The Pros and Cons of a Headless CMS

device mockups

Should You Go ‘Headless’?

You might have heard the term ‘headless’ CMS kicking around the development world lately. It’s certainly become popular these days: as users make the switch from looking for content on a single device to juggling multiple devices all day long, companies are looking for a way to deliver their content effectively to multiple mediums across many screens. A headless CMS is one tool that can help with that task.

In this post, we’ll cover what a headless CMS is, and why it’s increasingly popular. We’ll take a look at how it stacks up against a traditional CMS, so you can weigh which kind of CMS is right for your business needs.

 

How is a ‘headless’ CMS different?

A headless CMS is similar to a traditional CMS, but with one key difference: the headless CMS doesn’t have a frontend, and it doesn’t handle the display component of your website for you.

Let’s break this down a little bit.

Generally speaking, a traditional CMS provides you with a few key components:

  • A way to store your content
  • A CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) user interface
  • A variety of ways to display the data (a ‘front-end’).

Number three on that list – the data display function – is the traditional front-end user interface, and the ‘head’ that gets lopped off in a headless CMS. When you remove the data display function of a CMS, you’re left with a backend that handles content storage and distribution, along with a user interface for site administrators and editors to upload, edit, and manage content.

Instead of the display function, a headless CMS delivers your content through an API. So the key components of a headless CMS are:

  • A way to store your content
  • A CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) user interface
  • An API to the data

What does this look like in practice?

So what happens when you take away the front-end of a CMS? The biggest difference is that a website can’t be built with a headless CMS on its own. With a traditional CMS, everything happens in one place: you can upload and edit your content, play around with how it’s displayed, click ‘publish’ and have your site appear before your eyes like magic.

A headless CMS doesn’t have the features that let you build your site. It doesn’t have site themes or templates. To use a headless CMS, you have to build a site, or app, or other experience first, then use the CMS’s API to plug your content into it.

 

Why are people going headless?

A headless CMS comes with a hefty dose of flexibility. Because it delivers content through an API, a headless CMS will deliver your content seamlessly to any device, in any context. When you go headless, the same backend can deliver content to an Android or iOS app, a kiosk, a virtual reality (VR) experience, or any other medium your business may require.

A headless CMS also gives you and your developers the ability to innovate quickly. With a traditional CMS, change can be clunky and time-consuming – to refresh your site, you generally need to re-implement the entire CMS. With a headless CMS, you can tweak your front-end without tweaking the backend, saving yourself time and resources.

 

headless CMS

Traditional vs. Headless CMS: The Pros and Cons

It can be tricky to choose between a headless and a traditional CMS. The truth is, they both have potential benefits and drawbacks.

Traditional CMS Pros:

  • They serve your entire site with one solid system that couples your content and its presentations.
  • Your container isn’t fixed – in terms of a desktop experience, it allows for customizable and resizable zones, and the ability to create unique presentations from dynamic content blocks
  • They make pricing crystal clear (you’re using one system, with one account, and one payment), which might alleviate some project management stress.
  • They have low barriers to entry for developers and content creators.

Traditional CMS Cons:

  • They create website-only content (if an API is absent); you won’t be able to seamlessly use the same content for a mobile app or kiosk, for instance.
  • They are dependent on the display layer, so there’s a limit to what kind of presentation and user experience you can provide.
  • They require developers to learn a special CMS-specific language (many developers would prefer to have the flexibility to use their favourite language).

Headless CMS Pros:

  • They separate content and presentation – this means you can choose any front-end tech you (or your developers) want.
  • They give you the opportunity to play around more with how your content is displayed; without templates and themes, developers and designers can generate unique user experiences, and easily swap content in and out
  • They make it easy to plug your content into any second- or third-screen experience, like mobile apps, kiosk, VR experiences, and other mediums.

Headless CMS Cons:

  • With a second-screen experience, your medium is fixed; unlike websites that allow for customizable zones and the ability to resize and rearrange dynamic content, a fixed medium (like a mobile app container or kiosk) is restricted to present dynamic content in a fixed zone. This means you can swap in and swap out content, but can’t customize placement or presentation much beyond that.
  • They give you another piece of the puzzle to manage – you’ll need infrastructure to set up and manage the presentation component of your site, app, or other experience.
  • They can be more expensive to implement, and the costs can get complicated (you’ll need to pay separately for the CMS, the developer, and infrastructure to run your site, app, etc.).

 

Wrap Up: Context is Key

As you probably noticed, the pros of one kind CMS tend to be the cons of the other, and vice versa. So the choice between a traditional and a headless CMS really comes down to your business needs.

A headless CMS is a good option if your project will be limited by the front-end restrictions of a traditional CMS. If you’re looking to create a unique user experience with complex features, or If you want to use JavaScript frameworks, headless is your best option.

Likewise, a headless CMS will serve you well if you’re creating an ecosystem of apps and websites. In this case, a headless CMS will let you deliver your content to the entire ecosystem efficienty, making it a great tool for cross-platform publishing.

But if you’re building a stand-alone website for your business, you might be best served by a traditional CMS that’ll let you quickly get your site up and running.


Questions about which CMS is best for you? Get in touch with us today.

  • Glyn Szasz

    Trying to get my head around what exactly a headless CMS is. I use MODX to build websites and am thinking that this maybe headless. With MODX I can deliver content in almost any format I can think of. Could be good to have some examples in order to give a little more clarity?