While the lion's share of websites still use a traditional CMS such as WordPress or Squarespace, the momentum behind Headless is growing considerably. But what is a Headless CMS, and why should you care? To begin, let’s first define the terms CMS and Headless.
CMS is short for Content Management System, a digital space to store and manage content for a website, web app or other digital property. Traditional CMS systems are integrated, which is to say that the CMS and website are built into each other. When using WordPress, the code that manages the content is also responsible for building the website’s pages.
The diagram above displays a traditional integrated CMS structure. One server, and a short route from the CMS to the site. The CMS’s structure is tied to the website's form.
It’s a simple system, and well-trodden for many reasons. But as the web has grown, so have the needs of users. Gone are the days when content only had one destination: your website. More often than not, companies now have micro-sites, apps, and other digital properties to manage, spanning many different devices. Using a traditional CMS for all of these properties can result in spreading your company’s data, images, and copy-writing across many sites and accounts, which can make updating your information and content very time-consuming and frustrating.
In a Headless structure, content lives separately from your digital properties, meaning that it can be structured independently from the sites and apps where it will eventually be used.
A Headless CMS keeps your content on a separate server, and allows access to the data via an API. It’s easy to imagine how this approach can benefit anybody with multiple digital properties, but what are some of the specific benefits?
For many users, the web-editing experience is generally restricted to a text editor, blog format, or a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor such as Squarespace. Text editors and blog interfaces suffer from an inability to offer rich content options, while the WYSIWYG experience can be intimidating, leading the editor to fear touching their content, lest they break their entire website. Headless content editors have no predefined form, and therefore editors can only edit the things they are meant to.
For editors, this is a massive benefit. The Headless CMS structure provides the user with full control over their copy, images, and even the order of their pages, but without the ability to accidentally break their site.
In the traditional model, your CMS is 100% tied to the content on your page. This means that your plugins, themes, and the server itself have the potential to become vulnerable over time. Not to mention constant battles with updates and server changes.
With a Headless CMS, your CMS is managed for you, typically by the company you've hired to build your site. They handle your server changes and application security, manage your accounts, and tightly control your plugins to avoid security hazards inherent to older platforms.
Modern web development allows sites to evolve and grow faster than ever before, but this also means that three-year-old solutions are often already obsolete. With a traditional CMS, your content is tied to your platform, so if your current platform stops fitting your needs, you’ll need to discard your CMS with it, and start over from scratch.
With a Headless CMS, this isn’t a problem. Your content lives separately from its vehicle, so it can power as many different projects as you want, without needing to be changed or moved. Want to switch platforms? No problem! Headless CMS content doesn’t have a delivery preference, and you can use it for as many sites or apps as you’d like.
Because Headless CMS's are agnostic to the frontend, they’re compatible with modern, performant frameworks such as Next.js or Gatsby.js. Upgrading to a lightweight framework can massively improve performance scores on Google Lighthouse, which directly correlates to your SEO rating. For most clients, the speed boost gained from upgrading to a Gatsby or Next solution is a huge benefit.
Consistency & branding
Because traditional CMS content is spread between separate pages and sites which don’t communicate with each other, your messaging and branding can become inconsistent over time. For instance, a recently-changed company logo, address, or phone number might be inconsistent between a company’s website and a year-old web-app. With a Headless CMS, we have the unique opportunity to ensure that your messaging is consistent across multiple sites and pages.
For instance, by pulling one piece of data from a Headless CMS to many different applications, it’s possible to sync your information and copy-writing across all your digital properties. A single change to a Headless CMS can update your contact page, a call to action section, and even that pesky old web-app. This means less room for error, and less frustration from your editors when it comes time to adjust or swap out content.
If you're interested in the model, there are many companies doing great things in this space. In particular, DatoCMS, Prismic, and Contentful are all great options. We’ve even heard rumors that the folks at Field are cooking up something, so stay tuned for that!
We ourselves are converts, and have used Headless CMS options for the vast majority of our projects since we launched Field. If you're interested in how we can help you get started with a Headless CMS or have any questions about Headless approaches, feel free to get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!