While developers and CTOs worldwide perform Oscar-worthy "Red Queen" impersonations, screaming that for e-commerce it’s “off with its head,” it's worth stepping back to review the actual costs of going headless. Here, we’ll discuss headless e-commerce and its associated effects on costs and content.
Headless e-commerce isn’t new. “Going headless” means separating your store’s front end (what you see) from its back end (what you get), and connecting the two with a set of APIs. With the front end (the head) decoupled from the back-end database or CMS, developers can implement (or re-implement) a new experience. If that sounds powerful and potentially painful, you’re right on both accounts.
Performance At What Price?
Faster site performance is driving companies “to go headless” per this survey — unsurprising, considering speed is critical to online success. Google and Deloitte’s joint report found every tenth of a second a site accelerates increases conversion rates by 8.4 percent and average order value by 9.2 percent. Your new headless site should be faster, but it might take longer to get there. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they required outside agency or developer support, with the average cost of the moving coming in at $2.6 million for enterprises. 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.
Going headless requires skilled developers at a cost basis higher than traditional CMS staff. If the goal is performance, consider established options for site acceleration — or reworking your existing site — before starting a multi-month and multi-vendor endeavor.
You’ll Lose Apps Along the Way
Your new “head” is a bespoke storefront with new flexibility and developer options. It also begins by building everything from scratch. The CMS ecosystem has a fully functional “app model,” with decades of niche solutions to help scratch your e-commerce itches. However, many of those applications may not join you in the new world. Before you use the sword, review your critical business applications and ensure a clear path to re-implement or port these over. You don't want a fast store that loses critical functionality!
Content Everywhere, or Nowhere?
In theory, with headless, content moves freely from the web to a watch app to social media, slashing time to market and unburdening design and UX teams. The hidden cost: Your content must be “structured” for the API to be in the driver's seat. What if your content needs resizing? Who decides how the content is structured and what's available via the API? Who governs content? Who will specify content changes and ensure it doesn’t break the content in other products — is this a content or engineering problem? Remember, you’re sharing content now, so this is a shared resource and your changes have an impact.
A common pitfall: believing an API will magically create universal content legos for content creators. That's a beautiful 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 “future-proofing” solution, there are business benefits to headless e-commerce. The performance gains can be material, and the forced structure of an engineer's idea of the creative content process can drive genuine innovations.
However, before you sharpen that blade, look at the implementation’s total cost. By the time your storefront goes fully headless, the development world might be onto the next big thing!
Jake Loveless runs Edgemesh, the global web acceleration company he co-founded with two partners in 2016. Edgemesh helps e-commerce companies across multiple industries and platforms (including headless) deliver 20 percent to 50 percent faster page loads to billions of users around the globe.
Jake Loveless has had a twenty-year career in making things go faster—from low latency trading for Wall Street to large-scale web platforms for the Department of Defense. He is a two-time winner of High-performance Computing awards and a frequent contributor to the Association of Computing Machinery. Today, Mr. Loveless runs Edgemesh, the global web acceleration company he co-founded with two partners in 2016. Edgemesh helps eCommerce companies across multiple industries and platforms (including headless) deliver 20-50% faster page loads to billions of users around the globe.