Gatsby

The World’s Sneakiest Route Change

How a totally static site simulates dynamic filtering

I am a firm believer that static sites are awesome: they're faster, more resilient, and easier to scale than traditional server-rendered sites. A complex app can be baked into a bunch of HTML and JSON files, served via CDN.

But certain things become more challenging when you try to go all-static. For example, how would you build a dynamic, interactive filter like this?

A table show some time stats. The user interacts with a select input, and the table updates to show new data

In a typical web app, you'd make a fetch request to the API whenever the input changes value. We can't do that in a static site, though, because we don't want to depend on a runtime API.

We ran into this problem at Gatsby on a recent project, and I'm really pleased with the solution we came up with! It looks and feels just like any other database-driven web application, but with a couple of extra surprise benefits.

In this blog post, we'll see how we did it, by using the world’s sneakiest route change 🕵🏻‍♂️

But first, some context

A few weeks ago, my team at Gatsby launched Will it Build, a benchmarking service that shows how long it takes to build Gatsby sites.

A table show some time stats. The user interacts with a select input, and the table updates to show new data

We built this site to answer a question we get a lot at Gatsby:

I have a [Wordpress] site with [8000] pages; how long would it take to build with Gatsby?

The details vary, but the story is the same: developers are worried that their build times will balloon if they have to build every page at compile-time.

It's a reasonable concern; historically, build times have been a sort of “Achilles Heel” for Gatsby, and static sites more broadly. Very large sites can take upwards of 60 minutes to build.

Thankfully, the picture has changed quite a bit over the last year. The Gatsby core / cloud teams have invested a ton of time and energy improving build performance; with incremental builds, even very large sites can build in less than a minute (with a warm cache).

A screenshot showing the Will it Build calculator, showing that a Wordpress site with 8000 pages can rebuild in 15 seconds.

Will it Build runs dozens of benchmarks a day, ranging from 512 pages to over 32,000 pages, across 8 different content sources (including Wordpress, Drupal, Markdown/MDX, Contentful, and Sanity). You can play with this data yourself, using its GraphQL API.

The frontend of the Will it Build site is, naturally, built with Gatsby. And I'm pleased to say that it's completely static—it only fetches data from the API when we build the site.

The problem we had to solve was the one shown in the GIF above. Our site features inputs that let users tweak the parameters, to adjust the type and size of the benchmark:

A caption screenshot kama showing how tweakable parameters change the contents of a table

How do we do that with a static site?

Page Navigation

The URL structure for Will it Build is:

/source/:contentSource/page-count/:numOfPages

We generate a distinct page for every combination of contentSource and numOfPages.

So really, we want to navigate the user from one page to another when they change one of those parameters. In its simplest form, it looks like this:

jsx

If we were to do this, though, it wouldn't be the best user experience:

  • We'd show the user a blank white screen while fetching the new HTML document
  • The user's scroll position would be lost
  • Focus would be reset
  • It clutters the user's history

Let's fix each of these in turn.

Client-side navigation

Instead of doing window.location, we can use Gatsby's built-in router, Reach Router, to transition using client-side navigation:

jsx

With this change, our transition is much snappier, and doesn't suffer from the "flash of white" that typically comes with a change in URL.

In addition to generating a static site, Gatsby also functions as a SPA (Single Page Application). We can hop from page to page using client-side routing.

When we call navigate (or use a <Link />), we aren't loading an entirely new HTML file; we're pulling the new props that we need for our page component from a JSON file.

Preserving scroll position

In general, when we navigate from one page to another, we want the scroll position to be reset to the top. This is how browsers work by default, and Reach Router mimics this behavior.

This case is a peculiar exception; we want to keep the user right where they are, since it would be disorienting for the scroll position to change.

Happily, Gatsby gives us an escape hatch we can use. Let's start by adding some location state to our navigate call:

js

Location state is similar in concept to query parameters, except it doesn't show up in the URL. On its own, this doesn't have any effect, but we can access this state in a special Gatsby browser API:

js

shouldUpdateScroll fires on every route change, and it expects us to return a boolean: true if we should scroll to top, false if we should maintain the current scroll position. By default, this always returns true.

We use location state to allow specific route changes to override this behavior, and keep the user right where they are on the page.

Focus management

In general, when the user follows a link to a new page, focus should move to the body element. This is imperative for people who navigate with devices other than a mouse (like a keyboard).

In this case, we want to preserve focus on the dropdown element. It would be surprising and disorienting if the focus was reset after interacting with a form control.

To manage this, we will use another Gatsby browser API, onRouteUpdate:

js

The onRouteUpdate method is called whenever the route changes, and allows us to add some side effects. We'll use location state again to pass along a specific element ID. If an ID is provided, we'll find that element and focus it.

This requires that every select has a unique ID:

js

Cluttering history

Every time the user tweaks a parameter, it pushes a new entry onto the history stack. When they click the back button, it'll take them to the previous setting, not the previous page. That's not ideal.

Thankfully, Reach Router's navigate function has an option for this:

js

Instead of adding a new entry to the history stack, we'll replace the current entry. This is consistent with what people would expect.

Results

With these concerned tackled, we've successfully created a route change that doesn't feel like a route change 🎉

It's generally bad to abuse built-in mechanics like this; semantically, this isn't really a route change. But I believe the benefits outweigh that drawback.

Because we're changing routes, the URL updates with every parameter tweak. This is pretty cool! The user can copy the link to share a specific configuration.

Also, the performance is 🔥🔥🔥. We're not waiting on any database calls in a far-away server. The data has already been compiled into a JSON file, colocated on a CDN edge near you. We could do something similar with caching, but this feels simpler to me.

Possibly a better approach?

When we perform a route change, Gatsby fetches the data that we need from a JSON file under the hood. Presumably, we could request that data ourselves. Instead of fetching from our API, we'd be fetching from our CDN.

Honestly, this idea hadn't occurred to me until we had already completed our current approach 😅.

I'm not sure that one approach is better than the other, though. The trade-offs are different:

  • Pro: We wouldn't be violating semantics by sneaking in a route change.
  • Con: The page-data.js file that Gatsby produces is an implementation detail, and may change without warning in a future version. The framework doesn't really expect us to do this.
  • Pro: We wouldn't need to worry about scroll position and focus management. We'd be less likely to accidentally make the experience worse for some folks.
  • Con: The URL wouldn't update when the user tweaks a parameter, making it harder to share specific results.

Emerging Patterns

As static sites become more and more popular, I suspect we'll see more innovation in this area. It's exciting! As it becomes feasible to do more and more things statically, our apps will get quicker, and our jobs will get easier.

Watch this space.

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