The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Headless
This is the ultimate guide to the Headless CMS. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Headless: how it works, whether it’s right for you, and what you need to know before you get started.
1. Introduction to Headless
The Headless CMS (Content Management System) has been making waves in the world of web development for the past few years. It has revolutionized areas like UX, omnichannel marketing, content delivery, and e-commerce, and seen adoption from big-name brands like Nike, Target, and Android Authority.
The impact of the Headless CMS has been especially influential in the enterprise sector. According to WPEngine’s 2021 survey, 64% of enterprise organizations were using a Headless system and, of those who weren’t, 90% were planning to evaluate migrating to Headless within the next 12 months.
As a highly flexible architecture, Headless lends itself to a wide range of use-cases. For businesses it offers benefits like:
- Frontend flexibility
- Multi-channel content delivery
- Increased performance
- Enhanced security
- Easier integrations
2. Why choose Headless?
Enhance user experiences
The field of user experiences (UX) has become a key differentiator in the digital sphere. Technology has evolved, and the experiences we have today are faster, more engaging, and more personalized. As a result, user’s expectations are also getting higher.
To compete with the next generation of experiences, you need a next-generation CMS. The options that a Headless architecture provides for performance, frontend development, and integrated functionality make it an ideal tool to revamp your UX design.
Reach multiple touchpoints
Today’s user journeys involve more digital touchpoints than ever before. With the availability of multiple devices and channels, users have more control over the ways they interact with your business and their journeys are becoming less linear.
To adapt, brands need a consistent and tightly maintained brand presence across all channels. With a Headless CMS, you can manage content for multiple websites and platforms from one place, giving you greater control over your multi-channel content.
Scale your business
The digital world moves faster and faster. To keep pace with it, you need to be agile. The ability to scale your online presence means quickly adapting to new trends and technologies so that you’re never left behind. With the flexible architecture of a Headless system, you have a system that is infinitely scalable, allowing you to upgrade or replace elements as needed.
Stand out from your competitors
The flexibility of Headless allows you to be unique in a saturated market. Without the limitations of a traditional CMS, you open yourself up to better possibilities and next-generation digital experiences.
3. Understanding how Headless works
To really get to grips with Headless, it helps to understand the basic building blocks, what they do, and how they interact with each other.
The frontend (client-side) of your website/application is everything that people see and interact with on your site. Features of a frontend include:
- UI and graphic design
- Fonts and colors
- Interactive elements
Frontend development involves:
- User experience design
- Usability and accessibility optimization
- Browser compatibility
The backend (server-side) of your website/application is where content is stored and managed. When you upload or edit a post on your website, you are interacting with the backend.
A backend primarily consists of:
- Servers (a computer that receives requests)
- Databases (where data is stored and organized)
- Functions (the logic that listens for, processes, and responds to requests)
How the backend works
When a user navigates to a page on your website, a request is sent to the backend. The requested content is then fetched from the database and sent to the frontend where it appears in the user’s browser.
The API (Application Programming Interface) is where Headless architecture differentiates itself. It’s the crux of the whole operation. It’s what connects everything in the Headless CMS.
An API is simply a way for programs and systems to communicate with each other in a standardized way. APIs can connect programs and allow them to send, receive, and modify data to and from one another.
Putting it all together
Headless is a type of “CMS architecture” – a term used to describe the way that the frontend and backend are connected.
In a traditional CMS architecture (such as WordPress) you have a tightly integrated front and backend. As a result, the way you manage and the way you display content are both handled from the same place.
In contrast, Headless is just a CMS without a frontend attached to it (also known as “frontend agnostic”). This means it has no default way to display content. It can only manage and store it. The frontend has to be developed separately from the content management system.
To get content to the frontend, we use the API. The API handles the requests and responses and delivers content as, effectively, raw data. That content is then formatted on the frontend.
Thanks to the API, a Headless CMS allows any combination of frontend(s) and backend to be connected.
Normally, for example, you wouldn’t be able to have a React.js frontend connected to a WordPress backend. But the API allows them to communicate with each other through a standardized language.
Headless architecture is API-centric, you can connect pretty much anything to your CMS. You can have multiple frontends connected to the same backend as well as integrating tools and services (e-commerce, CRM, SEO, etc.) via the API.
The API is the glue that holds everything together.
4. What should I know before switching to Headless?
Before you dive into a Headless CMS, there are some things you need to consider.
Establish your goals
There’s a lot that you can do with a Headless CMS. But it’s not something you should implement just because you can. Since you’ll be developing a lot of the functionality yourself, you need to go in with a clear understanding of what you want to get out of the CMS.
Decide what specific problems in your company that you want to address and which are most important to you. Figuring this out early on will help you find the right Headless CMS and avoid getting overloaded with non-essential features.
You might even discover that Headless isn’t the right solution for you.
Assess your resources
Next comes the dreaded question: how much will it cost?
Compare pricing options and consider things like setup, training your team, and ongoing support.
Since Headless architecture is quite development intensive, you’ll need to take stock of your development resources.
- Is your development team big enough?
- Are they trained in the required frontend frameworks, backend processes, and API development?
- If not, will you need to hire developers or find a Headless provider that includes development resources?
Choosing your Headless CMS
Now that you’ve planned your goals and budget, it’s time to choose your Headless CMS.
There are two types of Headless CMS: Open source and Closed source.
Closed source Headless options (also known as “proprietary”) provide a more “complete” CMS with more functionality out the box so you can get up and running sooner.
However, you run the risk of ending up with “vendor lock-in”, where you find it difficult to change providers if your needs change beyond the scope of the service provider. A lot of proprietary Headless CMSs are available on a SaaS (Software as a Service) delivery model which makes it especially difficult to migrate to a different provider.
An open-source Headless CMS has its source code available to the public. So, you will be able to make changes yourself and tailor it to your needs. Overall, choosing open source will give you a lot more freedom and flexibility since you aren’t dependent on a software provider.
The key disadvantage of an open source Headless CMS, though, is that you won’t get the dedicated support that a proprietary Headless solution offers.
However, open-sourced CMSs have developer communities who provide support and documentation.
Having a publicly available source code can also lead to better security as there’s a larger number of developers reviewing the code, so vulnerabilities and bugs may be spotted sooner.
And if you have the development resources, you can even make those fixes yourself. However, being open source is not an automatic guarantee of better security.
Preparing for Headless
Switching to Headless can be a shock to the system, as many processes require a different approach from what your team are used to.
When adopting a Headless CMS, your team will need to adjust the way they think about things like development and content creation.
- Development will be more centered around architecture and component based design.
- Integrating plugins and external functionality will be more complicated. They aren’t plug-and-play and they’ll need some tweaking to integrate into the system.
- Because of this you’ll need to plan in advance what extensions you’ll need to add and how much time and effort each will take.
- The biggest change for marketers and content creators is the lack of a preview feature, so you won’t be able to see how your content will look before it’s published.
- It is possible to install a preview feature into your Headless CMS, so you’ll have to decide if you want to implement one and plan how you’re going to do it.
One of the key benefits of using a Headless approach is the possibilities it opens up for integrating third-party tools and functionality. Using the API-centric architecture, it’s possible to build yourself an ideal tech stack from scratch.
You can see this, for example, in microservices architecture, where the CMS is composed of a tech stack of tools (or services) loosely coupled together.
However, while Headless allows you greater control and flexibility with your integrations, the process itself can be complex at times.
Certain tools are easy to implement, while others will require more work to get up and running.
In this section, we’ll give an overview of what to expect when trying to add functionality to your Headless CMS.
As a general rule, the difficulty of adding an integration depends on the way it interacts with the frontend and/or backend.
The easiest tools to add are those that interact with either the frontend or backend individually. Things like SEO tools are pretty simple to set up as they essentially live in the backend.
When you have a function that has to get and serve data from both frontend and backend, things often get a little trickier.
For example, A/B testing tools have to make changes to both ends, so they can be harder to set up.
The hardest functions to integrate are those that have to interact with both ends and serve user-specific content.
Things like multilingual and localisation functions will take a lot more effort to get up and running.
While it can be more technically complicated to get the features you want in your Headless CMS, there’s a significant payoff for your efforts. Along with having more options with your integrations and their functionality, you also won’t have to sacrifice your site performance when adding other features.
Headless lends itself to many exciting applications. But if you’re considering switching to a Headless setup then it definitely pays to be prepared. Hopefully reading this has left you feeling more confident in your knowledge of Headless and will help you make an informed decision.
To explore the topic some more, read through some of the other posts on our blog and become a real Headless expert.