Traditional vs Headless Content Management Systems (CMS)

By David Hayes/28 April 2022
Traditional vs Headless Content Management Systems (CMS)

A common challenge our clients approach us with is how do they manage their website content in an efficient and easy way without requiring development time? To the rescue comes a content management system, also commonly abbreviated as “CMS”.

Content management systems have existed for much of the web’s life in various forms, from the late 1990’s GeoCities websites to WordPress, which is the worlds most used CMS today, powering over 30 million live websites.

At their heart they are designed to help non-technical content creators to produce, edit and manage rich website content, allowing them to do things such as edit and add new web pages, add copy, images, video and more.

More recently the industry has seen a rise in “Headless CMS’s” which allow for omnichannel delivery of content. This means content can be delivered to any front-end, e.g. Website, Mobile App, amongst other benefits.

But what’s the difference between a traditional and headless system and what should you use?

Traditional content management systems

With a traditional content management system, the website is powered as one monolithic system. The CMS manages the creation of pages and the serving of those pages to you when you’re on the web.

Pros of using a traditional content management system

  • The content authoring experience – As traditional content management systems directly power the front end, they usually provide a greater authoring experience over their headless counterparts. In some cases, content authors are working in an environment where ‘What You See Is What You Get’ (WYSIWYG) and can drag and drop UI elements to build full pages.
  • A website served from a single system
  • Non-technical users can manage the front-end design through templates and themes
  • Some CMS’s provide plugins to extend functionality

Cons of using a traditional content management system

  • Typically, traditional systems generate their content on the fly as it’s requested. As a result pages may be slower to load for the user – No one likes a slow website.
  • Traditional systems can be hard to scale due to complexities with data management.
  • Custom features require developers who are trained within the specific content management system.
  • Time (and money) is required to maintain the content management system and to ensure its security from malicious attacks.
  • Additional development work is required to serve the content outside the original website, for example to a Mobile App.

Headless content management systems

Where a traditional CMS manages the full website system end-to-end, a headless CMS doesn’t serve up the presentational layer of the website. In other words when the author writes their content it won’t appear to them as it will on the web. A headless CMS only manages the creation and management of content within it’s own database. API’s (Application Programming Interfaces) are used to pull the content from the CMS into a front-end of your choosing.

Pros of using a headless content management system

  • Front-end agnostic - content can be delivered to any front-end, for example your website or Mobile App.
  • When paired with a static site generator framework (such as Next.js, Gatsby or Nuxt) your users will experience an extremely quick and responsive website.
  • As the CMS doesn’t serve the front-end it doesn’t require scaling, nor do you need to take your website down for maintenance.
  • Developers can build the front-end with whatever language / framework they want to use leading to a quicker delivery.
  • Websites with headless CMS’s are less vulnerable to malicious attacks such as DDoS.
  • Greater control over how content is handled and displayed.

Cons of using a headless content management system

  • No content preview out of the box – some systems allow you to build this in with additional work.
  • Content areas are fixed, and users are restricted to what they can edit.
  • An additional platform to consider in the architecture of your web estate.

What should I use?

Context is really key to answer this question. If omnichannel content, performance and security is important then you should consider a headless solution. There are several headless options on the market to suit your needs.

For the ultimate content authoring experience, headless CMS’s are not in a position yet to challenge a number of the traditional options.

The CMS landscape is vast and choosing the right one for your business can be a challenge.

If you need help choosing a CMS or if you need support with your digital technology, get in touch for tailor made advice and support for your business.

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