Headless website architecture is gaining popularity and as such we hear more and more frequently from marketing professionals that they are considering headless as they prepare for an overhaul of their marketing website. Over the years we have built websites using both headless architecture and monolithic architecture and we’ve come to identify pros and cons of both.
While they each have their own quirks we’ve come to the conclusion that for most organizations headless isn’t the right solution for marketing websites (but may be the right option for e-com or more complicated web applications). Before we unpack our reasoning, let’s start with a quick refresher on the differences between headless and monolithic architecture (in our case we use WordPress).
In the diagram above you can see three different styles of website architecture:
With a static website all of the HTML is stored on a server and when a web browser requests a web page, the server gives it to the browser to be displayed. Simple as that.
A WordPress website has a database that stores information, backend code that retrieves it, and front end code that displays it. This is commonly referred to as monolithic architecture because all three of those components are a part of the same system.
A headless website is split into two distinct parts, a headless CMS, such as Contentful, and front end code that retrieves the data that it needs from the CMS to display to the user.
Pros and Cons of Headless Architecture
Benefits of Headless
- Headless websites can be really fast. Not only can they load quickly, but also they can employ advanced strategies to seem even faster than they are by loading only a little bit of data to show the website and then start loading other data.
- Headless websites will typically have less security considerations since the data is stored on the headless CMS or using a form provider.
- Headless websites can be more interactive and are typically better for web applications and larger scale software.
- A headless CMS can be used to store data that is commonly used across multiple platforms. For example, a website, mobile app, and web app could all display the same content managed in one place.
Disadvantages of Headless
- Headless is significantly more expensive to implement, maintain, and host than a WordPress website.
- While content is managed through the headless CMS, page layouts are typically hard coded and are less editable for marketers.
- Previewing changes before publishing can be difficult and is not always possible.
- Changes to the design and page layouts almost always need a developer’s involvement.
- Managing a staging environment with a headless website is more complex and creates additional risk of unapproved or unreviewed changes to end up in production.
Pros and Cons of WordPress
Benefits of WordPress
- WordPress backend is familiar and easy to use.
- The backend can be configured to make it easy to create new pages, with unique layouts, and content that support marketing initiatives.
- Publishing is fast.
- With WordPress it is easy to configure a staging environment to ensure that code and content are tested before deploying to a live site.
- WordPress has a massive community.
Disadvantages of WordPress
- WordPress requires extra attention to ensure that it is performant and secure
- WordPress “developers” are not always professionals and frequently create technical debt that accumulates over time.
- WordPress requires a judicious approach to themes and plugins, otherwise it can become slow and insecure.
What should you use?
The answer to that question is different for every company, but in our experience, most small to mid-sized organizations won’t get enough benefit from headless architecture and instead will inherit more complexity. Overall, this leads to a slower publishing experience and an over-reliance on development teams in order to execute on day-to-day marketing activities that involve the website.
We recommend using headless architecture to build software like web applications and mobile applications, but we don’t typically recommend it for marketing websites. If you have an in-house development team with dedicated resources to support marketing efforts and you need to commonly display information on your website that is also displayed in a web or mobile app, then headless may be the way to go. If your marketing team is looking to publish quickly and have flexibility to expand the website to accommodate multi-channel marketing with the constant involvement of a development team, our recommendation is to use WordPress.