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What Is Headless WordPress? Should You Switch to It?

If you publish content online or are considering it, you may be curious about the growing buzz surrounding headless WordPress. While WordPress is primarily known as an all-in-one content management system (CMS), the rise of headless WordPress challenges this notion. This article explains everything you need to know to decide whether WordPress headless CMS is a good choice for you.

FYI: confused about the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org? We can help.

What Is Headless WordPress?

Let’s take a step back to learn about traditional WordPress first. In a typical WordPress installation, WordPress acts as both the backend and frontend.

The backend, often referred to as the “WordPress admin area,” is where creators add and manage content. It’s akin to the storage room of your website.

Meanwhile, the frontend is where this content is presented and displayed to your visitors. Think of it as the shop window, presenting everything neatly for viewers.

However, with headless WordPress, this changes. The term “headless” comes from the idea of removing the “head” (the frontend, or presentation layer) from the “body” (the backend or content database). Essentially, you’re still using WordPress to manage and store content, but not to display it.

This paradigm shift was officially made possible when the WordPress REST API was introduced with the release of WordPress version 4.7 in December 2016.

The WordPress REST API is a kind of application programming interface (API) that serves raw content. This raw content is formatted as JSON, a lightweight and easy-to-parse data format. Imagine if you went to a restaurant, and instead of being served a fully plated dish, you received each ingredient separately, giving you the freedom to plate and present it however you wished.

Wordpress Json

This opens up a world of flexibility and customization when it comes to a WordPress site. Developers can take this raw content and design their own unique frontend using various technologies and platforms, such as:

  • Vue: an open-source frontend JavaScript framework designed to build dynamic user interfaces.
  • Gatsby: an open-source static site generator that can take WordPress content and turn it into a static site.
  • Faust.js: provides a suite of tools that help developers integrate WordPress content seamlessly and publishers to manage it.

In summary, headless WordPress offers an innovative approach to website development and design by decoupling content management from its presentation. Developers now have the liberty to pick and choose their desired frontend technology and deliver more tailored user experiences.

FYI: learn how to get a free SSL certificate for your WordPress website.

Pros and Cons of Headless WordPress as a CMS

Now that you understand what WordPress headless CMS is, it’s time for us to dive into its strengths and weaknesses.

Pros of Headless WordPress

  • Much greater flexibility: with the frontend decoupled from the backend, developers have the liberty to choose any technology stack for the presentation layer. They can enjoy the freedom to present content without being confined to WordPress’s default templating system.
  • Improved performance: headless WordPress can lead to faster websites, especially when paired with static site generators. By serving pre-rendered content, there’s no need for real-time data fetches, so page load times are shorter, and the overall user experience is smoother.
  • Robust data security: when there’s no directly accessible database from the frontend, the attack surface becomes significantly smaller, making it more difficult for hackers to gain unauthorized access to data.
  • Resistance to DDoS attacks: in a headless setup, the static frontend doesn’t constantly query the database in real-time. As a result, massive, malicious traffic spikes (characteristic of DDoS attacks) have a diminished impact.
  • Future-proof architecture: as technology evolves, new platforms and ways of content consumption, like VR or AR, are emerging rapidly. The decoupled nature of headless WordPress means that developers can simply design a new frontend to cater to any new technology.
  • Fantastic scalability: headless setups can easily scale to handle growing traffic or increased data loads without requiring significant changes or overhauls to the existing system.
  • Reduced hosting costs: the reduced reliance on server-side operations that can be achieved with a headless WordPress architecture means that less expensive hosting plans can still deliver excellent performance.

Good to know: starting a new website? Check out some of the best WordPress hosting services.

Cons of Headless WordPress

  • Steeper learning curve: transitioning to a headless setup means that both end users and administrators will need to acquaint themselves with a new way of content delivery. This initial hurdle can extend the time it takes to get a project up and running.
  • Increased development costs: without the ability to utilize prebuilt WordPress themes, you may need to invest more in design and development. Additionally, the more complicated nature of headless WordPress means that maintenance costs could potentially rise as well.
  • Plugin compatibility issues: many WordPress plugins are designed with the assumption of a traditional WordPress setup. In a headless environment, some plugins may not function as expected or may require additional tweaking to work.
  • More things can break: with a decoupled system, there are more individual components that can malfunction and cause everything from small errors to extensive downtime.
  • Can’t use WordPress themes: one of the hallmarks of traditional WordPress is its vast library of themes. In a headless setup, these themes can’t be used.

FYI: learn how to add premium features to ordinary WordPress themes.

Use Headless WordPress If …

When you’re aiming to craft a unique digital experience that doesn’t fit neatly within the bounds of traditional WordPress themes, headless WordPress stands out as an attractive option, offering unparalleled design freedom.

Starbucks Progressive Web App

The freedom offered by headless WordPress is even more pronounced when you want to present your content outside the web browser by developing a mobile app or a progressive web app (PWA).

Moreover, the decoupled nature of headless WordPress makes it ideal for websites with rigorous scalability and security demands. As the content management and presentation layers operate independently, it’s easier to accommodate increased traffic and keep the backend protected.

Don’t Use Headless WordPress If …

For many, the beauty of WordPress lies in its simplicity and ease of use. If you’re someone who’s looking for a straightforward way to create, manage, and present content, then headless WordPress probably isn’t for you.

Wordpress Website

Most bloggers, businesses, and other website owners can easily accomplish anything they want to accomplish using the traditional WordPress setup, thanks to its vast array of plugins, themes, and built-in features.

Good to know: If WordPress just doesn’t do it for you, consider one of these WordPress alternatives.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is headless WordPress safe to use?

Yes, headless WordPress can be safe to use. By decoupling the frontend from the backend, the direct access points hackers traditionally exploit in a monolithic setup are reduced. However, like any system, its security largely depends on the precautions taken. Always ensure regular updates, use strong authentication methods, and implement the best security practices for your backend CMS and the frontend application.

Do I need to switch my web hosting provider to set up headless WordPress?

No, not necessarily. However, your hosting environment should support the technologies you plan to use for the frontend.

Is headless WordPress good for e-commerce?

Headless WordPress can be a good choice for e-commerce, especially for businesses that require a high degree of customization or want to provide unique user experiences across multiple platforms.

Is headless CMS the future?

While headless CMS is gaining traction due to its flexibility, scalability, and the increasing demand for content to be available on various platforms beyond traditional websites, it’s likely that traditional CMS will continue to coexist and serve purposes where a fully integrated, simpler solution is preferred.

Image credit: Pexels. All screenshots by David Morelo.

David Morelo
David Morelo

David Morelo is a professional content writer in the technology niche, covering everything from consumer products to emerging technologies and their cross-industry application. His interest in technology started at an early age and has only grown stronger over the years.

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