The rise of CMSs only became possible due to the invention of dynamic server-side scripting languages like PHP and ASP in the mid-’90s. These backend languages allowed for content to be generated dynamically based on CMS inputs. i.e creating a new page through the CMS triggers a function on the backend that does all the work to add a new page on the server.
There were a bunch of now-forgotten CMSs back when server-side languages were in their infancy, such as Interwoven, FileNet, Vignette StoryServer, BroadVision and FutureTense. This wave of pioneering CMSs wasn’t particularly easy to use. While they were a step in the right direction, they weren’t flexible enough to gain mass adoption.
This all changed in 2003 with the arrival of WordPress. This new content management system was user-friendly, flexible, open-source, scaleable and designed for blogging, which was starting to take off at the time. While there were alternatives, like Drupal, WordPress completely dominated the market and became synonymous with creating a website.
WordPress has a traditional, monolithic architecture meaning its front-end and content database are coupled into a singular unit. It’s built on top of PHP and since its inception in 2003, has accumulated a mind-boggling collection of themes, plugins, and extensions.
Plenty of competitors have tried to challenge WordPress’s ascendency over the past twenty years, but none of them has solved the problem any better than WP does. This is, until recently.
A new type of CMS has entered the market, the headless CMS. Unlike WordPress, headless CMSs separate the presentation layer from the backend. This allows for greater flexibility and customization, especially for businesses looking to build complex websites.
WordPress has been pushed to do everything under the sun; run membership sites, power eCommerce, operate social networks, and function as a bespoke application. The problem is it’s opinionated in the way it forces developers to write code.
Headless CMSs offer an alternative; use WordPress (or other great CMSs like Contentful, Prismic or Strapi) as a content management system but not a frontend framework for building websites.
This might sound counterintuitive. Why bother using a CMS if you can’t build new pages? The answer is that you can, but there are other things required; namely a frontend framework like Next.js or Gatsby. By removing the dynamic server-side PHP part of WordPress, we can use the nice interface for triggering changes in applications, managing eCommerce, or membership sites, but build these sites using an efficient custom codebase.
It also means we can remove servers from the equation and pre-generate static assets for blazing-fast load times. This is a benefit that generates a lot of attention from large website owners. If you’ve got 50,000 articles and your site is grinding to a halt, a headless CMS would allow your site’s performance to become supercharged.
There are some caveats to this equation and it helps to understand some of the technical theories. In this article, we’ll explore the key differences between headless CMS and WordPress and give some suggestions on when each approach is “the right choice”.
What is WordPress?
WordPress is an open-source CMS that was created in 2003. It was initially launched as a blogging tool but has now evolved into a full-fledged CMS offering a user-friendly interface and an extensive library of themes and plugins, making it easy for users to customize their websites to their liking. It also offers an administration panel from which you can add or delete content and manage permissions.
Advantages of WordPress
Here are some of the advantages of WordPress:
WordPress is designed to be easy to use especially for beginners without any technical expertise. It has a simple initiative interface that supports content creation and editing using a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor. This editor allows you to preview changes in real-time.
The platform also offers built-in media management tools that allow users to upload and manage their media files. You can add text, images, videos, and other media to their website with just a few clicks.
WordPress isn’t the most useable platform but by and large, it’s easy to figure out. It’s also so universal that most people who have had anything to do with the web are familiar with WP’s interface.
WordPress is highly customizable thanks to its built-in themes and plugins.
Since its inception in 2003, every developer under the sun has built a theme or plugin for WordPress. As a result, users have a mind-boggling range of choices for how they can customize the look and feel, and function of their site.
To put it in context, there are over 60,000 free plugins that can be used to extend WordPress functionality, and 8,000 free themes in the official WordPress theme repository alone.
Beyond themes and plugins, WordPress is open source so it’s possible for developers to make changes directly to the content management system.
WordPress sites include several built features that make them SEO-friendly. These include a clean permalink structure, which allows users to set a URL that includes the title of their content, making it easy for search engines to understand what the page is about. Automatic site map creation, which helps search engines to crawl and index all the pages on the site.
WordPress also offers several SEO plugins, such as Yoast SEO and All in One SEO Pack, which provide users with tools to optimize their content for search engines. These plugins allow users to conduct keyword analysis, generate meta tags, and create XML sitemaps. They also provide suggestions for improving content and structure to improve search engine rankings.
WordPress themes are designed to be mobile-responsive, meaning they will adjust to fit the screen size of any device. This is important in today's mobile-first world, as more and more people are accessing the internet using their smartphones and tablets. A mobile-responsive website not only provides a better user experience, but also improves search engine rankings.
WordPress allows multiple users to access and contribute to a website. Users can be assigned different roles, such as administrator, editor, or author, with different levels of access and permissions.
Disadvantages of WordPress CMS
Although WordPress is a popular and widely used CMS, it’s not without its quirks and headaches. Here are some of the most notable disadvantages:
WordPress security risks stem from using outdated versions of the CMS or plugins. In other words, failure to keep up with updates can cause security vulnerabilities.
This is compounded by the fact that a third of all sites on the internet run on WordPress, so the bad guys are specifically targeting WordPress vulnerabilities because they’re the easiest to find.
The WordPress backend is tightly coupled with its presentation layer. Customizing the content delivery requires customizing the theme or plugin, which can be time-consuming.
For most use cases, this isn’t a problem. But for situations where you’re trying to push WordPress to do things outside of simple blogging, it can be a blocker.
WordPress plugins are really just a bunch of code that can be added to the CMS. Not all teams spend the time ensuring their code is going to be perfectly bug-free, especially between updates.
As a result, WordPress plugins can cause compatibility issues with other plugins, themes, or even the WordPress core. This can result in broken functionality or errors on the website.
There’s nothing worse than being prompted to upgrade your plugin, checking your site and seeing a nasty PHP error preventing the page from loading.
Vanilla WordPress is pretty performant. The problems come from installing plugins and heavy themes (looking at you Divvy and Elementor). These third-party extensions typically call in third-party libraries that can completely tank the site’s performance.
Even experienced WordPress users fall victim to adding plugins to their sites without really knowing the impact on their site’s performance.
What is a headless CMS?
A headless CMS is a type of content management system that separates the content layer from the presentation layer/frontend. This means that the content can be accessed and delivered to any front-end device or platform, such as mobile apps, websites, and smart devices, without being tied to a specific website or design.
This type of CMS is suited to a modern business that needs an “omnichannel experience”, which is a fancy term for reaching customers on a range of different devices while keeping the experience consistent.
Content is stored in a centralized repository, usually in the cloud, and made available through API. This API can be used by developers to access the content and deliver it to any front-end application, without being constrained by the limitations of a specific CMS or website design. This makes headless CMSs highly flexible, scalable, and adaptable to changing business requirements and customer needs.
A good, but kind of extreme example of using a headless CMS is displaying the same notifications on a smart fridge and mobile phone. The traditional way of doing this would be to create a fridge application and a phone application and send messages through each. Headless CMSs on the other hand, allow a message to be written once and distributed to both systems via API.
Advantages of headless CMS
Some of the benefits of using a headless CMS include:
Performance & SEO
Performance is the thing that sets headless CMSs apart from regular WordPress. By separating the backend code that dynamically generates pages from the frontend UI, headless CMSs can leverage a static site-generating framework like Gatsby or Next.js.
Without getting too deep into the technical weeds, these platforms pre-generate all the assets that will be displayed on browsers. There’s no need for a server to figure out what the page should look like because the decision has already been made. As a result, the performance is the site becomes blazing fast, regardless if it’s made of 1000 pages or 150,000.
The trickle-on effect of having a faster site is being elevated up the search engine result rankings. Google has come out with a list of assessments called the Core Web Vitals (CWV) websites must past to avoid being penalized. The frontend frameworks used in combination with headless CMSs have specifically addressed the CWV standards and made it easier for developers to get a passing grade.
Use of modern technologies and tools
Headless CMSs are really just a controller for managing content. They’re not involved in building the pages or driving any of the website’s functionality. That comes from the frontend framework (i.e. Gatsby, Next.js, Nuxt, etc).
These frameworks have been designed to incorporate modern development standards and tooling. They make life quicker and easier for developers and plug nicely into sophisticated libraries and packages that can quickly add functionality to a new website.
Traditional WordPress can support multilingual translations, but it’s a complete headache to manage and becomes almost unusable from an administrative perspective once four or five different language translations have been added.
Headless CMSs on the other hand can be configured with custom post types dedicated to language translations. This is supported by features like Next’s internationalization routing that will automatically detect where a visitor is entering from and route them to the correct version of the site.
Adding to this, Next.js runs on “The Edge”, which is a fancy name for a content distribution network that can also execute scripts. The Edge allows an almost instant translated version of the website to be distributed to overseas visitors, so the site’s performance will be exceptional no matter where in the world a visitor is located.
Tailored to the team’s use case
Headless CMSs are a ton more flexible than their monolithic counterpart. If your team has a unique way of doing business that doesn’t fit regular CMSs, then going headless can be a great alternative.
The WordPress UI can be modified to match your team’s operations. Only need a couple of navigation items? No worries, they can all be removed. Need to trigger a series of events across your systems with a single button click? Easily done.
The advantage of omnichannel is a little oversold in the headless world. There aren’t that many companies publishing content across IoT devices like smartwatches, mobile phones, and smart fridges at the same time.
For those companies that are, or have custom applications that require content updates simultaneously with their marketing website, then headless CMSs are winners because they allow these updates to be made once from a single location.
Building a website on any kind of monolithic platform locks your business to that technology. The logic is tied up with the presentation layer, and separating them means rebuilding everything.
While there’s still considerable effort required to configure a headless CMS, it’s easier to swap in a new headless CMS if the need arises. The logic is built into the frontend framework.
This benefit touches in MACH (Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native and Headless) architecture, which is a topic we’ve written on in detail. It’s a growth play and well-suited to larger companies that need performance and flexibility.
Headless websites that take advantage of static site generation significantly cut down their exposure to malicious attacks. By removing the server from the customer interaction, there is less attack surface to work with.
This advantage isn’t specifically related to headless CMSs, but it’s worth mentioning.
By separating the backend from the frontend, headless CMSs enable businesses to adapt to new technologies and trends without having to redesign the entire website or application. This approach ensures that the website or application is always up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies, which can improve the user experience and keep the business competitive.
Disadvantages of headless CMS
Before adopting headless CMSs, it’s important to consider its disadvantages. These include:
Expensive to implement
Implementing a headless CMS is resource intensive as you might be forced to pay for third-party services or tools to implement certain features and functionalities. It also requires highly skilled developers to implement successfully and run regular maintenance routines which consequently adds up to the overall cost.
Content preview limitations
A headless CMS architecture separates content management from presentation, which means that content editors cannot preview how their content will appear on the frontend before publishing it. This limitation can be frustrating for content editors who may need to make multiple edits before the content is published.
Lack of out-of-the-box features
Headless CMSs provide a lot of flexibility, but they lack the out-of-the-box features and functionality that traditional CMSs provide. Businesses may need to implement custom solutions or integrate third-party services to add the features and functionality they need, which can be time-consuming and costly.
When to choose Headless CMS vs When to choose WordPress
Choosing between headless CMS and WordPress generally boils down to your business requirement and the type of content you need to manage. Below are some considerations for choosing between the two platforms:
Performance & SEO
If you asked most businesses that have made the switch to a headless CMS why they did it, they’ll probably say for performance and SEO. These are businesses that have thousands or even tens of thousands of posts and pages. They pay decently large server bills and find that when their traffic spikes, the website’s performance can tank.
Big traffic sites that are trying to generate advertising revenue are a perfect example of where a headless CMS is the right choice. They need a fast and clean customer experience to avoid increasing bounce rates.
Smaller websites can still benefit from a headless CMS, but it’s not going to be a major factor in the site’s performance until a baseline of ~20,000 visitors are arriving each month.
This factor is simple. If your business doesn’t have $20k+ to invest in a website, then don’t choose a headless CMS. Heading down this path is expensive because it’s a custom option designed to solve problems that the monolithic system can’t.
If your business has money to invest and you’re scouting out growth plays that will boost your conversion rates, traffic and SEO performance, then a headless CMS might be a good choice.
Experience with custom software
Does your team use Divvy or Elementor? Do you lean towards visual page builders and try to make your own website design changes? Then you’re not well suited to a headless CMS.
There are options that replicate the visual page builder experience, especially Builder.io, but you will need to constantly lean on a developer for changes and extensions to the site.
Headless CMSs provide a little different experience for content creators too. There’s a 5 - 10 minute delay between hitting the “publish” button in your CMS and seeing the content on the site. This can be further complicated by the kind of rendering technique being used across your site, caching, and a few other factors.
If your team isn’t used to custom development, then it can be a painful learning curve and one to avoid.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What is the difference between Headless CMS and WordPress?
A: Headless CMS and WordPress are both content management systems, but they differ in how they handle content delivery. WordPress is a traditional CMS that handles both content management and content delivery, while Headless CMS separates content management from content delivery, allowing for more flexibility and customization.
Q: Which platform is better, Headless CMS, or WordPress?
A: There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the best platform depends on the specific needs of the business. WordPress is an excellent platform for businesses that require a simple, out-of-the-box content management and delivery system, while Headless CMS is ideal for businesses that require a more customized, flexible solution.
Q: Can I use WordPress and Headless CMS together?
A: Yes, it is possible to use WordPress and Headless CMS together in a hybrid approach, where WordPress is used for content management, and the Headless CMS is used for content delivery.
Ultimately, choosing between Headless CMS and WordPress ultimately comes down to the specific needs of your business. WordPress is a reliable, easy-to-use platform that works well for small to medium-sized businesses with basic content management and delivery requirements. On the other hand, Headless CMS offers greater flexibility, faster development, improved content management, and future-proofing, making it ideal for businesses that require more customized solutions.
While there are disadvantages to both platforms, it's essential to weigh the pros and cons and determine which features are most important for your business needs. Hybrid approaches, which combine WordPress and Headless CMS, can also be a viable option for businesses that require both content management and delivery flexibility.
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