What’s the Difference Between a Traditional and a Headless CMS?

When most people think of making changes to their website, they probably think of logging into a platform like WordPress and editing pages. They might also have not such fond memories of struggling to find plugins that do what they promise without breaking the whole site…

Using a headless CMS promises to address some of these issues but might seem like a solution that’s way out of reach for all but the most tech-savvy teams. In fact, some headless CMS services are taking steps to ease the transition from a traditional CMS.

But, before we get into any of that, it’s useful to understand more about the differences between a traditional and headless CMS. Once we’ve covered that, we’ll consider some of the implications of headless and what the future of using a CMS might look like.

Define: Coupled/Traditional CMS (and Pros/Cons)

Examples: WordPress, Drupal, Squarespace, Wix, Shopify*

Even if they don’t realize it, most people are familiar with traditional content management systems (CMS). Sometimes known as a coupled CMS, this involves a connected back-end and front-end working together to power a website. The back-end consists of a database with code and plugins, while the front-end uses themes, templates, and CSS to display content to end-users.

Many of the advantages of a traditional CMS are apparent: they allow users to create or update pages without getting too deep into HTML and CSS and move content around using FTP.

Site-builders like Wix and Squarespace have gone one step further than this, enabling users to drag and drop content blocks using WYSIWYG editors, so there’s no need to use any code at all. In other words, they’ve made creating content online a lot more egalitarian than it used to be.

However, this also points at some of its key disadvantages: a reliance on themes and templates can result in content looking and feeling stagnant while making minor changes can ironically become more difficult than redesigning the entire site.

Plus, as we’ve already seen with the rush to address mobile growth in recent years, traditional CMS products can often find themselves playing catch-up with innovative new technologies.

  • These are typically used in the traditional way but can also be used headlessly.

Define: Headless CMS (and Pros/Cons)

Examples: Ghost, Contentful, Netlify CMS, Sanity.io, Cosmic JS, GraphCMS

A headless CMS removes the front-end, or the “head,” from a traditional CMS setup while retaining the back-end database and code. APIs can then transmit content to various device types, like a desktop browser, mobile, smart device, IoT device, or others.

We live in a world where mobile experiences and smart devices are as, if not more, important than traditional websites. The omnichannel nature of headless CMSs makes the solution feel more future-proof in a way that hasn’t, for now at least, really been addressed by traditional CMS providers.

With all of that said, using a headless CMS is much more difficult for a non-technical consumer because they can’t easily preview new content before posting without development help. Even more of that tech help is required for the implementation of a front-end framework.

It’s worth noting that some providers do have extensive documentation on using third-party presentations in conjunction with a headless CMS. Ghost even ships with a default front-end theme layer built using Handlebars. Still, this whole process will be daunting to some, even if they’ve been using WordPress for years.

We all know that Google prioritizes sites that load quickly, and that’s something using a headless CMS can help with. Kym Ellis, who works in marketing at Ghost, explains that a big use case is that “you can get significant performance improvements, which are important for a lot of businesses who care about SEO.”

She also mentions a few of the security risks of traditional CMS: “Those sites get hacked all the time, usually via insecure plugins or sites not being updated etc. Vulnerabilities as a result of that are easy to hack.”

Although a headless CMS isn’t necessarily immune to hacks, Kaya Ismail of CMSWire asserts that they offer more security than their traditional equivalent.

Traditional CMS vs. Headless CMS

Asking a question like “is a headless CMS better than traditional CMS solutions?” is sort of like asking, “what’s the programming language of the future?” The best possible, but perhaps most annoying, answer is: “It depends.”

Those who are comfortable using APIs may prefer the flexibility and efficiency of distributing content via a headless CMS. On the other hand, individuals who are less confident in their development skills are unlikely to ditch templates and a simple UI any time soon.

The middle ground is a decoupled CMS — seen by some as the best of both worlds — in which a back-end (for content creation) and a front-end (for displaying content) are housed separately. The biggest hurdle here is that a decoupled setup is, arguably, even more development intensive than using a headless CMS.

Headless and traditional both have their place but, as long as headless CMS platforms retain some of the barriers to entry associated with them right now, they’ll likely struggle to remove the traditional CMS from its throne.

Services like Ghost and Shopify are making waves, but it’s worth remembering that WordPress powered 40% of ALL websites online in 2019 and accounted for almost ⅔ of the CMS market. And that won’t change overnight.

Is Headless CMS the Future?

Some say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s probably good advice for non-technical site owners who get by OK with templates and plugins. WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, Shopify*, etc., are probably good enough solutions.

  • There’s a growing movement of headless Shopify, with some great examples of the Selleo blog.

If you’re looking to “do more,” however, then headless is worth considering. If that sounds vague, it’s because headless CMS is relatively new, so we haven’t seen everything it’s capable of yet. Still, eCommerce is one area in which headless is already proving disruptive.

In a previous post, we cited Harsh Kamarkar talking on the Mulesoft blog about headless commerce. He provides examples of chatbots offering discounts on items left in carts as well as service reps adding items to orders and finding delivery windows without needing to ask for credit card/order info again. All of this is possible using headless CMS and APIs.

Not all plugins are bad, but we do not doubt that many of our readers will welcome the opportunity to interact and publish with APIs on a “purer” level. Using a headless CMS allows you to do just that, and we’re only scratching the surface of the possibilities that they offer.

The role of APIs in headless really hammers home the “API-first” movement that we’ve seen so many businesses gravitate towards in recent years, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on the continued adoption of headless in those to come.