Back to Basics: What is a Headless CMS?

Posted on May 6, 2021
  • A headless CMS is a website management platform where the code that makes up your site is on a different server than the actual content on your site
  • Pros include a faster website, easier changes in the future, and less technical debt
  • Cons include losing access to plug-ins and a longer set-up time

Think back, if you can, to the year 2003. Social media was just getting started as teens moved from Friendster to Myspace. The Nokia 3310 was the king of cell phones. President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” with the war in Iraq.

WordPress also made its debut as the latest and greatest platform for managing a website.

In the nearly 20 years that have passed, things have changed quite a bit. Myspace is a mere memory for millennials, iPhones reign supreme, and that war in Iraq, well, we all know what happened there.

And yet WordPress is still the most popular website content management system — even though better technology has taken its place. By better technology, we’re talking about a type of content management system known as a headless CMS.

What is a Headless CMS, Anyway?

A headless CMS is a content management system that’s similar to any other platform you might use to edit what’s on your website — but with one critical difference. Instead of having an actual website attached to the platform, the headless CMS uses an API to send all of that data somewhere else.

The final destination could be a website. It could also be an app, or even a video game. The content on your headless CMS can go anywhere and be consumed by anything.

To put that into context, let’s do a quick comparison to a platform you might be more familiar with.

WordPress is a monolithic platform. For websites built on WordPress, everything happens in the same place. Whether it’s the words and graphics your users see to the code base that powers your website, it’s all on the same server.

When visitors come to your website, they’re hitting the exact same server that stores every single element of your website.

A headless CMS is a decoupled platform. This means that the code that controls your website’s functionality is stored on a different server than the one that hosts all your content.

Here’s why any of it matters: When someone types their URL into their browser, they’re only really looking for the content on your site. The headless CMS is merely a vessel for your content. The website, app, video game, hologram, whatever you’re building, can consume content from that service.

If your website is built on a headless CMS, that’s all they’ll get. But if your site is hosted on a monolithic CMS, their device will also have to render the entire codebase that makes up your site — including the code that manages the back-end.

Think about the difference between a device having to render every piece of code on a website vs. just the content as we segue into our next section.

If you want to dig deeper into the technical bits of a headless CMS to see how cool it really is, we created this piece that dives into the JAM stack for you to check out.

Confetti to illustrate pros

Pros of Using a Headless CMS

The most important advantage to using a headless CMS is a major one: Your website will run faster. Separating the servers your website lives on creates a buffer zone that translates into a better user experience.

Your users don’t care about your website’s back end (no matter how it looks). If their device doesn’t have to render every line of code to show them the shit they actually care about, they’re going to see the cool stuff much faster.

Site speed is such a crucial piece of having a wonderful website that we wrote an entire article about it for you to read.

That separation between the front end and back end of your website also makes it easier for you to make major changes in the future. Somewhere down the road, you’ll probably want to redesign your website or do a full rebrand.

With a monolithic platform, you’ll have to burn your entire website to the ground before you can rise like a phoenix from Arizona. But if your site is built on a headless CMS, you can redesign your front end without having to mess with any of the infrastructure in the back end.

Just as it’s easier to do a complete rebrand, it’s also easier to make smaller tweaks along the way. Whether you’re changing your website to keep pace with the evolution of your rapidly growing start-up, following new design trends, or just trying to please the Google Gods, it’ll be easier to do so.

As your business grows and pushes you to scale your website, you won’t be bound by the rules of WordPress (or any CMS for that matter). Headless CMSs are built so developers can do what they do best and create a fantastic website. It also means that a skilled developer will build your website right the first time, saving you money and headaches down the road.

Which brings us to the biggest benefit you didn’t realize would change your life: Reducing your technical debt. As you work with your developer to build your site and its features, you’re going to build a strong foundation for future updates. This strong foundation means when you need to build a new feature in a year, your developer won’t have to spend time (read: $$$) on retrofitting your existing website to suit your new feature.

Thumbs down to indicate cons

Cons of Using a Headless CMS

As much as we love headless CMSs here, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are a few drawbacks to using this type of platform. But we’re going to be upfront with you here: The pros far outweigh any cons.

As you’re building the foundation for your website, it will take extra steps to make sure your content is modeled properly. When you first install WordPress, the platform comes with ready-made templates to structure your web pages and blog posts.

With a headless CMS, you’ll have to create those templates. You’ll also have to program the CMS to understand what a blog post should look like, what fields it needs, and all of those extra details. There are some platforms, like Contentful, that do provide some of these elements. With others, you may have to work with a developer. But once you take the time to set it up, you won’t have to do it again.

If you’re the type of person who loves WordPress plug-ins (and we’re totally judging you), you might be in for a rude awakening. Because the headless CMS doesn’t control the front end of your website, you’re going to lose access to most plug-ins.

If you’re used to installing yet another plug-in to solve a problem, you’re going to struggle. The benefit; however, is that you’ll have a website that’s faster, more secure, and less likely to crash because the wind was blowing differently today.

The Takeaway: Practical Advice for a Headless World

Whether you’re managing one or several websites, leaving WordPress behind to move into the 2020s is going to be a major shift.

Our advice to you is to have a development mentality that matches your specialty. By that, we mean being thoughtful with changes, and always being mindful of how you’ll iterate. If content marketing is your jam, you’re staying on top of all the latest developments and trends to stay on the bleeding edge. We don’t have to tell you why that’s important, because you already know.

Your mentality should be the same for everything you do — and we know how tough that is.

If you want to learn more about how moving your website onto a headless CMS could benefit your business, or if you’re a marketing agency looking for a strategic partner to help your clients, get in touch. We’d love to nerd out over technology with you.