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08/23/2021

How moving headless might leave you with a headache

Jake Loveless
CEO and founder, Edgemesh
Jake Loveless profile picture

Headless e-commerce - if you haven’t heard about it yet, you probably have your head in the sand or more likely haven’t been sitting inside your local developer hotspots (aka coffee shops). 

Headless e-commerce is all the rage. The concept is pretty simple; “moving headless” just means separating your front-end website (the head) from your back-end platform (the body). But before you break out the technical scalpel, let's take a quick look at what headless e-commerce means, and the costs and potential complexity it can bring.

The high cost of high performance
In a recent survey, the number one reason companies were evaluating headless projects was performance. That’s not surprising, as speed is critical to online success. Google and Deloitte’s joint report found every tenth of a second a site gets faster, delivering an online revenue increase of nearly 10%. Faster site performance has clear economic value, but how long and at what cost will the new headless site require to build? In the same survey, more than half (62%) of respondents said they need outside support to implement a headless solution. And the cost? On average, organizations surveyed spent $2.6 million just on the implementation of a headless solution. 

And that's just the transition cost, not the maintenance cost. Note, you’ll now have two infrastructures—twice the vendors, twice the development effort, and twice the finger-pointing potential. That’s a lot of cheddar to make the site better.

Moving headless also carries a higher staffing cost, as headless platforms require skilled developers at a cost basis higher than traditional content management system (CMS) staff. Many CMS-based customers can update and manage their websites for years without needing technical guidance. With headless, there’s no more drag and drop, changes will need engineering support. That's real money, spent on a full-stack developer, which is a different price point from, say, a WordPress developer. 

Starting over to get to the same place
The first step of every headless transition is to rebuild your existing website on this new fast platform. Although having a functional blueprint of what you should build (your current website is now a blueprint), the fact is every software deployment will begin with developers starting from a blank piece of paper. 

If the goal is performance, consider established options for site acceleration—or reworking your existing site—before starting a multi-month, multi-vendor, and potentially multi-million-dollar endeavor. Server-side solutions, such as new edge-hosted copies of your website, might be able to deliver a material bump in speed without dinging your budget quite so much. Client-side solutions, which make your storefront run faster by making the browser smarter, can provide even lower cost and pain-free performance boosts in just a few minutes.

Content Complexity 
In theory, headless e-commerce allows for content to be reused and repurposed on the fly, programmatically. In a perfect world, content is automatically deployed to the web, to smart devices and to social media with the click of a button.

The hidden cost: In order for the API to be in the driver's seat, the content must be “structured.” Structuring content sounds like a wonderful idea (and as engineers, we think it is!), but your creative team might find their new robotic copyeditor to be a complex boss to wrestle with. 

As content creation starts to move closer to the developer realm, real questions can arise on who’s in charge and what rules are flexible. Who decides how the content is structured and what's available via the API? Who governs content? What do you do if your content needs resizing? Who will specify content changes and ensure it doesn’t break the content in other products—is this a content or engineering problem? 

You can’t always get what you want
Any way you slice it, your new headless website is a custom-built application. That means it's up to your development team to build everything from scratch. Unlike content management systems which have thousands of niche applications that help satisfy your e-commerce needs, in the headless world you might find yourself alone without an “app for that”. App developers for platforms like WordPress, Shopify, and Magento are still in the process of developing versions of their solutions that can work outside the CMS bedrock they built upon. 

This is especially true of applications that integrate with inventory systems (automated layout), shipping calculators, and custom checkout solutions. Before you take out the sword to separate the head from the body, it’s worth the time to review your critical app partners and ensure a clear path to re-implement or port these over. A fast store that doesn’t work is just a fast path to failure!

A common mistake is believing an API will magically create universal content legos for content creators. That's a wonderful dream of engineering efficiency that can quickly become a creative nightmare. Before you separate head from body, define these boundaries—and do a trial run with your existing content. 

As with every new technology, headless e-commerce can offer some real business benefits. The performance gains can be material, especially for customers who haven’t yet implemented modern client-side solutions. As an alternative, you may be able to achieve headless level performance with just a fraction of the time and money required to undertake a complete platform rebuild. 

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