What Is Headless WordPress & Is It Better Than Traditional WordPress?

Headless WordPress may seem like a niche product, and with only 3% market share the numbers seem to bear that out. While traditional WordPress website make up more than 40% of the market, the raw numbers tell us where the market is headed. In fact 2022 was the first year of negative market share growth for WordPress ever, while use of Headless technologies have grown, albeit off a small base. Headless options do provide some unique advantages over traditional monolithic CMS’s such as WordPress, Webflow, and Drupal. Improved performance, security, and flexibility are just a few of the advantages to be gained by going headless, which is why so many people are paying attention.

What is Headless WordPress?

The good news for WordPress lovers is that WordPress is not going anywhere. Even non-headless WordPress provides a fantastic option for small sites and sites with very little traffic. Since these types of sites are the majority of sites on the web, traditional WordPress will continue to find a place for years to come. Even better news is that WordPress itself is a great Headless CMS in its own right. It provides familiarity for website owners and marketing departments, it stores and organizes content in a rational and user friendly way, and it provides APIs that allow access to this content from any front end capable of fetching data. Best of all, WordPress is completely open source, so Headless startups like Cabezi can bend WordPress to meet their own needs.

With some additional tools (including our very own Flexblocks plugin), WordPress can even be used as a fully fledged page builder for Headless applications. While there are some limitations when it comes to plugin compatibility with Headless WordPress, the flexibility and other benefits more than compensate for these limitations.

Why Headless Provides Superior Flexibility

In order to accomplish custom functionality with traditional WordPress you either have to find a plugin to accomplish the task or code up the solution yourself or with the help of a developer. In many circumstances these solutions can be cost prohibitive. The great part about Headless solutions is that companies are starting to build solutions specifically built for Headless. Shopify’s recent technology advances are a great case in point. Shopify realized that their traditional tools were getting long in the tooth, and didn’t provide the flexibility necessary to build a completely custom shopping experience.

Shopify’s answer to this issue was to create the Hydrogen project, a set of components built specifically for Headless implementations. These moves have opened up the intriguing possibilities of running Shopify alongside any other CMS in a mashup of technologies. Imagine the power of a Shopify cart mixed with WordPress marketing content.

This isn’t the only exciting possibility. There are over 200,000 React packages available on NPM (Node Package Manager) which can accomplish nearly any front end task imaginable. If you can’t find what you need on NPM there’s always the option of custom development where anything is possible. By decoupling the front end from the back end, we can actually make WordPress more powerful!

While the WordPress block editor (also known as Gutenberg) has come a long way, there are some design options that it just can’t support. With a Headless front end, most of the content can be created within the confines of the WordPress post/page editor, but if you need that super custom page it can be easily created using straight up React (or whatever front end framework is chosen). This allows designers to be unconstrained by the limitations of WordPress and its page builders.

Speed And Scalability – Where Headless Really Shines

Now that major search engines such as Google and Bing are using page speed and usability as a ranking factor, speed is more important than ever. Clients who used to be just fine with a slow site, may start asking “How can I make my WordPress site faster?”. For low traffic sites there are some built in solutions that most WordPress hosting companies employ, namely caching, but high traffic dynamic sites can experience severe slowdowns unless a very expensive hosting plan is used. Headless sites also use a form of caching called Incremental Static Generation, where pages are built on-demand and then served from an “Edge Network” or CDN. With a Headless front end, developers can control when and how often these static assets are regenerated.

Many front end frameworks such as Next JS provide additional tools such as client side routing and page prefetching to further enhance page load speed. While traditional WordPress performance can compete with Headless in some situations, it’s generally accepted that Headless does a much better job at providing a fast, snappy user experience.

What Makes Headless WordPress More Secure?

WordPress security has been a controversial and much debated topic over the years. Hardly a month goes by without hearing about a major hack or some plugin needing to be updated because of a security flaw. WordPress’s security woes are aggravated by the fact that the front end and back end of a traditional WordPress site are inextricably linked. It’s probably not fair to blame WordPress for all of the security issues being uncovered since most are plugin related. With a Headless site the use of WordPress plugins is generally kept to a minimum because bespoke functionality can be implemented on the front end. Also, since the front end and back end are decoupled, it may not even be apparent to potential hackers where or how to access the back end WordPress site.

Another way Headless can be more secure than traditional WordPress is when developers decide to just avoid storing any sensitive data on the WordPress site at all. When WordPress is used strictly for content it removes a huge amount of risk. If all sensitive data is handled, for example by a headless e-commerce company (like Shopify or Snipcart), then that attack vector goes away completely.

Another point of weakness can be WordPress’s commenting system, which can be both an attack vector and a source of spam. Again by using Headless technologies we can remove the handling of comments from WordPress completely and outsource it to a more secure service such as Disqus, Spot, or Facebook Comments. The Cabezi Headless Platform includes support for Disqus commenting right out of the box.

Can Going Headless Future Proof Your Website?

While WordPress is by far the market leader and will be for years to come, what happens when something newer and better comes along? With a traditional WordPress install, if you want to migrate to another platform it’s a hassle to say the least. Migrating away from WordPress would involve sucking all of your content out of WordPress, then reformatting and adding the content back to the new CMS. With Headless we can take a more incremental approach. Since Headless can support multiple CMS’s at the same time, we can just leave our WordPress content right where it is, while adding new content to our new CMS. The same could apply to third party integrations (e-commerce, comment system, etc).

We don’t know when WordPress will be replaced by something better, but it’s reassuring knowing that when something better comes along the migration path will be as painless as possible.

So Is Headless Right For Your Business?

For businesses who have the goal to drive a lot of traffic and provide a great user experience, Headless is definitely a great solution. By providing unparalleled speed, security, and flexibility, Headless outshines more traditional alternatives. For these reasons it’s where the market is headed. With more companies like Shopify and Snipcart embracing the trend, options for customization will only improve over the coming years. One drawback of Headless, namely the fact that development costs tend to be higher, has been alleviated by companies such as Cabezi who have built affordable and flexible solutions for even the smallest of businesses. In fact, today you can build a simple headless site for under $1000, and have the ability to customize it exactly to your specifications as your business needs develop and change.

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Tim is a WordPress plugin author, web developer, and founder of cabezi.com, a pioneer in the Headless WordPress ecosystem.