What is a headless CMS, and why on earth would you want it?

Nowadays, every company has a website. It’s the foundation of your marketing, your online business card. Yet, today, your company might have tons of other digital platforms to maintain, next to that website. Think of a mobile site, an app, a digital display … Unfortunately, the traditional CMS approach makes it impossible to repurpose the content you carefully input to your website, to those other platforms. Enter the headless CMS.

We hear you think: "What is a headless CMS?" Easily explained, a headless CMS, or content management system, is a website without a front-end. In other words, it’s back-end-only and acts as a database of digital content. The 'head', or the website, has literally been chopped off the 'body', or the back-end. Hence the name, headless CMS. But to truly understand what it is, how it works and why anyone would want it, it helps to distance yourself from it and look at what a traditional CMS does first.

Traditional CMS vs headless CMS

A traditional CMS - also called a monolithic, regular or coupled CMS - was invented with one sole purpose: making the content management of your website child’s play. By working with a CMS, your marketers and/or content editors could easily make changes to your website, without having to rely on developers, as it handles the whole shebang: copy, images, videos, HTML (the site’s structure), CSS (the site’s appearance) and JavaScript (the site’s dynamic). The downside of this approach? The content of your website cannot be easily repurposed to other digital platforms, as all these pieces are linked to each other. It would cost a lot of extra work to extract only the information you need.



And let that be the very need we see emerging today ...

As a result of different digital innovations with increasingly smaller screens, a traditional website often doesn’t meet the requirements anymore. A traditional CMS makes it impossible for the content of your website to be recycled on other digital platforms, like for example a mobile or a smartwatch app or even another website.

And that’s where a headless CMS comes in. This type of CMS is designed to store and deliver structured content to all your digital platforms, and allows content creators and editors to collaborate on it. The content that is stored in a headless CMS can be seamlessly integrated and displayed on different platforms and devices via APIs. It can be used for mobile apps, blogs, ecommerce … The sky’s the limit!


The advantages of a headless CMS

  • A headless CMS allows mobile and web developers to repurpose content to different platforms and devices. If you have many platforms to maintain, it will bring you economies of scale, because the content only has to be updated in one place. That means your content editors only need to work in one CMS.
  • If you want to update your front-end, it’s much easier to repurpose the content in your back-end. In a traditional CMS on the other hand, each piece of content is designed with a specific goal in mind. 
  • Last but not least, there are some advantages for your developers too: 
    • As they’re not limited by the content management system, they can choose their preferred front-end technology. 
    • Using a headless CMS also makes it easier for them to optimize your website for things like page speed. They’re not limited by the options of a specific system and don’t have to worry about any bugs or limitations in the existing stack of technology.

The disadvantages of a headless CMS

  • In the beginning, websites that were built in a headless CMS scored worse on SEO. Why? When Google crawled a website with a headless CMS, there was not yet any content to be shown, as the data only got fetched once the website was loaded. Only then, the front-end framework made the call to the back-end. Today, however, both the crawlers and the developers have become smarter and found workarounds to already present the data. Solutions like Server-Side Rendering and Static Rendering make sure the source of the website already has content by displaying the webpage on the server rather than rendering it in the browser. The key is to ask yourself whether SEO is relevant for (specific parts of) your website. For example, it will be important on your content pages (such as blog posts), but not so much in your closed portal. Just make sure your website developer has a good understanding of your needs. 
  • A website cannot be built with a headless CMS alone. As there’s no way to visualize the content in the database, you will always need to add a layer or front-end framework to shape your website. Although this has advantages too (as you combine the strengths of both your chosen back-end and front-end tool), it can simply be more work for your marketing team to manage both. 

Decoupled CMS

To limit the number of technologies, some CMS providers like Drupal or Kentico came up with a decoupled CMS: a content management system that uncouples the back-end module from the front-end presentation layer. Yet, unlike the headless CMS, the decoupled CMS comes with a head. So, you could build your front-end from within the same system, but it’s completely optional. 


Often the decoupled CMS combines the front-end presentation layer from the CMS with an API that pushes (a part) of the content towards other digital platforms. This kind of solution is more marketer-friendly, which often results in faster and more flexible content delivery and deployment. They don’t need to be technical experts to get the most out of the website, but can make use of pre-built templates to create content and design experiences.

A decoupled CMS can also be a solution for those companies that do not yet repurpose content on multiple platforms today. To future-proof your business, it might be smart to choose a back-end that is uncoupled from the front-end, leaving you with the flexibility to repurpose the content if the need might surge tomorrow. Even if you only want to keep the door open to build a new front-end for your website, based on the content in the back-end.

Do you think a headless or decoupled CMS would give you less headaches too? Then you should definitely read our other blog post about which one you should choose!