What is headless CMS?
The term “headless CMS” is here to stay. What does it mean, though?
The way people interact with digital content is changing, and with that, so too is the way in which those digital experiences are built. How have content management systems been adapting themselves to accommodate the changing demands of digital?
A term you may have heard in this regard is “headless.” In this article, we’ll deep dive into this type of CMS, showing you its essential features and why you should care.
All you need to know about headless in one place:
What is a headless CMS?
The key differentiator of a headless CMS compared to traditional content management platforms is that it separates the presentation of the content from the content itself. Get the headless metaphor? The presentation layer is the head and the content is the body. The idea here is that by removing the link between the underlying content and the output, the content can be made compatible with a number of different outputs.
Suddenly your content has become reusable, being presented differently on different clients. Developers can build clients using their favourite tools, connect those clients to the headless API and fetch the content, with presentation being taken care of locally.
Benefits of the headless approach
By shifting responsibility for the user experience onto the client, such as the browser or app rather than the CMS, the headless model offers a number of benefits:
- Multilingual development – Going headless means that you’re no longer bound to one specific programming language, allowing for the construction of mobile apps on various platforms as only the raw data needs to be received and processed.
- Future-proof digital experiences – Trends in the design of digital experiences are constantly changing. A headless infrastructure disconnects the frontend of your website from the database and content, allowing you to make adjustments independently and redesign the site or app more easily while simultaneously allowing editors to continue to create, manage, and publish other content without interruption.
- Improved experiences – Going headless sets your frontend developers free from backend structures that may be holding them back. This allows them to unleash their full creative powers, producing richer and more responsive experiences.
- Increases speed – Shifting presentation to the client-side streamlines backend processes and allows applications to operate more quickly than ones that retrieve completely formatted responses based on a complex set of rules.
A pure headless system are not without drawbacks. For example, seeding the presentation element to the client side will reduce the web editor flexibility and increase the complexity of certain functions. A pure headless CMS usually cannot:
- Use a visual landing page editor
- Manage URLs
- Organise the website structure
- Preview how the content will look
- Manage user rights and permissions
- Manage SEO
- Handle complex image editing
Also, for each new client and device, the developer must handle several issues, including:
- URL handling (again)
- Formatting issues and templating
- Caching and lazy loading
- Error handling
- Synchronisation between CMS and clients
- “Forced” updates from the cloud vendor
There will also be significantly more custom development needed when using the headless approach for traditional websites. And because most headless solutions are cloud based, hosting software yourself may be off the table.
Headless CMS won’t be the best option for every user and situation. For example, if you want to deliver content purely to a website and don’t expect this to change anytime soon, switching to this type of architecture will just increase complexity unnecessarily.
Another option is a hybrid architecture, which means that the CMS actually comes with the presentation engine—the head—thus enabling you to build complex websites and at the same time deliver content to mobile apps, modern web apps, and other solutions.
Ostensibly, this method offers the best of both worlds. But be sure to scrutinise each vendor’s offerings carefully as the differences between hybrid CMSs can be pronounced.
Is the future headless?
The digital world is changing rapidly. Rich web interfaces like Angular and React are now driving the entire headless enterprise, whereas native apps used to be the driver a few years back.
Just remember, cloud native headless CMS architecture may be less expensive and suitable for some solutions, but others may need the increased flexibility offered by a hybrid solution.
There’s no doubt that the headless approach is growing in popularity, and the number of solutions on offer has exploded. The great news is that this competition promises to accelerate their development, meaning the future may well be headless—with a touch of hybrid.
First published 11 July 2018, updated 23 December 2020.
Frequently asked questions
What is a headless CMS?
A headless CMS separates the content layer from the presentation layer, allowing editors to create content to be sent to multiple channels via APIs.
How does a headless CMS work?
An editor adds content in forms to a database, which then uses APIs to deliver the content to a limitless range of digital channels.