The Complete Guide to Headless WordPress CMS

WordPress is a one-size-fits-all content management system (CMS) that dominates its contenders by a large margin. It started as a simple blogging platform, but later became a behemoth used by billions of users in no more than two decades. Love or hate it, WordPress streamlined the growth of small and mid-size online businesses. The platform makes it easy to publish content and attract customers through content marketing.

WordPress turned into the preferred platform for many other projects. It’s suitable for running portfolios, online stores, charity projects, Saas & business websites, and magazine news. Under these circumstances, it’s there room for WordPress improvement? Is there any area where WordPress falls short?

Despite its massive success, WordPress is perfectible. The large WordPress development team works hard to make it even better, which is why you will hear more about headless WordPress CMS. This guide covers everything you need to know about headless WordPress CMS and implementing it for your projects.

WordPress Weaknesses

WordPress will be the leading CMS for many years, thanks to its fantastic set of features. However, a one-size-fits-all approach can’t satisfy every user’s needs. It’s impossible for a product to simultaneously meet the needs of a personal blog and a complex online store. Usually, casual users accept the minor problems, but enterprise players try to improve WordPress.  

Handling complex websites is an extensive WordPress issue. Enterprise companies should interact with customers on multiple channels, and traditional WordPress is limited in this aspect. Multi-channel and cross-platform publishing is the norm nowadays. The traditional WordPress CMS doesn’t allow the use of other languages along with JavaScript and PHP. You cannot use your coding language of choice to spice up your site design and functionality.

Performance is another major WordPress weakness. It’s somewhat surprising that WordPress contributors hardly considered creating a performance team at the end of 2021. Speed is a longstanding problem with WordPress, and let’s hope that the new team will bring improvements.

Finally, security is another major weakness of WordPress. The WordPress install is secure, and all new WordPress versions come with security improvements. However, its massive usage and open format are the principal vulnerabilities. Cybercriminals are tempted to focus on these vulnerabilities because millions of untrained people run their sites on WordPress. It’s enough a zero-day vulnerability of a common plugin or theme, and a skilled hacker may break into hundreds of websites. A WordPress site has dozens of plugins and a few themes that may contain security breaches. Hence, a WordPress site is relatively easily hackable, mainly because of the themes and plugins.

Coupled vs. Decoupled vs. Headless CMSs

To better understand how headless WordPress works and its potential benefits, you should clearly understand the types of CMS. WordPress is a coupled CMS, meaning the back-end and front-end are tied to the same system. The back-end is your WordPress dashboard where you manage the site – install and customise themes and plugins, manage users, write content and tweak the site code. The front-end is what the users see and interact with. Briefly, the coupled CMS architecture includes:

  • a back-end for content management
  • a front-end for content publishing
  • a database to retrieve content from back-end to front-end

A decoupled CMS implies a clear separation between the back-end and the front-end. It uses a different back-end to create and manage content and one or more front-end systems to publish content. An API connects the front- and back-ends instead of a database. A decoupled CMS includes:

  • a back-end for content management
  • a front-end for content publishing, separated from the back-end,
  • an API connecting the back-end and front-end.

As the name says, a headless CMS decouples the front-end (the head) from the back-end (the body). Unlike decoupled CMS, the front-end isn’t predetermined in the case of headless CMS. It’s a massive separation because, in this way, many environments display the content you created on the back-end. Thanks to a robust API, a headless CMS allows users to publish the same content on different platforms and formats. A standard headless structure is:

  • a back-end for content management
  • one or more publishing channels working as front-end,
  • an API that connects the back-end and the publishing channels.

Using a headless CMS, you publish content for mobile apps, wearables, newsletters, social media profiles, and third-party sites directly from your back-end.

Pros and Cons of Traditional CMSs

It’s pretty challenging to understand the types of CMSs if you are a casual WordPress user. Decoupled and headless CMSs get the average WordPress users out of their comfort zone. It’s not easy to learn the mechanism behind decoupled and headless CMSs, but it’s necessary if you want to expand your WordPress knowledge.

A clear understanding of the pros and cons of each type of CMS will help you better evaluate the needs of your business. You will know which solution works for you. 

Pros of Traditional CMSs

Traditional CMSs like WordPress or Wix cater to less trained users who want to create a small to medium website. Their advantages are simplicity, user-friendly interfaces, and a rich supply of themes and plugins. Anyone with basic digital skills can launch a WordPress website by following a few tutorials. WordPress’ primary aim is to democratize content publishing, which it has nailed down in its two decades of existence. Besides, you have countless themes and plugins for your site at your disposal.

Cons of Traditional CMSs

WordPress and other traditional CMSs are great for publishing text-based content to a website. However, it falls short when reusing the content to display on multiple platforms. In this perspective, WordPress hasn’t managed to evolve further from its status as a blogging platform. Additionally, coupled CMSs are the most easy-to-hack platforms.        

Pros and Cons of Decoupled CMSs

Decoupled and coupled CMSs target different audiences, so both of them will continue existing on the market. Traditional CMSs are best suited to casual users, while decoupled CMSs respond better to the requirements of highly complex websites. Besides, it’s possible to switch from coupled to decoupled format.

Pros of Decoupled CMSs

Practically, a decoupled CMS combines the simplicity of a traditional CMS back-end and the flexibility of the preferred front-end. You create the content on a convenient platform and publish it on your favourite front-end presentation channel.  A decoupled CMS isn’t only flexible in terms of the front-end platform; you can also use it for third-party integrations, enhancing user experience.

Cons of Decoupled CMSs

Non-developers prefer coupled CMSs because of the possibility of building a website without writing a line of code. Sadly, decoupled CMSs aren’t accessible to non-developers. You need the help of an expert to configure the front-end and connect the back-end to it through API. On top of that, any design change supposes a developer’s work. Wrapping up, decoupled CMSs require a developer or a dedicated team for deployment and maintenance.

Pros and Cons of Headless CMSs

Headless CMSs are intimidating to most Internet users, but they have gained serious traction in the last couple of years. Signs show that more and more people will adopt this technology.

Pros of Headless CMSs

No better alternative provides more freedom. Headless CMSs are all you need to create outstanding digital experiences. You are free to use whichever presentation channels you want and the preferred tech stacks. Headless CMSs support innovation and deliver content in the most convenient ways for users. There is no unhackable website or app, but a headless structure minimizes the chances of getting hacked.

Cons of Headless CMSs

It takes time and skill to craft an online presence running on a headless CMS. Even the content production and distribution is more complicated—there is no live preview of the work done. As a result, you probably need specialized system configuration and content production departments. Most small and mid-size businesses don’t have the budget to run a headless CMS.     

This table condenses the pros and cons of each CMS to help you better synthesize the information above. 

Pros of Traditional CMSCons of Traditional CMS
Simplicity of use; even non-coders may create functional websitesImpossible to use other coding languages and frameworks other than JavaScript and PHP
A good suite of editing tools + live previewDifficulties in handling complex websites
Documentation, plenty of tutorials, and a helpful communityRelatively easy to break into a website through a plugin or theme vulnerability
Fully customisable front-endLimited options to enhance website functionality 
Pros of Decoupled CMSCons of Decoupled CMS
Flexible options to display contentTrained operator/team to deploy and manage the website or app
Ability to use preferred language or frameworkMedium to high complexity structure
Third-party software integrations
Enhanced security
Pros of Headless CMSCons of Headless CMS
Full control over publishing channelsComplex deployment and difficult to maintain
Possibility of using the favourite language or frameworkRequires a dedicated team for deployment, design, and maintenance
Support innovation
Display content on multiple channels simultaneously
Third-party software integrations
Enhanced security

Headless WordPress CMS

Now you have a basic understanding of the types of CMSs and what a headless approach entails. It’s time to delve deeper and get your hands dirty with headless WordPress CMS. 

Essentially, headless WordPress CMS takes the traditional back-end and publishes the content on literally all kinds of platforms your customers use. What really matters is that headless WordPress uses the standard content production method—you create posts and pages.

The strengths and weaknesses of a headless WordPress CMS are similar to all headless CMSs. It intimidates average site admins, has a steep learning curve, and both content producers and site admins need professional skills. At the same time, it allows you to add an app-like design and functionality to your website. On top of that, headless WordPress is faster and more secure than the traditional alternative. 

Signs show that enterprise organizations adopt headless CMSs, and headless WordPress is one of the favourite solutions. As headless CMSs become more user-friendly, more and more users will begin to adopt them. However, it will never be as user-friendly as coupled CMSs are. 

Is Headless WordPress for Me?

Headless WordPress comes with attractive benefits for webmasters. Are you asking yourself if you should go for it? Indeed, it’s common sense to consider headless WordPress, but at the moment, it’s rather a niche alternative. Personal blogs, portfolios, non-profit, and any non-heavily visited websites may happily run on coupled WordPress. Also, if you aren’t a skilled developer, you’d better stay away from headless WordPress. The great news is that you can launch your site on the traditional WordPress install and switch to a headless configuration anytime you want. Supposing that your business grows over time, you want to expand its functionalities or create an app-like design, you have all the reasons to choose headless WordPress. 

How to Create a Headless WordPress Site

You will be disappointed if you expect a step-by-step process explaining how to transform a traditional WordPress install into a headless structure. Headless WordPress implies that you move away from the standard front-end, favouring other solutions. Each publishing channel of a headless WordPress has its particularities, and it’s impossible to cover all alternatives in a single blog post. The unchanged parts of headless WordPress are the back-end—most likely you are already familiar with and the REST API. You have to study this API to manage a headless site carefully. It’s the tool that allows connecting the back-end with the publishing channels.   

Fortunately, many companies have described their switch to a headless approach, and you can read the case studies. Knowing the ins and outs of the front-end is of paramount importance for the success of your site. Therefore, ensure that you have enough experience under your belt with the preferred front-end before giving up to the traditional WordPress.

Over to You

WordPress has a few annoying drawbacks, but its advantages are more numerous and substantial. Going headless is an excellent solution to create a faster and more secure website. Yet, it’s not perfect. You need exceptional skills to launch and maintain such a project.

Have you ever worked on a headless WordPress project? Do you have an opinion on it? Let us know your thoughts. We are eager to know what you think about coupled vs. decoupled vs. headless CMSs.

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