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January 13, 2023

The 5 minute guide to headless CMS

Headless CMS has been gaining traction for a number of years, but it’s gradually becoming increasingly prominent, with more and more developers leading with headless and more and more organisations seeing the benefits.

You may or may not have heard the term “headless” when it comes to websites – and even if you have heard it, you may not be 100% on what it means, and how it could help you.

This semi-technical 5 minute guide to headless CMS explains how it differs from traditional CMS, key benefits, and whether it might be right for you.

What is headless CMS?

Headless CMS or headless website architecture is a website with its front-end decoupled or separated from the back-end content management system (CMS). Instead of your content being pulled and loaded from the CMS every time you load your website, it essentially performs as a static site, with your content being passed and cached as data via an API which connects to your CMS. This can be beneficial for a number of reasons, which we’ll get to shortly.

What are the benefits of headless CMS?

The key benefits of a headless CMS are:

  • Quicker load speeds – content is taken from your CMS as data, passed to the front-end via your API, cached and displayed on the headless app, enabling content to load and display quicker than if it was being pulled directly from the CMS. Quicker and more efficient loading is a factor examined and prioritised by search engines like Google, so better performance in this area can lead to higher rankings.
  • Push content to multiple channels – separating the backend (content) from the front-end presentation layer and having a truly agnostic and headless CMS means that you’re not limited to one output – enabling you to author and push content to multiple channels from one place and single source of truth, such as a website, customer portal, and/or app. This can help you cut down on editing and authoring time as well as reach more of your audience with consistent content. It also means that you can usually host your website and things like booking or payment apps, customer portals, etc on the same domain, providing a better experience for the customer.
  • More flexibility and potential for the future – because in a headless setup your content is front-end agnostic, developers can choose to work with pretty much any front-end framework they like, opening up more options to you as your digital product grows and changes with you – enabling you to interchange parts of your stack or move to one framework or headless app from another without impacting the CMS. In reverse you could also keep most of your front-end and replace the entire CMS following a migration and new integration process.
  • Improved security – separating your CMS from the front-end creates a reduced area of attack that’s less likely to be targeted and breached, because there’s one endpoint to access your data, rather than dozens of applications having access to your content database. In a headless setup serving a single HTML page, this means one request from the server – the same site built with a “monolithic” (non-headless) CMS could make say 40 requests and would arguably be 40 times more vulnerable to an attack.

Can WordPress be headless?

Yes – WordPress can be and is used in a headless environment. Due to its flexibility, potential and familiar interface, WordPress is the internet’s most popular CMS – powering around 43% of websites. Being able to bring it into a headless architecture makes it even more powerful – as we’ve already touched on, you can build your tech stack around your backend CMS and pick whichever API querying language and front-end framework you want to use, opening up more options to how your front-end will display and which channels you can push your content to.

WordPress is far from the only headless CMS option though – there are a plethora of others available, including Sanity, Contentful, Quintype and Hypgraph.

Will my WordPress editing experience be different in headless?

If you’re using WordPress in a headless environment, your editing experience in terms of creating content, structuring pages, managing assets, should be exactly the same. The key difference is that your editing experience should be faster and easier – and as we’ve said, you’ll be able to push content to multiple front-end channels from one place.

Do I need a headless CMS?

Whether a headless CMS or architecture is right for you and your organisations depends on your individual needs and requirements. We’ll go more in-depth into the pros and cons in future content, but to really simplify – running a simple “brochure” website with a blog doesn’t usually warrant a headless approach. You’re not having to manage massive amounts of data, there’s no need to push it to various front-end applications, and you’re not having to create complex integrations. If you’re looking to push content to multiple digital products from the same CMS, manage complex integrations with a lot of data and API requests, and you need to be set up for a lot of growth and scalability, then that’s when headless is the ideal approach.

Your digital team should carefully assess whether headless is right for you and make a recommendation – it’s not always warranted in every project, and can add extra complexity that isn’t always needed, so it’s important to consider each project individually.

Summing up on headless CMS

Headless CMS has been around for a few years, and had its early adopters, but it’s really coming to the forefront now. With Web3 looming – headless architecture will be the way forward in future-proofing your digital ecosystem and preparing for a decentralised web. And that’s not to mention all the short term benefits of improved speed, multi-channel content, better security, and more flexibility.

We’re working on more and more headless projects as organisations come to better understand how digital can enhance their customer experience. As we’ve touched on though, it’s not right for every application, so we don’t build exclusively for headless. That being said, if you think you’d like to explore headless as an option and you’d like to chat about it further – get in touch.

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