What is Headless WordPress and why might I want to use it?

There is a lot of talk and discussion about "Headless" WordPress at the moment and how it can be a better way to use WordPress, but what actually is it and why might you want to get involved?

WordPress has been traditionally used as a full content management system (CMS) with an integrated frontend and backend, in recent years, the trend has been shifting towards a more flexible, headless approach. This new approach is known as headless WordPress, and in this article, we will explore what it is, how it works, and what the benefits of it are.

Headless WordPress is a decoupled approach to WordPress where the frontend and backend are separated from each other. In a traditional WordPress setup, the frontend and backend are tightly integrated, with the frontend being generated by WordPress itself. In contrast, with headless WordPress, the frontend is completely separate from the backend. Instead of generating the frontend, WordPress acts as a backend-only system, providing a content management interface for the creation and management of content. The frontend is built separately, using whatever technology the developer chooses.

So, how does headless WordPress work?

In a headless setup, the WordPress backend functions as a content repository, and the frontend is built using a separate technology stack. This frontend could be built using any programming language, framework, or CMS. Typically, the frontend will utilise the WordPress API, which exposes all the content in the WordPress backend in a structured way. This API can be accessed using RESTful calls or GraphQL queries, depending on the developer's preference.

What are the benefits of Headless WordPress?

One of the main benefits of headless WordPress is its flexibility. Since the frontend is completely decoupled from the backend, developers have the freedom to choose the technology that best fits their needs or experience. For instance, they could build a static site using a framework like Gatsby, which can be incredibly fast and optimized for performance. Alternatively, they could build a server-rendered site using a modern framework like Next.js, which can provide a great user experience and also be very SEO and performance friendly.

Another benefit of headless WordPress is its scalability. Since the frontend is completely separate from the backend, the server load is distributed across multiple servers. This can help prevent performance issues during times of high traffic. Additionally, since the frontend is built using separate technology, it can be deployed to a content delivery network (CDN) for even faster performance.

Headless WordPress also provides better security. Since the frontend is separate from the backend, it eliminates the attack vectors that would otherwise exist in a standard CMS system. For example, in a traditional WordPress setup, an attacker could exploit a vulnerability in a plugin to gain access to the entire system. With headless WordPress, the attack surface is significantly reduced since the frontend is completely separate from the backend (and often is not even public facing).

Furthermore, headless WordPress allows for more efficient development. With a traditional WordPress setup, developers have to work within the confines of the WordPress framework. This can lead to limitations in terms of customisation and flexibility. With headless WordPress, developers have the freedom to choose the best technology stack for the job, allowing them to create highly customised and flexible sites. Additionally, since the frontend is separate from the backend, developers can work on both parts independently, making it easier to develop and deploy changes quickly.

Finally, headless WordPress enables easier content distribution. Since the content is exposed through the API different front ends can be developed which serve different purposes but use the same data. For example, you could have a dedicated mobile app and a standard website using the same information.

So why would I use a standard WordPress setup?

WordPress is a very competent and amazingly flexible CMS. For most standard websites it is a perfect fit for easy setup and deployment of a website.

Headless WordPress is a much more complicated framework to setup and requires much more technical knowledge and experience to setup and utilise correctly.

Some reasons you would want to use Headless WordPress over standard are:

  • Your marketing team know WordPress but your developers do not
  • You have an existing development resource that prefers building websites in other frameworks or languages but you still want an easy to use way to manage content
  • You need to deliver the same content from a single source to different platforms or formats
  • You require a very secure, scalable front end to a website (although with the right setup standard WordPress can also deliver this)

Headless WordPress is an interesting evolution in the way WordPress can be used to power the content of a website and is useful in specific circumstances but in our opinion is generally not needed for most small to medium sized business websites.