Headless CMS Explained


One of the most popular new trends in web-development circles is the Headless CMS. Promising quicker development times and an elegant multi-platform publishing solution, the headless CMS has gotten a lot of people excited. But what exactly is a headless CMS? What are the advantages? And what are the drawbacks?


What is a headless CMS?

A traditional CMS, such as WordPress, combines both a back-end and front-end solution. The back-end manages the database and holds the content while the front-end is concerned with the look and style of a site – how the content is displayed.

In a headless CMS the content and the delivery platform are managed independently in different systems. The front-end (the head) is separated from the back-end.

A headless CMS can be particularly useful when the same content should be distributed via different types of digital channels. For example, through a website and various native apps. The content can be added to the headless CMS via a typical user interface. It can then be accessed by APIs which add that content to the website and each of the apps.

The APIs effectively allow the content to be automatically taken from the headless CMS and published across multiple platforms in a beautiful way.


What are the Advantages of a Headless CMS?

Multi-channel content

Content only needs to be added once, in the headless CMS, but can be distributed across a wide variety of channels e.g. website, Android app, iOS app, digital assistant, IoT (Internet of Things) devices and even print. If a new delivery channel is developed, it can be configured to distribute any of the existing pieces of content.

Faster project completion

Separating the content from the design allows developers and marketers to work on their own tasks simultaneously. While the developers are getting on with their work the marketers can insert all of the content.

Developer Freedom

Traditional CMSs are often slow to include the latest web-development practices and technologies. Separating the CMS from the front-end allows developers the freedom to use whichever methods and technologies they wish.


Depending on how the headless CMS is deployed, content can be automatically optimized. For example, a high-resolution uncompressed jpeg could be uploaded and automatically resized and compressed for each channel within the API, or by a CDN (content delivery network).


A headless CMS is separate from the front-end delivery system. This disconnect provides an extra layer of security by making it much more difficult for someone to access and attack the back-end. As CDNs are typically used to deliver the content, their robust security systems also come into play.


The vast majority of Headless CMS systems are designed to be implemented in a cloud environment. This allows a great deal of scalability with minimal extra configuration.


With a headless CMS, it’s possible to use elegant, streamlined content delivery methods which can dramatically improve the speed of a digital channel. A great example is the superhero search function on the following page. It’s so fast it seems instantaneous: https://community.algolia.com/marvel-search/


What are the Disadvantages of a Headless CMS?

Management of multiple systems

Aside from the CMS, front-end development and delivery systems need to be set up and managed. This may mean that a wider skill set and more development are required. There is also the potential for updates to any of the individual systems to cause issues with the others.

Multiple service providers

To get the same level of functionality which is often possible on a traditional CMS and server solution, it’s likely that a number of different service providers would be needed. This can add to the complexity and cost of the project. A good example is the sending of emails from a website. A traditional CMS on a server can be configured to send emails without a third-party provider. However, with a headless CMS, a provider like MailChimp or Mailjet would be required.

Marketers may need more developer help

In a traditional CMS, marketing teams can often customize the design and layout of individual pages for CRO reasons, or even create their own custom layouts for landing pages. When using the headless CMS approach marketers will need more help from developers with these front-end tasks.


Due to the disconnect between the CMS and the front end, in most cases, it’s not possible to view a preview accurately showing how the content will look when published.


When is a Headless CMS a good option?

Multi-channel content

If an organization needs to publish the same content across multiple channels, a headless CMS is an excellent option. This is, after all, the problem which drove the development of the Headless CMS. Also, if you’d like to have the option of adding extra channels in future, using a headless CMS makes sense.

Non-web publishing

The best example of this is for publishing content only to apps. While this is possible from many traditional CMSs, a headless CMS can offer a simplified, more elegant solution.

Front-end development flexibility

If one of your key priorities is to give your front-end developers maximum freedom to use whichever technologies they want to come up with something amazing, then a headless CMS can be a good option.


When is a headless CMS the wrong choice?

A stand-alone website

If all you need is a straightforward website, then a traditional CMS is generally the better choice. The extra development skills and resources required to set up and manage a headless CMS don’t add enough value for a stand-alone website.

If you’d like to discuss whether a headless CMS is a good option for you, feel free to get in touch with ICON.