A Beginner’s Guide to Headless CMS

As we move into The Next Decade of the Web, a trend that has repeatedly emerged is the rise of omnichannel marketing.

Omnichannel marketing refers to brand presence across multiple channels. Think of ordering a cake from a bakery’s website, receiving an SMS, and getting the cake delivered to your doorstep. Or pre-ordering your coffee from Starbucks’ app and receiving your coffee in person. 

While omnichannel marketing ensures a seamless experience for the customers, it complicates the workflow at the back end. Businesses have to develop separate systems for each channel — website, mobile app, text messages and social media.

Is that the only way?

No. Web developers are looking at headless content management systems, or headless CMS, to simplify omnichannel marketing. Through headless CMS, you can manage all channels from a single centralized system.

Read on to learn more about:

Headless CMS 101

Headless CMS vs. Decoupled CMS

Headless WordPress

Headless Architecture: Making of Headless WordPress

Headless WordPress — Benefits

Headless WordPress — Limitations

Best Headless WordPress Websites

Final Thoughts: Headless WordPress — A Beginner’s Guide to Headless CMS

Headless CMS 101

Traditional CMS vs. headless CMS

All websites consist of a front end and a back end. The front end is what appears to the users, while the back end is what occurs behind the scenes — including data replication, data storage and other functions.

A traditional CMS aims to be a single solution that manages both the front end and back end. Whereas in a headless CMS, the front end and back end are separate. You can work on them independently.

If you consider the front end as the head, removing the front end (or the presentation layer) turns a traditional CMS into a headless CMS.

In a headless CMS, the front end removal leaves only the back end and the application programming interface (API). The content management system becomes a content repository and relies on other channels for content delivery. 

Developers can, in turn, build as many channels (or heads) as they require for an omnichannel marketing approach. Whereas content creators and content editors can continue to do their job in the same way without disruption.

Headless CMS vs. Decoupled CMS

Headless CMS vs. decoupled CMS

While headless CMS and decoupled CMS are often used interchangeably, they do have slight differences.

In a decoupled CMS (or hybrid headless CMS), content is managed separately from the back end. Still, a decoupled CMS offers front end delivery tools such as templates to present that content.

On the other hand, a headless CMS is simply a data source. It consists of only the back end and relies on its API to facilitate various front ends.  

According to content executive Deane Barker, these differences — available templates — make decoupled CMS more proactive as it prepares content for presentation and delivers it to a new environment. In comparison, headless CMS acts as a reactive CMS that manages the content and waits for another medium to request it.

Headless WordPress

A headless WordPress enables you to keep your WordPress CMS while taking advantage of a flexible front end. If you consider WordPress to be a quick and flexible solution, headless WordPress amplifies that ability.

Although WordPress was not intended to be a headless CMS, it started going in that direction as headless CMS showed promise in the future of web app development in 2015.

In 2016, WordPress created the REST API that enabled WordPress to transform into a headless CMS. With the REST API, the critical functions of WordPress prevail, whereas the front end features — like the What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor — are sidelined.

Examples of other open-source headless CMS platforms include Drupal and Ghost.

Headless Architecture: Making of Headless WordPress

In a headless CMS architecture, the front end and back end are separate. Thus, the server-side content management system and client-side web application need a connection to communicate. That is where the application-side interface (API) comes in.

The API is a standardized way for software to communicate with each other. Due to the extent of the importance of API in headless CMS, headless CMSs are also called API-first CMSs.

WordPress uses a REST API, a web-based API that allows the software to communicate over the internet using HTTP web addresses called endpoints. Endpoints resemble web addresses that we use to visit websites, and they accept various types of requests from the API.

Headless WordPress — Benefits

By shifting to a headless CMS like headless WordPress, you can:

  1. Simplify omnichannel content publishing. You can easily publish content on different platforms. Through automation in headless WordPress, you can manage and publish content on multiple channels, including websites, apps, social media and even the Internet of Things (IoT).

    It enhances your customers’ digital experience and saves your employees’ time for critical tasks.
  2. Explore new content formats. Headless CMS expands the realm of possibilities. Unrestricted by the limited front end content formats, you can distance yourself from HTML and employ JavaScript to your liking.

    That’s why headless WordPress is becoming a popular way to build web and mobile apps.
  3. Enable quicker scalability. Headless CMS empowers you to manage content from a single source and distribute it to different channels. As the back end is separate, It enables you to change developer tools at any time according to your needs and available resources.
  4. Speed up your website. Headless WordPress simplifies the way a website is loaded on a visitor’s device. 

    First, due to separation of the front end and back end, the website uses fewer resources (only the front end) for loading the website. Second, there is no time delay due to installed plugins — which slow down web pages otherwise.

    As a result, using headless WordPress speeds up your website. A quick-loading website is known to benefit search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.
  5. Enjoy flexibility and functionality. With headless CMS, content is served over APIs so developers are free to choose a front end that supports a programming language that they feel comfortable with.

Headless WordPress — Limitations

Headless CMS and headless WordPress find use in creating websites, e-commerce stores, web apps, and products such as voice assistants or digital kiosks.

Still, headless CMS is not for every website. For example, if your website publishes on and off, the costs of using a headless CMS may outweigh the benefits. 

Also, headless WordPress requires separate web hosting: the back-end server must support WordPress and PHP, while the front-end server should work with the technology you’re using.

Another situation is if the person dealing with website maintenance isn’t well-versed in coding. Your website may be better off with a visual interface in that situation, as using headless WordPress requires knowledge of JavaScript.

Best Headless WordPress Websites

To understand the possibilities of a headless CMS, check out these headless WordPress websites:

1. TechCrunch

TechCrunch a website hosted on headless WordPress

TechCrunch is one of the most popular examples of a headless WordPress-based website. In 2018, TechCrunch completely rebuilt its website by building a React/Redux app and connecting it to WordPress’ REST API — from which it reads data in JSON.

2. The Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum’s website is based on headless WordPress

The Guggenheim Museum’s website underwent a redesign in 2016, choosing WordPress to be its content management system. It built its website using an AngularJS front end.

3. Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami’s website is an example of headless CMS

Haruki Murakami’s website is another website built with headless WordPress; you can even see the WordPress logo as its favicon. Like Guggenheim’s website, Murakami’s website was also built on AngularJS.

Final Thoughts: Headless WordPress — A Beginner’s Guide to Headless CMS

Marketers are looking for ways to create omnichannel experiences that improve user experience. Using a headless content management system (CMS) is seen as a solid solution. In addition, it simplifies content creation and distribution.

As the most popular CMS globally, WordPress started developing ways to get into the headless CMS space, paving the way for headless WordPress.

Headless WordPress has several advantages, including improvement in website speed, and subsequently, customer experience. It also enables you to publish content to multiple channels and create web apps. Using a headless CMS future-proofs businesses by offering different ways to reach the end-user.
Ready to switch to headless WordPress? Sign up for a Bluehost plan today.

Machielle Thomas
Machielle Thomas | Content Manager
Machielle Thomas writes and curates web and email content for marketing professionals, small business owners, bloggers, and more.

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