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What is a headless website? A definition and examples
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With digital experiences, change is a fact of life. This is certainly the case with headless websites, which have been usurping the old, headed guard of the traditional CMS to bring customers improved experiences with digital content. 

Headed website architectural frameworks no longer meet the needs of modern ecommerce sites. Their “everything-in-one-place” setup now seems rigid for the workflows of content creators and developers looking for easy content delivery, as well as for consumers looking for an engaging user experience at their favorite ecommerce store. In this highly interconnected world, flexibility is the key to businesses’ attracting consumers and keeping them interested. This need has led to headless architecture taking center stage and granting the freedom, speed, and autonomy the digital-sphere user interface requires.

Headless websites may sound like an unnerving proposition that could threaten to unravel your sanity, but there’s really nothing to fear. Whatever ghoulish images strike your imagination, headless sites are solidly driving the future of successful ecommerce.  

What does it mean to go “headless”? 

Before looking at headless websites, let’s consider the headless architecture. In the simplest terms, headless means “decoupling” the front end and back end, implementing a best-in-class API architecture. You’re separating where the content is stored — the content repository — from the presentation layer on which it’s displayed.

Output can be distributed to multiple heads, for instance, web pages, store displays, and mobile apps. This enables you to better focus on providing an excellent customer experience, regardless of the method people use to connect with your offerings.

So headless websites are those that take advantage of a decoupled CMS. By storing your content on a headless content management system and sending it to various front-end technology endpoints, which could be anywhere, you have much more flexibility on how that content is presented. 

Despite its name, the point of going headless isn’t that you don’t need a head (output), it’s that you get to pick the number of heads to which you want to send content. You’re not really severing functionality, you’re gaining content dissemination options. And in today’s global marketplace, in this realm, more heads are proving to be significantly better than one.

Don’t be afraid to lose your head  

You’ve probably been on headless websites and not even realized it. It’s not a scary proposition to drop the monolithic “headed” architecture from your site, especially because you then gain a range of benefits that will be monumental for your online store teams and customers. Going headless expands how teams can market your brand and how consumers interact with it.

Here are some benefits you could achieve by taking your website headless:

Greater freedom for your developers

Headless web development frees front-end developers from the conventions and structures of the back end. With full control over the user experience, your development team can craft something totally unique that facilitates better interaction.

Higher website speed

You’ll find that a headless website performs faster than a standard CMS website. The quicker load time is in large part due to the way content is taken from the CMS, cached, and displayed in a headless app.

Being able to utilize more channels for sharing content

By not being tied to a single output mode such as an ecommerce platform website, and being able to take full advantage of a headless front end, you can effectively find and interact with your audience across multiple channels. You can use a headless CMS to manage content for both apps and websites, getting content from various origination points to quickly and professionally appear together on one page.

Speeded-up content editing

Content editing and rendering with a headed architecture takes a lot of resources due to its centralized makeup. Going headless means editing and rendering are left to more-specialized parts of the tech stack, so they’re not draining the resources from your CMS. 

Headless ecommerce website examples 

New ways to attract and engage consumers are always going to catch on fast, and this has proven true when it comes to choosing to go headless. Many corporate giants across a variety of sectors have seen their site performance substantially improve after deciding to abandon traditional commerce and lose their heads.

Here are a few success stories:

Nike 

The shoe retailer was looking to implement a mobile-first approach in order to improve its sales to mobile consumers. Wanting to optimize user experiences across all pages, they implemented React SPA (single-page application) combined with Node.js backend for frontend (BFF). SPAs display content in an easy, elegant way and load all content on a single page, increasing speed due to the lack of other navigating pages. Working alongside the Node.js BFF offers seamless user interaction regardless of the platform on which the front-end application is running. This change ensured that Nike was able to overtake key competitors in market share.

Target  

Noticing that 80% of Target customers started and finished the buying journey in different channels (e.g., shopping on the website, then buying in the store), the retail chain’s management realized that major change was needed. They saw this as an opportunity for growth and to connect its various channels. To fulfill its omnichannel market needs, Target utilized the headless approach to unify the customer experience across touchpoints ranging from product pages on its site to curbside pick-up functionality.

Pure Formulas 

This online health and supplement brand was plagued by high cart abandonment and low conversion rates. In the process of fixing that, the company became the first in its industry to adopt a headless commerce solution. They implemented a progressive web app (PWA; essentially a website with an app-like experience and all the benefits of an app), which led to significant improvement in its website performance, speed, and responsiveness. This change allowed Pure Formulas to focus on speed and reliability for its ecommerce solution. The company successfully reduced user abandonment, enhanced the user experience, and improved customer retention.  

United Airlines 

Even one of the largest airlines decided that it needed to lose its head in order to move ahead. Looking to improve the flight-booking experience for passengers (one of the key pillars for success in this industry), the company implemented a React progressive web app. This produced an improved user flow from the moment of a traveler first landing on the page all the way through the booking step. 

Kirkland 

Speed is essential to creating an engaging user experience, and this popular décor brand’s site slowness was cause for concern. A jumpstart was needed to give customers the excellent web experience a big-name retailer should provide. Switching to a decoupled architecture solved the slow page-load problem, turning Kirkland into one of the fastest retail websites. Not only that, the new headless commerce platform is home to experimental features including one-click login and thumbprint checkout. 

When is headless not truly headless? 

Some companies claim to have put headless architecture in place, but they’ve neglected one important detail: they haven’t fully decoupled the front and back end. In other words, the head is still sloppily hanging by a thread.

How can you tell when this is the case? Here’s how to spot a fake headless website.

Get ahead by going headless

Monolithic architectures are a thing of the past; headless is here to stay. That’s why Algolia was designed to be completely headless and facilitate great user experiences.

Fully flexible and adaptable, our platform can handle any device and use case that you need to upgrade. It was built with a clear distinction between the front and back ends, and it can support JS, React, Angular, Vue, Android, iOS, Kotlin, and more.

Learn more about the potential rewards of taking your website headless. We’re here to provide expert help bringing your ecommerce business or other type of site into the modern era.

About the author
Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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