Going Headless: The Benefits & Limitations of a Headless CMS

Insights / 04.27.2023
Candice Wyatt / Sr. Director, Web & Platform Solutions

2/27/2024 8:41:47 PM Red Door Interactive http://www.reddoor.biz Red Door Interactive

We’ve been following the headless content management systems (CMS) movement for years now, waiting for model and platforms to mature enough to make sense for our enterprise clients — but the benefits of a headless CMS were never in question. The scalability and performance far outpaced traditional CMS websites, and with recent moves by Google to emphasize user experience and site performance in organic search ranking, along with the need to have content distributable to various connected device types, the headless CMS approach is more relevant than ever before.

But up until roughly a year ago, headless CMS players didn’t have good solutions for table stakes features like previewing before publishing or tools that allowed developers and content editors to build and maintain a website as easily as with a traditional monolithic CMS like WordPress, Drupal, or Kentico. The time has come, though, when headless CMS has advanced enough features that we feel confident recommending it to clients.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the advantages and disadvantages of a headless CMS, as well as important considerations to help you evaluate your options.

What is a headless content management system (CMS)?

A headless content management system is a type of CMS that separates the back-end management of content from the front-end presentation of that content. The back-end focuses on content storage, retrieval, and management while the front-end can be built using any technology, or framework and is connected to the back-end through APIs.

Benefits of a Headless CMS:

1. Flexibility

A headless CMS allows the website to be built using any programming language and framework. This flexibility makes highly interactive experiences easier to develop and maintain because you can leverage more modern web technologies like the popular JavaScript framework, React

2. Decoupling

A headless CMS separates the front-end and back-end, allowing for more modular, scalable development. This makes it easier for developers to update and maintain different parts of the system (i.e., components) independently in the future. And because content is decoupled, it can be reused and pushed to other websites, apps, and connected devices which removes duplicate content management work.

3. Improved Performance

Because of the decoupled nature, a headless CMS focuses on delivering content as data, eliminating the processing overhead of rendering the presentation of the content and allowing for faster content delivery with lower latency. A headless CMS also enables you to use any language and framework, which means you’re able to take advantage of modern front-end technologies, like React, that offer faster performance.

Research has shown that the performance of a website can improve or hinder your marketing efforts. For example, Google research states that a one-second delay in mobile load times can impact mobile conversion rates by up to 20%. And in 2022, Portent found that the highest e-commerce conversion rates occur on pages with load times between one and two seconds.

Now that we’ve covered the benefits let’s talk about drawbacks. When Red Door shifted from traditional CMS implementations to headless CMS implementations, we realized that there were two key things that clients needed to know before saying, “yes” to building their website as a headless CMS. These were things that would not be ideal, and some were even prohibitive to a company moving to headless, but proactively putting those on the table during the consideration phase was far better than finding out when it’s too late.

Limitations of a Headless CMS:

1. Limited Out-of-the-Box Content Editor Capabilities

Since a headless CMS front-end and back-end aren’t integrated by default, it likely won’t offer a content editor drag-and-drop templates or the creation of pages from templates and content editing features that traditional CMS users are used to. In a traditional monolithic CMS like Drupal, for example, the site’s admin section already exists upon installation and often configuration is all that’s needed to make the content editable for admins. But a headless CMS is different. 

2. Increased Development Time

Using a headless CMS often requires more up-front development time as the front-end and back-end of the site must be built separately. If you want content editing capabilities, you should plan accordingly and expect it to take more time than you’re used to. For this reason, if a team is working on a tight deadline or has limited development resources or budget, they may prefer to use a traditional CMS.

Without an understanding of these two critical considerations there’s sure to be misalignment between the development team and business/marketing stakeholders.

How to Evaluate Headless CMS Options 

1. Choose a headless CMS that is mature in its features and has the stability and backing of a strong company. Since headless CMS’ are still relatively new, the last thing you want is to invest in a platform that may not be able to continually back their product development or worst yet, survive. For us, the choice was easy as WP Engine's Atlas headless WordPress product was the best headless CMS we’ve found so far. WP Engine’s Atlas is a decoupled WordPress solution that allows developers to build custom front-end experiences using modern technologies, such as React, while still utilizing the power of the WordPress back-end for content management and data storage.

2. Ask your agency partner and/or headless CMS platform contact the following questions to ensure the platform can meet your needs or expectations.

  • Does the headless CMS offer an intuitive user interface for creating, editing, and organizing content, including page templates?
  • What would a content editor’s experience be like when publishing a new blog post?
  • What would a content editor’s experience be like when editing the page copy or images for the homepage?
  • Can you preview content before it’s published with the headless CMS?
  • Does the headless CMS allow you to create the content types we need and have flexible fields that can accommodate different data types?
  • Does the headless CMS have built-in integrations with other tools we use, or does it offer APIs or webhooks that allow you to build custom integrations?

Final Thoughts 

Make sure content editing features are built into your implementation plan. This is one of the biggest complaints we hear about headless CMS implementations. It can have devastating effects on a marketing program when site updates get stalled or delayed due to requiring development resources for updating even the most basic content updates.

Overall, a headless CMS can offer greater flexibility, scalability, and performance compared to traditional content management systems. However, it's important to consider the limitations of the platform(s) you’re evaluating and how it may impact your marketing program. In some cases, the advantages of a headless CMS outweigh the limitations, while in others, a traditional CMS may be a better fit.

Are you considering building or redesigning your website? Contact us to determine if implementing a headless CMS is the right choice for your brand’s website.

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