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Building a React Universal Blog App: A Step-by-Step Guide

When the topic of single page applications (SPAs) comes up, we tend to think of browsers, JavaScript, speed, and invisibility to search engines. This is because an SPA renders a page’s content using JavaScript, and since web crawlers don’t use a browser to view web pages, they can’t view and index the content — or at least most of them can’t.

This is a problem that some developers have tried to solve in various ways:

  1. Adding an escaped fragment version of a website, which requires all pages to be available in static form and adds a lot of extra work (now deprecated).
  2. Using a paid service to un-browserify an SPA into static markup for search engine spiders to crawl.
  3. Trusting that search engines are now advanced enough to read our JavaScript-only content. (I wouldn’t just yet.)

Using Node.js on the server and React on the client, we can build our JavaScript app to be universal (or isomorphic). This could offer several benefits from server-side and browser-side rendering, allowing both search engines and humans using browsers to view our SPA content.

In this step-by-step tutorial, I’ll show you how to build a React Universal Blog App that will first render markup on the server side to make our content available to search engines. Then, it will let the browser take over in a single page application that is both fast and responsive.

Building a React Universal Blog App

Getting Started

Our universal blog app will make use of the following technologies and tools:

  1. Node.js for package management and server-side rendering
  2. React for UI views
  3. Express for an easy back-end JS server framework
  4. React Router for routing
  5. React Hot Loader for hot loading in development
  6. Flux for data flow
  7. Cosmic JS for content management

To start, run the following commands:

mkdir react-universal-blog
cd react-universal-blog

Now create a package.json file and add the following content:

  "name": "react-universal-blog",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "engines": {
    "node": "4.1.2",
    "npm": "3.5.2"
  "description": "",
  "main": "app-server.js",
  "dependencies": {
    "babel-cli": "^6.26.0",
    "babel-loader": "^7.1.2",
    "babel-preset-es2015": "^6.24.1",
    "babel-preset-es2017": "^6.24.1",
    "babel-preset-react": "^6.24.1",
    "babel-register": "^6.26.0",
    "cosmicjs": "^2.4.0",
    "flux": "^3.1.3",
    "history": "1.13.0",
    "hogan-express": "^0.5.2",
    "html-webpack-plugin": "^2.30.1",
    "path": "^0.12.7",
    "react": "^15.6.1",
    "react-dom": "^15.6.1",
    "react-router": "1.0.1",
    "webpack": "^3.5.6",
    "webpack-dev-server": "^2.7.1"
  "scripts": {
    "webpack-dev-server": "NODE_ENV=development PORT=8080 webpack-dev-server --content-base public/ --hot --inline --devtool inline-source-map --history-api-fallback",
    "development": "cp views/index.html public/index.html && NODE_ENV=development webpack && npm run webpack-dev-server"
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC",
  "devDependencies": {
    "react-hot-loader": "^1.3.0"

In this file, you’ll notice that we’ve added the following:

  1. Babel to package our CommonJS modules and convert our ES6 and React JSX into browser-compatible JavaScript
  2. The Cosmic JS official Node.js client to easily serve our blog content from the Cosmic JS cloud-hosted content API
  3. Flux for app data management (which is a very important element in our React application).
  4. React for UI management on server and browser
  5. React Router for routes on server and browser
  6. webpack for bringing everything together into a bundle.js file.

We’ve also added a script in our package.json file. When we run npm run development, the script copies the index.html file from our views folder into our public folder. Then, it sets the content base for our webpack-dev-server to public/ and enables hot reloading (on .js file save). Finally, it helps us debug our components at the source and gives us a fallback for pages it can’t find (falls back to index.html).

Now let’s set up our webpack configuration file by editing the file webpack.config.js:

// webpack.config.js
var webpack = require('webpack')

module.exports = {
  devtool: 'eval',
  entry: './app-client.js',
  output: {
    path: __dirname + '/public/dist',
    filename: 'bundle.js',
    publicPath: '/dist/'
  module: {
    loaders: [
      { test: /\.js$/, loaders: 'babel-loader', exclude: /node_modules/ },
      { test: /\.jsx$/, loaders: 'babel-loader', exclude: /node_modules/ }
  plugins: [
    new webpack.DefinePlugin({
      'process.env.COSMIC_BUCKET': JSON.stringify(process.env.COSMIC_BUCKET),
      'process.env.COSMIC_READ_KEY': JSON.stringify(process.env.COSMIC_READ_KEY),
      'process.env.COSMIC_WRITE_KEY': JSON.stringify(process.env.COSMIC_WRITE_KEY)

You’ll notice that we’ve added an entry property with a value of app-client.js. This file serves as our app client entry point, meaning that from this point webpack will bundle our application and output it to /public/dist/bundle.js (as specified in the output property). We also use loaders to let Babel work its magic on our ES6 and JSX code. React Hot Loader is used for hot-loading (no page refresh!) during development.

Before we jump into React-related stuff, let’s get the look-and-feel of our blog ready to go. Since I’d like you to focus more on functionality than style in this tutorial, here we’ll use a pre-built front-end theme. I’ve chosen one from Start Bootstrap called Clean Blog. In your terminal run the following commands:

Create a folder called views and inside it an index.html file. Open the HTML file and add the following code:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
  <meta charset="utf-8">
  <meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=edge">
  <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">
  <meta name="description" content="">
  <meta name="author" content="">
  <title>{{ site.title }}{{# page }} | {{ page.title }}{{/ page }}</title>
  <!-- Bootstrap Core CSS -->
  <link href="/css/bootstrap.min.css" rel="stylesheet">
  <!-- Custom CSS -->
  <link href="/css/clean-blog.min.css" rel="stylesheet">
  <link href="/css/cosmic-custom.css" rel="stylesheet">
  <!-- Custom Fonts -->
  <link href="//" rel="stylesheet" type="text/css">
  <link href="//,700,400italic,700italic" rel="stylesheet" type="text/css">
  <link href="//,400italic,600italic,700italic,800italic,400,300,600,700,800" rel="stylesheet" type="text/css">
  <!-- HTML5 Shim and Respond.js IE8 support of HTML5 elements and media queries -->
  <!-- WARNING: Respond.js doesn't work if you view the page via file:// -->
  <!--[if lt IE 9]>
    <script src=""></script>
    <script src=""></script>
<body class="hidden">
  <div id="app">{{{ reactMarkup }}}</div>
  <script src="/js/jquery.min.js"></script>
  <script src="/js/bootstrap.min.js"></script>
  <script src="/js/clean-blog.min.js"></script>
  <script src="/dist/bundle.js"></script>

To get all of the JS and CSS files included in public, you can get them from the GitHub repository. Click here to download the files.

Generally I would use the fantastic React Bootstrap package and refrain from using jQuery. However, for the sake of brevity, we’ll keep the theme’s pre-built jQuery functionality.

In our index.html file, we’ll have our React mount point set up at the div where id="app". The template variable {{{ reactMarkup }}} will be converted into our server-rendered markup and then once the browser kicks in, our React application will take over and mount to the div with id="app". To improve the user experience while our JavaScript loads everything, we add class="hidden" to our body. Then, we remove this class once React has mounted. It might sound a bit complicated, but I’ll show you how we’ll do this in a minute.

At this point, your app should have the following structure:


Now that we have our static pieces done, let’s start building some React Components.

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