Headless WordPress and Content Management Systems

Keeping up with the ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT) can be a scramble for content developers and programmers alike. Repackaging content from a traditional WordPress implementation for more and more client-side endpoints (such as smart speakers or watches) can put a real strain on your resources.

That’s where the concept of ‘headless’ Content Management Systems (CMSs) comes in. The headless CMS approach focuses more on the back-end of content management. It also enables you to use the same bucket of content for many different outputs.

In this article, we’ll look at how WordPress can function as a headless CMS solution, and what some of the benefits are to this approach. We’ll also discuss how to host a headless WordPress setup. Let’s get started!

What Is a Headless CMS?

Headless content management is not necessarily a brand-new concept. Before the sleek and accessible administration interface we know and love in WordPress, there were databases of content with less attractive front-end delivery systems. Codes or queries were used to pull content forward to the user. 

Similarly, a headless approach is becoming very valuable in our multi-device world. Headless content management means the system exists solely for content input, editing, containment, and sorting on the back end. A headless system should be highly accessible, but its job is not to worry about front-end visual impact.

So, how does content in a headless system make it out into the world? Content in the database is accessed through RESTful API calls. This means it can be viewed wherever it is called to, without templates or plugins. This can be used to create a traditional browser-based website, or almost anything else in the IoT. 

Headless WordPress

WordPress is sometimes referred to as a ‘monolithic’ CMS. This means that, while it does have a robust back end for content creation and organization, it is still built to be pretty concerned with front-end display. WordPress also wraps display functionality into themes and plugins, so the front and back ends are tied together.

You can, however, take advantage of WordPress’s excellent content management functionality and effectively decapitate it, leaving you with a fast and lightweight headless CMS. By using WordPress’ REST API, you can extend the content management you’ve crafted in WordPress beyond your theme. 

In this scenario, you would still be able to use all the platform’s back-end functionality, but it would become a reactive system. Content would wait to be called upon and respond accordingly. This is in stark contrast to the current, more proactive way that WordPress pushes or delivers content to primarily browser-based sites. 

Decoupled vs Headless CMS

However, what if you love your theme and how it looks online? If you want to have your cake and eat it too, there is a solution. You can create a ‘decoupled’ CMS using WordPress.

Standard WordPress has the front and back ends coupled. They coordinate read and write calls, in order to present your site to its end users. However, decoupling the front and back ends enables you to get the best of both worlds. 

When you decouple your CMS, you end up with more of a chimera. Not only will your database of content be able to present a more traditional display to the front end, but you can also use API calls from a wider variety of devices to access your content. In a headless-only setup you lose that traditional, theme-based, front-end display option. 

There are plugins available to uncouple your WordPress front end and back end, but it’s important to be prepared for what that means. Decoupling can mean you must have a more hands-on approach to site maintenance, security, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). In addition, you’ll lose the standard live preview you’re used to with a coupled WordPress structure. 

Utilizing a Headless CMS

Now that you have a better understanding of the mechanics and architecture of a headless CMS, and what it might look like in WordPress core, let’s talk about what you can get out of taking this approach. 

What Can You Do With a Headless CMS?

Perhaps the best thing you can do with a headless CMS is essentially future-proof your content. As long as the API endpoint still exists, content can be called forth. A headless CMS means you’re creating a developer-focused, API-first system, rather than focusing on how the back-end administration will feed the front-end design. 

Therefore, going headless enables you greater flexibility in migrating content if you need to, since you won’t be tied so tightly to themes and plugins. From a marketing standpoint, you’re also able to create personalized customer journeys, without filing a ticket every time you want to add or change some content. 

This is a great option for developers who want to deliver content to both Android and iOS platforms from the same back end. Another use case for a headless structure is websites or applications that use JavaScript frameworks like AngularJS, VueJS or React

Headless WordPress Benefits

At this point, we’ve already mentioned a few of the benefits of going with a headless WordPress architecture for your content management. However, there are plenty of additional advantages:

  • Greater control. When you uncouple WordPress, you gain nearly endless control from a development standpoint. Front-end developers can get creative with dynamic uses of JavaScript, and deliver an ‘outside the template’ experience.  
  • Increased scalability. When you develop with a headless system, you can scale it up very quickly. Your content can continue to build, and since you are now an API-first shop, you can respond to new user needs in a snap. 
  • Tighter security. Decoupled and headless approaches minimize risk to your content. Since your content lives separate from your front-end delivery, it is not as exposed or at risk to third-party application issues. 
  • Lightweight design. When you go headless, you shed some serious weight. Since your system now consists of just a content database and API calls, your content delivery can be responsive, sleek, and fast. 

When you consider the many benefits of decoupling your WordPress structure, it might be just what you need. This is especially true if you are comfortable developing outside the standard CMS package, and you want your content to be accessible on all devices. 

Potential Issues With Headless WordPress

Before you get started, however, it’s worth noting that there are some drawbacks to taking WordPress into a decoupled or headless state. If you have a small website that delivers simple content, you’ll likely want to review these potential issues before taking the plunge:

  • No WYSIWYG editor. A truly headless approach means you will lose your live preview option. You won’t be able to easily test what the front-end user will see.
  • Advanced programming. If you didn’t previously need a front-end programmer, you will now. You’ll require some more advanced libraries to really make the most of a headless system. 
  • More maintenance. This really comes into play with a decoupled setup. You may end up with two systems to maintain, especially in terms of updates and security.
  • Tougher credentialing. A headless system requires different credentialing of users than a coupled CMS. This can be a tedious task, although it does lead to a more secure environment. 

Once you take into consideration the needs of your site and what you want to achieve, you can decide if a headless CMS is right for you. 

Hosting Headless WordPress

Moving to a headless CMS could open up new doors for your content, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for reliable hosting. Here at WP Engine, we have support and information that might help if you plan on using WordPress to create a headless CMS. 

As a WordPress Digital Experience Platform (DXP), WP Engine can help you with the platform-specific aspects of your site. This includes troubleshooting REST API issues and standard WordPress functionality problems, along with providing fast and reliable hosting services.

Find More Freedom With WP Engine

Headless content management offers a lot of options for developers who are concerned about designing content delivery for the ‘next big thing’. Here at WP Engine, we have the best resources for users and developers who are looking to extend WordPress through the REST API and headless content management. 

What’s more, don’t forget to provide a stable and speedy foundation to your coupled, decoupled, or headless WordPress system with WP Engine’s reliable and flexible WordPress hosting options!