When it comes to content management systems (CMS), there are two main types: traditional and headless. A traditional CMS is one in which the presentation layer and the data layer are integrated, meaning that the same system is used to create and display content. A headless CMS, on the other hand, separates these two layers, with a separate system used to manage and display content. What are the pros and cons of a headless approach? When is it a good idea to use a headless CMS? Let’s take a closer look.
Pros to using a Headless CMS
Give developers more control and better tooling
Traditional CMS’s often box frontend development into a corner and can make more complicated user interfaces difficult to implement, a headless CMS gives developers more control and better tooling which can often lead to more velocity and enjoyment on the project. With a traditional CMS, developers are often limited by the system’s templating language and lack of control over the markup. This can lead to frustration and wasted time spent trying to work around the system. A headless CMS lets the frontend developers choose the best framework for the project.
Future proof your tech stack
If you have a website built on a traditional CMS and want to switch to a headless approach, you’re likely looking at a complete rewrite. A headless CMS, on the other hand, can be implemented gradually by decoupling the frontend from the backend one piece at a time. This is because with a headless CMS, the parts of the system are compartmentalized. This is especially important if you want to serve the same content to multiple places or you want to incrementally improve your website.
Improve site performance, SEO, and marketing capabilities
A headless CMS can improve site performance, SEO, and marketing capabilities. When content is decoupled from the presentation layer, it can be cached independently and delivered faster. A headless CMS can also make it easier to track analytics and measure success because you have more control over how tracking code is implemented. Finally, a headless CMS can give marketers more freedom to publish content to multiple channels from one CMS.
A headless CMS can also make it easier to more tightly integrate with your SaaS product’s sign up flow.
When the presentation layer is decoupled from the backend, it can be hosted on a different domain and served through a subdomain or even a CDN. This makes it possible to cache static assets close to your users for fast delivery. It can also abstract the database and statically build content on demand allowing hosting to be moved to the edge.
Cons to using a Headless CMS
Can be more expensive
While not always the case, the fact that you have 2 separate systems does add complexity to the project and can increase the overall upfront costs to implement. I’d argue that if you intend on making ongoing improvements to your site (which you should) the cost should level out over time when compared to a traditional CMS.
Previewing content can be a challenge
While many Headless CMS platforms are coming out with great ways to preview content there is no denying that traditional CMSs are the clear winner here.
Most plugins or widgets won’t work
Most plugins include some sort of presentation layer and simply won’t work in a headless approach.
More advanced developers needed
A headless approach is more complicated and the developers working on it will need to be more advanced.
When should you use a Headless CMS?
If you’re starting a new project from scratch and want the option to incrementally improve your website or serve content to multiple channels, you should consider using a headless CMS. If you have an existing website on a traditional CMS, it might make sense to gradually decouple the frontend and move to a headless approach. It might also make sense if your product team has some expertise in a more modern technology stack to explore a headless CMS. They’ll be much more willing to help integrate the website with the product or work on future improvements with this approach.
If your budget is tight and your requirements are fairly straight forward, a traditional CMS may be a better solution. You might also consider your current implementation and if you are leveraging any plugins that might make switching more difficult. In these cases a gradual integration may make more sense.