WordPress might be the first place your mind goes to when you’re planning to build a website. I can see why. I’ve built my fair share of WordPress sites in the past and they can be a great first website. But if you need an enterprise-level solution or you’re looking for a site that scales as your business grows, an out-of-the-box WordPress site just won’t cut it.
So, where do you go from here?
Headless WordPress can be a great next step for those who want to stick with the familiarity of WordPress. But a more scalable, future-ready option would be to use a modern headless CMS. What you choose is down to you, your business needs, and goals.
In this blog post, we’ll walk through each option so you can figure out which solution is best for you.
The basics of WordPress
In its simplest form, WordPress is a content management system (CMS) where you can build websites. With an underlying architecture of PHP, WordPress uses plugins and templates built by a wide-reaching community to make it easy for those without coding experience to create a website.
Originally created for blogs, today, WordPress can be used to create an array of websites including blogs, content sites, business portfolios, eCommerce stores, membership sites, and even mobile apps.
But just because you can build an array of websites in WordPress, that doesn’t mean it’s the best option.
A foundation of blogging can make WordPress limiting in other scenarios, and community-driven development can lead to solutions that are over-engineered and confusing to use.
It’s true that WordPress holds a large market share, but before picking it exclusively because of that it’s important to understand what WordPress does well, and the benefits of other options that could be a better fit for you.
Traditional vs Decoupled vs Headless CMS
Content management systems come in many forms. A CMS is no longer just a tool for building websites without any coding experience. It is now a powerful solution that does far more than just deploy content to the web.
The three different CMS solutions you’ll come across are:
You can also learn more about the differences between traditional vs decoupled vs headless CMS in this blog post. But, to quickly get you up to speed, we’ve also covered each of them below.
A traditional CMS, like WordPress, is an all-in-one system that provides the backend (where you manage the content) and the frontend (how the content gets displayed to the user in their browser).
Traditional CMS platforms are designed in a way where the frontend and backend are tightly integrated. In the past, this was the only approach we had to work with, but as technologies have developed we’ve found better ways to scale and work with teams. Traditional CMS are still a staple because they’re familiar, and many have built up large ecosystems allowing you to get small projects started quickly (great for non-developers).
But many businesses have found Traditional CMS limiting which has driven a need for adaptation. Many CMS solutions have adjusted to provide their data through an API, without requiring users to use their designated frontend platform (like PHP with WordPress). This turns it into a decoupled CMS which allows it to be used in a more modern and scalable approach.
Headless WordPress is a common example of using a decoupled CMS where content is managed in a familiar editor while developers can choose the best tools for the frontend.
Headless CMS are a little different, where they are designed from the ground up without a frontend in mind. This means they they do not provide you with any way to display your content; that’s up to you to implement. But that restriction also means that you have far more flexibility when building your site, allowing you to put it together however is best for you (and your team) without holding onto unnecessary code, making maintenance and scaling significantly easier.
This type of CMS provides the most flexibility and scalability as it allows developers to create a truly custom frontend experience, and the wider-reaching your project is the more likely you’ll be building a custom experience regardless of your CMS choice — we think you might as well pick the best option to start with.
The drawbacks of WordPress (as a traditional CMS)
Sure, WordPress is easy to use but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. WordPress, while popular, has many limitations that could stop your business from reaching its full potential.
Plugins create vulnerabilities
WordPress websites are notoriously easy to use with their out-of-the-box functionality and features. That can be great for getting started quickly, but this out-of-the-box approach means WordPress websites are typically built upon layers of plugins.
Every new plugin is a new set of files you don’t have control over. Is the code written well? Is it performant? Does it ensure your site is secure? You’ll likely never know.
And as plugins are managed by third parties you don’t know if updates are improving or worsening your security. And even if the plugin developer had the best intentions on release, over time outdated plugins can cause security vulnerabilities simply by not being updated at all.
Vulnerabilities create opportunities (for hackers)
Okay so just pick good plugins and make sure they’re up to date, right?
Well, ideally, but we know (and if you’ve worked with WordPress before, experienced) that it’s just not that simple.
The reality is you always have to be prepared for hackers to potentially take down your site. That means spending more time creating backups, reviewing plugins, and learning the potential security holes that WordPress has.
And if you get it wrong?
Goodbye database (that’s all your content, user accounts, reviews, products, sale history)
The biggest problem with your frontend and backend code being this closely together is if something goes wrong, you lose everything.
Sometimes it takes itself offline anyway
WordPress updates are notorious for being frustrating. They need to be done, because your security is on the line (see above for hacking opportunities).
But sometimes a WordPress update can just break your site. Maybe a plugin clashes with a version. Maybe it’s some custom code you’ve written. It’s rarely clear but it’s often a problem.
And that means you’re spending time trying to debug your site that’s now in maintenance mode, meaning your customers can’t get to it.
Limiting your flexibility
This can be great for small teams or individuals who don’t have much design or development experience and want to get moving fast.
But if you have your own brand, custom designs, or a preferred way of writing code (something every medium-to-large business does have) you’re suddenly very limited in what you can do.
Changes are no longer easy to make, but instead you have to unpick the theme, which is slow, or work within its limitations, which means you can’t implement custom designs. There’s a reason many people (especially designers) can often tell a WordPress site just by looking at it.
As your business grows and puts more systems in place, traditional WordPress becomes even more restrictive and will prevent you showing the world who you really are.
WordPress is 20 years old. Yes it’s had a lot of updates, but tech moves fast and 20 years is a long time. The principles it was built on are simply different now, and using WordPress traditionally feels like you’re missing a lot of the modern day benefits.
The frontend space is completely different, with React, Vue, Angular, Svelte (and all the other frameworks) pushing it forward at light speed we now have frontends that can talk to multiple backends and update in real time. We have better tooling and platforms that can make sure we work together better as teams. And we have backends that can deploy to the web just as easily as they can deploy to an app, all at the same time.
It’s time for WordPress to get an upgrade.
Fortunately, we can do just that.
Headless WordPress could mitigate some of the drawbacks of a traditional WordPress site. If you are looking for a scalable website solution to replace your traditional WordPress set-up, a headless WordPress site may be the logical next step.
Despite its name, headless WordPress isn’t actually a headless CMS. It’s a decoupled CMS that uses the WordPress backend functionality and pushes content through to a custom frontend using WordPress’ REST API.
You can use WordPress’ easy-to-use backend functionality while leveraging technologies such as React to change how content is displayed on the frontend. This separation of the backend and frontend, while still being closely integrated, makes headless WordPress an obvious choice for many businesses looking to level-up their web presence.
Benefits of Headless WordPress
Headless WordPress lets your team use the familiar WordPress platform to manage content, while tapping into the flexibility and performance benefits of decoupled architecture.
One of the biggest benefits of headless WordPress is that your team can use a CMS they are already familiar with. This means they don’t need to worry about the steep learning curve, or migration effort, associated with using a new platform.
Headless WordPress sites also perform better than their traditional counterparts. By removing the frontend presentation layer, sites built using headless WordPress can load faster and perform better than traditional WordPress sites with significantly less effort. In turn, your website visitors can enjoy a faster, more seamless user experience.
Another advantage of headless WordPress is that it can be integrated with other apps and platforms more easily. This is great for offering users a seamless experience across different presentations, such as your website or mobile app.
Drawbacks of Headless WordPress
But, headless WordPress isn’t without its limitations.
If you rely on plugins, you may find these plugins don’t work on headless WordPress. If there is a REST API extension for your plugins, you should be okay. But that isn’t always the case and you may end up having to find a workaround solution.
You also lose the WYSIWYG editor and “Live Preview” elements of traditional WordPress. This makes it harder to see content changes as you make them, as you have to open preview changes in a new tab. This is arguably the biggest drawback of headless WordPress if you’re very familiar with using Gutenberg.
A headless WordPress solution can also be more expensive than traditional WordPress to initially set up due to the additional developer effort required. But for businesses looking to scale it’s a far more cost-effective in the long-run thanks to the improved development experience, allowing you to release changes far more easily and reliably.
Because headless WordPress is just adapting traditional WordPress into a headless architecture, it can be more difficult to set up and manage than native headless solutions. You get all of the traditional WordPress elements out of the box, even if you’re not using them, which can add confusion to your editor experience.
Headless WordPress also doesn’t offer releases which most other native headless CMS will provide. This can make updating and maintaining your headless WordPress a chore as assets can’t easily be deployed all at once.
Who is Headless WordPress made for?
With all that said, there are some scenarios where headless WordPress works well.
Headless WordPress is a great option for businesses that want to scale their digital presence and share data across multiple platforms. It is especially well-suited to businesses that have outgrown the limitations of traditional WordPress sites and are looking for a more flexible solution.
However, this raises questions around whether sticking with a WordPress backend is the best choice when you are already rewriting half of your CMS architecture.
While there are valid reasons for why a business might choose to stick with WordPress — such as their data already existing within WordPress or it being a familiar platform — there are many reasons why you may want to look outside of the WordPress realm.
Other headless solutions can open up access to features and functionality that headless WordPress doesn’t offer. These modern headless solutions can also offer better enterprise support and can be easier to use and maintain.
Other headless solutions you can try
Headless WordPress is a great entry point for businesses using WordPress who are struggling to scale their site effectively. However, using a platform that’s not designed to be headless can be a band-aid to your problem and might require additional changes in the future.
There are many other headless solutions that have been purpose-built for headless architecture, and it’s worth considering these too before switching.
With that in mind, separating your frontend and backend code make it significantly easier to maintain your website long term. If you choose Headless WordPress now, you can later switch WordPress for another CMS without having to completely rewrite your frontend.
Some modern headless CMS solutions we’ve tried and loved include:
There are many more out there that serve different purposes. One of the biggest advantages of native headless CMS solutions is that they are built from the ground up to work seamlessly with headless frontends. This means your content won’t get bogged down with bloated features or encounter unexpected glitches when deployed.
Better yet, headless CMS solutions are designed to be used by teams, rather than individuals. Unlike WordPress, headless CMS are built with businesses needs first, making it easier to collaborate and build complex design systems that everyone can easily use and maintain.
Of course, there are many more out there that serve different purposes. No matter which headless CMS you choose, it will give you the flexibility and scalability of a powerful frontend paired with a well-optimised performance-focused backend.
How going headless helps
Going headless can provide a flexible and powerful foundation for your digital presence. Truth is, a modern headless CMS offers a number of benefits that traditional CMS platforms simply can’t match.
APIs not Plugins
Headless CMS solutions don’t rely on plugins to extend functionality. Instead, headless CMS solutions use APIs to easily connect with other software and tools. This lets you integrate your headless CMS with other tools in your tech stack, without worrying about compatibility issues or security vulnerabilities. You can also leverage a wide range of integrations using API or coding elements to meet your exact needs.
The decoupled frontend and backend of headless CMS solutions means you can create powerful omnichannel experiences. This offers almost limitless flexibility. You get to decide what technology you use to build your frontend be in React, Vue, Angular, or something else entirely. You’re in the driver’s seat and you get to create a unique digital experience that stands out from the rest.
As all the frontend presentations are managed in one place, you can also easily manage content changes and deployments. Make changes to one element of your content and the change can be applied everywhere that element appears. This lends itself nicely to the “COPE” principle of Create Once, Publish Everywhere. No more running round trying to remember where you used certain content elements and repeatedly updating them all to match.
Better Developer Experience
As for your developers, they have the freedom to use the languages, frameworks, and integrations that best suit their needs. This saves developers from having to spend precious time learning new languages and systems. They can just choose their preferred methods and set to work developing new content.
Headless CMS solutions are far less bloated than WordPress sites. This is primarily due to the fact they don’t use plugins in predetermined themes that weigh sites down with lots of unnecessary files and data.
Headless CMS solutions only fetch the content that is needed which can further improve site speed, making your content load faster. Efficient data fetching is a powerful benefit of headless CMS solutions, resulting in faster and smoother user experiences.
Scalable and maintainable
A modern headless CMS future-proofs your digital presence by separating the backend and frontend. As your business grows and your digital needs evolve, a headless CMS can easily adapt to your changing requirements, letting you add new channels, features, and functionalities with ease.
Because headless CMS solutions are built to be modular and easy to update you can structure and restructure the content whenever, and however, you wish without disrupting your entire digital ecosystem.
That’s not all. Headless CMS solutions always stay up to date. As technology advances, your headless CMS can easily connect with new integrations through API making sure it adapts and updates with the times.
Talk to us about going headless
While WordPress has its benefits, it doesn’t quite compare to the powers of a modern headless CMS solution. If you’re looking for limitless flexibility, faster performance, and seamless integrations, a headless CMS solution is the way to go.
At Skyward, we have extensive experience building headless solutions that deliver real results. Whether you’re looking to build a new digital experience from scratch or you want to migrate an existing solution to a modern headless CMS, we can help.