WordPress vs. headless CMS
If you have been working on the web over the last few years, you have heard the term headless CMS. In this blog post, I will take a closer look at headless CMSes, share the advantages over a traditional monolith CMS like Wordpress, and clarify why WordPress is still so popular.
Table of Contents:
- What is a headless CMS?
- Why WordPress powers over 45% of the Internet
- Disadvantages of WordPress
- Reasons to go with a headless CMS
- My favorite headless CMS
A headless CMS is a Content Management System that only acts as a backend service. It’s accessible via an API and is missing the viewable part for the users, hence the term headless.
A headless CMS is a place that only holds the Content, nothing else. To make this Content available to your users, you must fetch it and build your own “head,” your Frontend.
Traditionally, a CMS has always been both; Frontend and Backend. However, the shift from traditional CMS to headless CMS emerged due to new requirements that started to develop.
Content needs to be distributed not only in one place, one single website but on multiple platforms, like mobile apps and third-party platforms.
That’s how the idea transformed: the Content should be detached from the Platform where you view it. In addition to these changing requirements, a lot of new technology developed. People wanted to be free and more flexible in their choice of technology and not only use Server-Side Rendering with PHP because that’s what WordPress uses.
Frameworks like Gatsby, Next.js or Remix showed substantial performance improvements, and People wanted to use these new approaches. So the detaching of the Content from the view, the detaching of the Backend from the Frontend, by using a headless CMS enabled Developers to explore new ways.
So when headless CMS is the new shiny and big thing, why is WordPress still powering over 45% of the Internet?
Yes, you’ve read right; that number is accurate. In 2023 WordPress is used by over 45% of all websites ↗, which translates to nearly 39 million websites. That’s a market share of 63% of all the CMS.
WordPress picked the right place and time to shine when it was released. It started as a blogging platform back in 2003. It was and is still completely free. It’s open source and offers a crazy amount of plugins to enhance your website with features.
You can get very far initially, without any coding experience, when using WordPress to build a new Website. If you’re a small business and don’t have the resources or the money to hire a developer or an agency, it was and still is a great option to get a website fast.
You choose a theme and hosting service and start publishing your content. Due to its age and popularity, it has a big community where you can find help and support if you’re stuck.
So WordPress is still a great option if you need a website and want to use a CMS, right? Why bother with headless CMS if WordPress gives you all you need?
Great question. Let me explain this in-depth in the next section. As I said before, with limited resources, needs, and requirements, WordPress is a good choice. But unfortunately, it has a lot of disadvantages that can grow on you.
WordPress might offer a fast way to publish your content initially. But generally, it has long and slow build times when you release something new. This is because you have to publish the latest content, and your whole website must be built and published again.
I've already discussed the Plugin ecosystem to enhance your Websites features. It might be a good idea at first. But it can also lead to a lot of disadvantages. If you use a ton of third-party plugins, chances are that these slow down the performance of your website dramatically.
Another factor you have to consider is that using plugins always leads to third-party dependencies. You have to check and regularly update them to newer versions. Otherwise, you risk security issues. Even if you have a basic website and use a free theme, you have to keep this theme up-to-date.
So bad performance, unfortunately, is a thing when using WordPress. Of course, I'm not saying this is true for all WordPress sites. But you must care a lot to prevent falling into this trap. You have to pick your plugins carefully. You must choose your hosting service wisely. In general, I find it harder to make a WordPress website fast.
Security issues are another big thing. If you're using WordPress, you must host your content and code together. Your content is technically directly accessible through your Frontend, meaning if you don't take the right actions, your Database can be accessed through the browser.
I've heard from many people who got hacked, and their content was deleted that way. So you have to be aware of these things, make sure your website is safe, your Database secured, and your Plugins updated—a lot of extra steps to take, to use WordPress.
Finally, how content is distributed changed significantly in the last ten years. Content is not only bound to a website and shared there. But WordPress is tied to your content; if you're using WordPress, your content is tailored for it.
Now we've learned about the disadvantages of WordPress. What about headless CMS? Do they share them, or can they overcome them? Let's have a look.
As I already discussed, headless CMS is a different approach. You have a clear separation between your Content and your Code. Your Frontend is decoupled from your Backend. Your Content is stored in the CMS and accessible via an API. This is one of the best reasons to choose a headless CMS.
This clear separation brings the biggest benefit. Having one place for your Content, decoupled from an actual website, enables you to distribute your Content on multiple platforms. The old approach via WordPress meant that your Content was tailored for your WordPress website, structured in web pages, and not flexible.
With the headless approach, you treat your Content more like the data and care about the meaning less about the presentation. You focus on the Content, which then can be distributed on a website, a mobile app, an in-store digital signage, wherever possible.
The actual head, the presentational layer, can be built with a developer's preference. This can be with a SPA, a framework like Next.js ↗ or Remix ↗, or a simple, plain, and static HTML site. You are not bound to the server-side-rendering technique with PHP, which WordPress uses.
This can lead to a way better experience concerning performance. It offers more flexibility. If you decide to swap the presentational layer, no hurdle stops you from doing so, as you are detached from your Backend. The only connection is via an API Call.
This also leads to the final reason to go with a headless CMS. It's way more secure than WordPress. The Backend is separated from the Frontend. There is no direct unrestricted access through the browser. So to make a POST or DELETE Request from your website to your headless CMS is way harder.
So there are many reasons to go with a headless CMS nowadays instead of using traditional Monolith CMS like WordPress. My favorite headless CMS currently is Prismic ↗. I’ve done all my client projects with it over the last two years, and all my clients are happy about it.
I’ve tried others, of course, and compared. I was a long-term fan of Contentful ↗, for example, until their pricing became a little too expensive for smaller client websites. So, for now, I’ve settled on Prismic. But I’m always looking out for better options and comparing other solutions.
I like Prismic a lot because their Content Editing experience is so user-friendly. In addition, they follow this approach of custom types and Slices ↗ to model your Content, which I like a lot. With custom types, you can build your documents as needed, while slices can be added as a dynamic content section on your documents.
The developer experience is excellent, especially with the automated Type generation, which was added recently.
You have unlimited languages, a preview mode where content editors can preview their changes before publishing, and they can even schedule when it should be published. The publication of new Content is also fast. You hit publish and get the new Content via API.
If you’re working with multiple people, the history functionality is handy. You can see what others changed, deleted, or updated and even jump to later versions of your Content.
You get unlimited storage and built-in image optimization if you want to share many images or other assets.
What I dislike about Prismic and think there is room for improvement is the organization of these assets. You cannot add tags, order them in folders, or similar things. I had multiple clients lacking this feature, and I hope it will make it into Prismic soon. Unfortunately, it’s a pending feature request ↗ that hasn’t yet arrived on the roadmap.
Another thing where I’m not sure what to think about is that Prismic tries to be both: a place for your Content and a page builder. I know I praised the possibility of how Prismic enables you to model your Content with Custom Types and Slices. But if I think about it again, this seems to contradict the headless CMS approach. Where Content is just structured data, and you only care about the meaning of it, less about the presentation.
What I’ve struggled with the most while using Prismic is the API documentation, especially when I need to query relational data. I’m not sure where my problem was, but I had a hard time doing that, even after seeking support from the community.
Next to Prismic, I'm checking out Sanity.io ↗ at the moment. They offer all of the features that Prismic has as well. But they have a more generous free plan. In addition, you get more user accounts, while in Prismic, you must pay for more than one user.
I also like their approach of treating content as plain data where you don't care about the presentation of it, but you care about the meaning. My first steps of using Sanity.io ↗ gave me the impression that it's more customizable. I'll need a bigger project to get a complete image, but I am eager to test it.
So that's it. These are the reasons why I like using a headless CMS, which ones I'm currently digging, and why WordPress projects don't tempt me.
If you're still on the fence about whether to go with a headless CMS or a traditional CMS like WordPress, it's worth considering the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches.
While WordPress is still the go-to choice for many businesses due to its ease of use and large community, a headless CMS offers much more flexibility and can help you distribute your content across multiple platforms. Additionally, headless CMSes tend to be more secure and provide better performance.
- What is Headless WordPress? ↗
- Headless CMS Explained by Knut Melvær ↗
- What Is Headless WordPress—And Should You Use It? by Charlotte Dillon ↗
- Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS by Joe Holmes ↗
- CMS Usage Distribution on the Entire Internet ↗
- Usage statistics of content management systems ↗
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I wish you a wonderful day! Marco