varied products. Going headless with Shopify makes it easier to manage the catalog without compromising speed, style, and user experience.

3. Yoga Girl

When you are a lifestyle brand, updating content is your priority. It’s no surprise that an up-and-coming brand like Yoga Girl chose to go headless with Shopify. You can do everything from updating blog posts to managing your account at a lightning-fast speed.

4. Plenaire

A skincare brand, Plenaire has managed to leverage headless commerce to the tee. The website is fast and has made use of dynamic pages wisely. Overall, it provides you with an impressive user experience.

5. Verishop

Verishop is one of those typical eCommerce stores that sell everything from cosmetics to health products. They have used headless Shopify for features like creating customizable URL structures, in-depth SEO, fast page loading speed, and highly personalized user experiences.

F. Benefits of Headless Shopify

Headless Shopify offers features that are hard to explore when your online store relies only on Shopify Plus. That’s why you need to understand where and how going headless with Shopify can help your business. Let’s take a deep dive into some of the remarkable benefits it has to offer.

1. Better Flexibility

Here, we are talking about flexibility for developers. When it comes to traditional CMS, you will need to rely on Shopify developers. Of course, it saves time and money as the skillset is limited and well defined. But it also prevents you from leveraging other emerging and popular eCommerce technologies.

With headless Shopify, you can use any technology. It can be the hydrogen framework or any other front-end as a service option. This makes your Shopify development more flexible than ever. The end result is that you can build highly-tailored user experiences, designs, architectures, and lightweight storefronts.

In short, your online store becomes future-proof.

2. Customizable URLs

We all know that Shopify offers only four predefined URL types. So, creating a customized URL for a product page is simply out of the question. But you have this freedom if you build your architecture using headless Shopify.

It opens up a plethora of opportunities for stores with a multi-brand marketplace. That’s why stores like Verishop chose headless commerce in the first place. You can customize your URLs to include a complete product description.

Plus, if you are importing your store to Shopify from other eCommerce platforms, you can keep the original URL structure intact. It allows you to dodge the risk of SEO migration. That’s a relief for eCommerce stores with varied products, marketplaces, and target audiences.

3. Enhanced Security

In headless Shopify, the front-end operates independently of the back-end. With only the API connecting the two, there is little surface area left for attacks like DDoS. This increases your online store security by a mile.

With DDoS attacks becoming more creative and exploitive, you have to find every possible way to stop such attacks in their tracks. Going headless is essentially the right step in this direction.

4. Excellent Control Over User Experience

Complete control over user experience is one of the most coveted benefits of headless Shopify. It’s like building your own car from scratch. So, you have the freedom to choose everything, from the engine to the dashboard upholstery.

In other words, you can effortlessly design a unique and responsive customer experience and help your brand stand out from the crowd. You can break away from the shackles of Shopify’s design and architecture limitations.

And you can redesign, scale, and/or add new user experiences as and when needed. It’s the kind of autonomy most eCommerce stores with a multi-brand marketplace crave.

5. Higher Scalability

Headless Shopify architecture lets you add new stores to your eCommerce universe seamlessly. For example, you can add country or region-specific stores to your centralized hub. With a flexible and highly customizable Shopify storefront, you can readily change:

  • Prices
  • Product descriptions
  • Language
  • Layouts
  • CTAs

This allows you to scale your online store at lightning speed. Naturally, brands that need quick scaling are now turning to headless commerce as a reliable solution.

6. Increased Speed

Page loading speed is now one of the most critical Core Web Vitals. Building an online store with exceptional loading speed is still a daunting task for many. It also requires a lot of coding, which brands are seldom willing to put in. However, it is a necessary evil. Higher loading speed, especially on mobile devices, can improve your sales conversions.

Fortunately, headless Shopify makes things easier for developers and store owners alike. Take the Oxygen server and Hydrogen framework, for example. Although still in its infancy, features like these are already helping store owners increase page loading speed significantly.

7. Progressive Web Applications (PWAs)

Progressive Web Applications (PWAs) are another benefit of headless Shopify. PWAs provide native app-like features directly through your website. No need to download your online store app. And headless Shopify makes it a breeze to use PWAs.

A PWA works offline for the most part. Of course, it requires an initial load using service workers. You can add it as an app icon on your smartphone home screen.

It also comes with a push notification feature, which is instrumental in digital marketing. But most importantly, PWA is very fast as most of the content is pre-loaded. This can help generate more sales conversions.

8. Reduced Time to Market

Finally, one of the most critical benefits of headless Shopify is reduced time to market. With an API-driven Shopify front-end, your marketers can:

  • Create marketing campaigns faster
  • Get creative with site layout and product placement
  • Work without worrying about the impact on the back-end
  • Have precise control over your brand look and feel

This helps you craft campaigns quickly and with higher efficiency. That’s marketing 101 in today’s age.

G. Drawbacks of Headless Shopify

Just like unique benefits, headless Shopify also comes with a few drawbacks. You must understand these drawbacks as thoroughly as the benefits. Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

1. Loss of Support for Apps/Services

When you move to headless commerce, the plug-and-play feature of the Shopify store stops working. Most of your apps will also stop working. You will require custom integrations to make those apps/services work in a headless environment. Plus, the apps/services will need APIs so that your back-end can recognize them. It may require you to create some custom code.

2. Increased Complexity

Adding a new front-end experience means adding complexity to your headless commerce system. The more features, services, and experiences you add, the more complex your eCommerce environment gets.

It may give rise to app-related integration problems, maintenance issues, and the need for constant bug fixing. All in all, this means you will have to spend more money on a diverse set of experienced developers.

With all this extra Shopify development and the need for other technologies, your infrastructure costs will also go through the roof. And these costs will keep going up as you add new features/services to your online store.

3. Finding an Implementation Partner

Speaking of technical expertise, you will need to find a Shopify development agency capable of handling a headless project. If you don’t, you will spend most of your time tending to your online store, fixing bugs, and such. You would rather spend this time running marketing campaigns and reeling in more customers.

However, finding a suitable implementation partner is a tough nut to crack. It could take a while to find someone who is just a perfect fit for your brand. The question is, do you have time to wait until you find someone reliable?

4. No WYSIWYG editor

We are pretty sure that the non-technical members of your team love the WYSIWYG editor. It’s not available with headless Shopify. So, you have to say goodbye to seamless editing, versioning, and previewing. Although some front-end systems like Shogun Front End and Builder.io offer this feature, it’s not the same.

5. No New Shopify Features

The Shopify platform is well known for rolling out new features, whether multicurrency or built-in analytics. However, when you go headless, these will not be available. You can custom-build such functionalities into your front-end. But that’ll take a lot more money and effort.

H. Is SEO Different for Headless Shopify?

When it comes to headless commerce, SEO isn’t a different ball game altogether. But you do need to consider a few things to get the most out of your website. Here’s is a short Shopify SEO checklist to get you started.

1. Content & Readability

As you may already know, your Shopify storefront will use some form of JavaScript. But Google still struggles to read some frameworks. You have to make sure that Google understands your framework.

  • You can use tests like fetch as Google, site search, and content text search to check if Google has indexed your JavaScript.
  • Make sure to run a complimentary server-side JavaScript depending on your front-end.
  • Readability depends on how the content gets displayed. As this is a front-end-specific issue, you have to run separate tests for each front-end and make SEO changes accordingly.

2. Dynamic Serving

Headless Shopify relies on dynamic serving to speed up your website and improve user experience. But Google may perceive this as a dodgy SEO move unless specified otherwise. You will need to use an HTTP-vary code, telling Google you are using dynamic serving to improve speed, not doing something shady.

3. Hashed URLs

JavaScript also brings the challenge of hashed URLs. These URLs highlight browser-side filtering. In other words, Google can’t read anything past the hashtag. That’s why you will have to make sure your SEO pages are not behind the hashtag.

4. Maintain URLs

This is an important consideration if you are moving from a different CMS to a headless Shopify. Usually, eCommerce stores with a multi-brand marketplace face this issue. Instead of changing your original URLs, you should use them as it is for all your categories, listings, and products.

5. API Calls

Headless Shopify is API-driven. This means there will be dynamic API calls, which will impact your URLs, affecting your SEO. If you want your page to rank, it’s better to use static URLs. You can also make use of SEO best practices like no-follow, robots.txt, and canonicals.

6. Get Your SEO Basics Sorted

Traditional Shopify CMS comes with plenty of built-in SEO features. But when going headless, you have to include these features manually. You would likely forget to add an SEO element when building your front-end from scratch. To avoid this problem, make a list of SEO basics and double-check everything.

I. Is Going Headless with Shopify Expensive?

In the end, it all boils down to one question.

Is headless Shopify more expensive?

The short answer is yes.

However, you have to put it into perspective. Headless Shopify also tends to bring in more money. It solves many problems that a traditional CMS can’t. That’s how it can help your brand stand out, attract more customers, and make more money.

Headless Shopify:

  • Speeds up your website, improving user experience
  • Improves your search engine visibility as it loads faster
  • Makes it easier to build unique and beautiful user interfaces
  • Improves online store security
  • Brings PWA functionality to your eCommerce universe

All these benefits of headless Shopify translate into better higher sales conversions and more revenue. Many brands have successfully leveraged headless Shopify to rip these benefits. After going headless, Ballsy increased its conversion rate by 28%.

On the other hand, BonLook saw an 18% increase in its average order value after going headless. As you can see, the high cost of headless Shopify is justifiable in the long run because it also brings in more revenue and profit.

J. When Should You Go with Headless Shopify?

Although headless Shopify can increase your revenue and profits, it may not always be the right potion. If your online store needs the following, you would want to switch to headless commerce.

1. Unique Branded Experience

If you want to build a unique brand experience for your customers, going headless would be the right move to make. Shopify Plus, although brilliant, offers limited features when it comes to customization.

However, headless commerce allows you to craft user experiences tailored to your business needs from scratch. That helps your online store stand out from the rest.

2. Better Customer Experience

There is a direct correlation between customization and better customer experience. If your online store offers features, speed, and a shopping experience that no other store can, it will certainly translate into a better consumer experience.

3. Higher Conversion Rates

Naturally, fast page loading and personalization lead to higher conversion rates. As mentioned in the previous point, many brands have witnessed a substantial increase in their conversion rate, order value, and other metrics after going headless.

4. High Performance

Shopify Plus works well on mobile and other small devices. But you can enjoy considerably better page loading speed if you go headless. Moreover, headless Shopify also improves your data security and reduces the risk of unplanned downtime. If this is what you are looking for, headless eCommerce is the way.

K. Future Outlook of Headless Shopify

Headless commerce is not a trend, it is the future of eCommerce. With consumers using more than one device to access the web, multichannel has become the new norm. At the same time, consumers are looking for highly personalized digital touchpoints. That’s why the headless Shopify revolution is likely never to slow down in the coming years.

Thanks to its content-first structure, headless commerce is helping brands provide memorable omnichannel customer experiences. All said and done, going headless is the best way to make your business futureproof.

Conclusion

Headless Shopify has gained a lot of traction in recent years. This new revolutionary form of CMS is making head turns with its exceptional speed, high performance, and better security features. However, many people still have no idea what headless Shopify is, how it works, or should they go for it. This guide will help answer all your questions regarding headless Shopify.

To enjoy a quick read, check out this short and interesting web story we have created on Headless Shopify.

If you want to go headless with Shopify, contact us. Our experts can help you find the right headless Shopify approach.

  • Prapti has been designing, developing websites professionally, and managing web development projects all the way from conceptualization to workable solutions for over six years. She specializes in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, WordPress, and Shopify web development.