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Episode 58 - Shopify Unite 2021

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Hey, Scott Austin here.

In this episode, I'm going to cover the announcements in Shopify's recent Unite presentation including my impressions. And I'll also give you my recommendation on what actions you should take.

To get started, what is Unite? Unite is Shopify's annual conference meant for agencies, developers and other partners. Many big-tech companies, like Apple and Google, do the same thing. It's when the company announces its upcoming changes. These are typically all rolled up into one conference or meeting instead of being released throughout the year. This bundling of announcements allows the company to get more attention from partners and press. Previous to Covid, Unite was an actual conference that attendees travelled to. But in 2020 and 2021, it was a streamed event. This year's online event was very professionally done and highly scripted. Overall the production quality was very high and continues to make me think that Shopify takes product development very seriously.

Now before I dig into this year's announcements, I want to give store owners my advice on how to respond to these upcoming changes. And quite simply, I recommend that store owners do not change their plans for 2021. You see, some of the big changes will be rolling out in August. And August is when most stores should start implementing their plans for holiday. Those plans will be much easier to implement if you rely on your knowledge and experience of the existing Shopify platform and ecosystem. Trying to factor in new technologies that no-one has experience with yet, will only increase complexity and risk. So my advice is for you to stick with what you know and are comfortable with for holiday 2021.

So let's move onto the announcements. My target listener for this podcast is store owners and staff. That said, all are welcome. With this focus on store owners, I'm going to share with you the announcements that are important to you. I won't cover announcements for the very technical app developers on things like what development framework is recommended for headless server projects. Let's just stick with what is useful for store owners and staff. I've got 5 items.

1. Online Store 2.0 (aka Sections Anywhere)

The biggest announcement in my opinion is that Sections Anywhere is finally coming. Shopify announced this feature over 2 years ago and we've all been patiently waiting for it. It now has a new name - Online Store 2.0. 2.0 will be a different way for themes and apps to interact. So it seems that today's apps and themes will not interoperate 2.0 apps and themes. But the details on that were unclear. Here's what I like about 2.0 and why the feature was previously called 'Sections Anywhere.' You are probably used to how easy it is to add and remove sections on the homepage. And change the placement of them on the page. In 2.0, almost all content on any page type - so collections, products, blogs and pages - will have the same ease of add and removing sections. So you'll be able to design the layout of any page as easily as the homepage by bringing in different types of content. This will be useful in many scenarios especially landing pages. And I'm a big fan of content-heavy product pages. I've got a suite of tools that I've built and commonly use in my client's stores to present content in tabs or in accordions and have layouts like product seals. In 2.0, that won't have to be custom code. That could be sections provided by the theme or sections provided by an app. And with 2.0, apps providing sections won't have to insert the code into your theme to expose the section. All sections from added apps with be available in Customize Theme in the Shopify Admin. That means that apps won't be adding as much code to themes which doesn't get removed if and when the app is removed from the store. So managing the theme code will be a bit easier.

In 2017, Shopify released sections to the homepage and is was significant improvement of the design possibilities of the homepage and how easy it was to maintain the content. 2.0 is going to bring that to the whole store. I expect that in 2022 and beyond, almost every new store build and redesign will involve a 2.0 theme and apps.

2. Extend Shopify Checkout with Apps

Today, in a Shopify store, we have very little control over the checkout experience. Shopify Plus stores get a little control, but even that is limited.

Well, that is changing as Shopify will now be allowing apps in the checkout and post-checkout experience. So you'll be able to add apps to your store that enhance your checkout experience. A couple examples of how this could be used include:

  • A cross-sell app that makes recommendations after the customer has checked out. That way it won't affect conversion.
  • A store could continue to build and establish trust in the cart in similar ways as it does in the store with badges, mission statements, counters, etc.
  • Inventory information on products could continue to be exposed in the checkout as your store may already be doing on the product and cart page.

I think this advancement is going to be awesome in the long run. I think there will also be an initial period of trial and error. Many ideas will be tried. Some no-brainers. Others may be risky. Through all of the trial and error, we'll see what works and what doesn't and establish a new set of best-practices. In other words, I wouldn't go nuts in adding checkout and post checkout apps. Take your time. Watch what others are doing. And keep in the loop on what are the evolving best practices.

3. Metafields

I love metafields and use them in almost every store I build. In fact, I've mentioned metafields in at least 5 podcast episodes. I use them to add semi-structured content to the store experience. I use them on all different content types - collections, products, blogs and pages. Now I wouldn't be surprised if you have not heard of metafields and that's because they are net exposed in the Shopify Admin. So you would never come across them while browsing around the Admin.

For those that have not heard of metafields before, here's an explanation.

Metafields are extra pieces of data that developers and apps can create and access. Metafields can be attached to different Shopify data objects including:

  • Collections
  • Products
  • Variants
  • Customers
  • Orders
  • Pages
  • Blogs
  • Articles and
  • Shop

Metafields have 4 components:

  • Namespace
  • Key
  • Value and
  • Description The description is optional.

The namespace and the key work together and allow us to organize our metafields. Think of a room of file cabinets. The namespace is the file cabinet while the key is the drawer. Using the two together, would allow us to quickly find the right drawer in a room of file cabinets. So if an app is creating some metafields, It can create all of those metafields under a common namespace to keep things more organized.

Hopefully, that helps you wrap your head around the concept of metafields. They are an easy way for us to create some structure behind additional data that we want to create and use in our store.

Here's a simple illustration of a use of metafields. For the product title, we usually want a long, descriptive title. This appears on the product page and is good for SEO and user context. The title could be something like 'Acme Corp Widget in Blue Plastic for use in Food Preparation'. But that same descriptive title on a collection page becomes very crowed and confusing. Especially if every other product also has a descriptive title. So for collection pages, we can create a short title metafield. It may say 'Blue Plastic Widget'. So we have the title for use on the product page and the short title for use on collection pages.

So what Shopify announced is that they will be adding built-in support for metafields to the Shopify Admin. So you'll be able to create, edit and use metafields within the Shopify admin.

This should make metafields more commonly used in stores. That will result in richer content and experiences in Shopify stores.

4. Rev Share

The rev share changes do not affect store owners. They are for theme and app developers. But its worth mentioning here as I see it as an example of how serious Shopify is about continuing to build out an ecosystem of partners that extend and deepen the Shopify platform. The rev share changes that were announced are that the rev share to Shopify is going down from 30% to 20%. So more money in the developer's pockets. And there is no rev share if the developer's revenue is below $1 million a year. I'm impressed with that counter-intuitive thinking. By not taking rev share from small developers, Shopify is giving them more opportunity to grow. Imagine if our governments did that? No taxes on companies with revenues under $1 million. That's a way to support small businesses.

5. GitHub Integration

This last one is bit more techy, but worth mentioning here as it could be used in interesting ways. Shopify will be releasing an integration with GitHub. Well, if you are asking what is GitHub? Here's a brief explanation. GitHub allows multiple developers on a software project to work on the code individually. GitHub allows the team to bring in all the different changes from different developers and create the single code base that gets used. Well most store's aren't using GitHub to build and customize their theme. In fact, I expect most Shopify Partners don't use GitHub to build their theme customizations either. I don't. But I do use GitHub in the opposite way, which is why this new GitHub features interests me. You see, I use GitHub to track of all of the changes made to a theme by me, the store staff, other Shopify partners and even Shopify apps. All of these parties are creating and editing theme code in the Shopify Admin. I just save versions or snapshots of the theme to GitHub. That way I can easily see what changes were done when and from that I can usually figure by whom. For example, before I add an app to a store, I save a snapshot to Github. And I get a second snapshot afterwards. GitHub can then easily show me every line of code added or edited by the app.

With Shopify adding the integration straight into the Shopify Admin, I'm hoping more stores will track changes to their code this way.

Ok, that's the top 5 announcements from this year's Unite. These are some substantial improvements and will have a noticeable impact on store operations down the road. That said, I want to reiterate my advice to you. Do not change your plans for 2021 and this holiday. The Shopify improvements still contain a lot of unknowns and are coming too late in the year to factor in for this holiday. Come January 2022, holiday will be behind us and more information about the new features will be known. That will be a good time to ask yourself if any of the new features and capabilities should be factored into your 2022 plans. In other words, keep your eye on holiday 2021 and don't get distracted by bright, shiny objects. Sales are far important than technology to an e-commerce store.

Thanks for listening.

JadePuma is a certified Shopify Expert. If you need any help with your Shopify store, we can help.