What Is Headless WordPress (And Do You Need It)?

Posted on April 1, 2019 by in WordPress | 10 comments

What Is Headless WordPress (And Do You Need It)?

You may have heard whispers already about the new ‘headless CMS’ trend. However, unless you’re a developer yourself, it can be confusing to untangle exactly what this term means, and decide whether or not it’s right for your website.

In this post, we’re going to introduce the concept of a headless CMS, and discuss how it’s relevant to WordPress users. We’ll also offer some guidance for how to decide whether it’s right for you.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Headless CMS?

Before we dive into headless WordPress, let’s explore what a headless CMS is in general. First, it’s important to clarify the term ‘CMS’ itself. A Content Management System (CMS) is a complete solution for creating and managing online content (such as WordPress). It can be contrasted with simpler platforms such as website builders, which are easier to use but offer far less flexibility.

So, what about the ‘headless’ part of the term? All websites consist of a front end, which is how the site appears to users, and a back end. The latter controls how the website’s data is managed and stored, and is where you’ll make customizations, add content, tweak elements via coding, and so on.

However, headless architecture cuts off the front end, or ‘head’, of the platform. By separating the front end from the back end, you can manage both separately. This enables you to smoothly move content from one platform to another. For example, a headless CMS could push new content to your business’ website, Google Calendar, and Facebook all at once.

You may be wondering how this all relates to your WordPress website. Although WordPress was not initially intended to be a headless CMS, its development has shifted in that direction in recent years. This enables you to keep your current WordPress site, and still take advantage of the latest technological advances.

In 2016, WordPress’ developers created the REST API, giving users the power to make their WordPress sites headless. Almost any WordPress theme can be made headless using this technique. With headless WordPress, the ‘What You See Is What You Get’ (‘WYSIWYG’) editor is disabled, and key functions are instead managed through the REST API.

By default, WordPress is non-headless, using a traditional architecture that combines the front and back ends. That’s not necessarily a problem. You can use the built-in Block Editor or even our own Divi Builder (or both) to make custom changes. However, there are plenty of reasons to consider using headless WordPress instead.

Why You Might Want to Use Headless WordPress

Now that we’ve covered what headless WordPress is in a general sense, let’s talk about the advantages of using it. One of the primary reasons to opt for this over a more traditional WordPress installation is to simplify multichannel content publishing. That’s the process of posting content on more than one platform at the same time. This can include your business’ calendar, social media platforms, and even the Internet of Things (IOT).

By removing the front end, headless WordPress can be easily integrated into many different ‘stacks’. A stack is essentially the infrastructure of an app or digital product. Multichannel publishing can be a huge time saver if your business has many channels to maintain. Instead of reformatting content for each platform separately, you’ll only need to publish once.

This can be crucial, especially for large companies with dozens of target platforms to keep track of. Instead of having to constantly reformat your posts, you can set up headless WordPress to automatically share new content on all the channels that matter to you. This can free up your staff to work on more important tasks – such as creating and marketing that content.

Another advantage of headless WordPress is that it can improve your website’s speed. Performance is important for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), as well as for user experience. About 40% of people will abandon a site that takes over three seconds to load. Headless WordPress speeds up your site and helps you avoid that problem, since it simplifies the process by which content loads on the user’s end. That can make it an invaluable tool for large and complex sites.

When Headless WordPress Isn’t the Best Solution

Of course, not every technology is a one-size-fits-all solution. There are some cases where headless WordPress may not be appropriate. For example, if your site depends on daily maintenance performed by users unfamiliar with coding basics, you may prefer to stick to a visual interface. Since headless WordPress removes the front end, it’s necessary to have someone on your team who is fluent in JavaScript to maintain it.

Additionally, smaller businesses without unwieldy publishing volumes may see less results from implementing a headless CMS. In those cases, the cost of implementing this technology may outweigh the benefits, especially if you don’t already have a web development team in place.

If headless WordPress is overkill for your site’s needs, you can turn to a solution like Divi Builder instead. Our visual page builder uses React JS, so you can benefit from improved loading times without having to know JavaScript yourself or use a non-traditional WordPress installation.

If you do decide that you’d like to try headless WordPress for yourself, you have two basic routes you can take. The simplest is to hire a developer to help you set everything up. If you’d like to get your hands dirty, however, we’d recommend starting by brushing up on (or familiarizing yourself with) React JS. For more details, check out our full post on React JS for WordPress users.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, a headless CMS is a way to decouple traditional front- and back-end interfaces, in order to create content that isn’t tethered to a specific platform. Although it wasn’t originally designed for that purpose, WordPress can now be used as a headless CMS. That’s especially true if you have a knowledgeable coder on your team.

Headless WordPress has plenty of advantages. These include flexible stack integration, which makes it easy to publish content to multiple channels, and faster page loading times, which improves your site’s user experience. Implementing headless WordPress can be a bit of a project, but you can start by learning the ins and outs of React JS. Alternately, you can benefit from improved speed and customization via the Divi Builder, without the need for any coding skills.

Do you need help deciding whether headless WordPress is right for you? Let us know in the comments section below!

Article thumbnail image by Michele Paccione / shutterstock.com

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10 Comments

  1. If I wanted to be fluent in Java Script, I wouldn’t be here with Divi.
    This post is a little “inside baseball” for me.

  2. Hi John,
    I have been using WordPress now for a long time. Headless WordPress Title looked first some something new to learn.
    Although, I appreciate your effort in writing this post.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Have a good day ahead.

    • Glad to be of service, Robin! 🙂

  3. Do you have samples of Headless WordPress implementation. I heard this a lot in theory but implementation seems very little.

    • I’ve build a development environment for headless WordPress and Nuxt.js as front-end (it’s called wuxt), if you are interested in an example:

      https://github.com/northosts/wuxt

  4. WordPress may not be appropriate.

  5. I’m still trying to get my “head” around headless developers.. ha ha…

    Thanks for the article!

  6. This post is great and I think will help people as they open their mind to what can WP really do? My team has built augmented reality experiences, games and other applications all while using WordPress as our backend API/DB handler. The data is stored typicaly in custom post types.

    If the application needs a website, the solution is simple… WordPress! But if we are just needing to manage the data, then running headless is great.

    Additionally you can build it as a stateless cloud platform as well.

    Thank you for the inspirational post.

  7. I’ve heard about headless WordPress for the first time. It was fun learning something new related to WordPress.
    Thanks for this.

    Regards
    Aditya

    • Hi Aditya

      You are welcome Aditya and glad you had fun! 🙂

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