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Headless vs Traditional WordPress Website Builds

In its essence, a content management system is a piece of software that allows you to create and manage websites without having to build them from scratch.

Despite the constant influx of shiny new content management systems (CMS) and integrated web development platforms, WordPress still leads the pack two decades after it was first introduced. Today, two out of every five websites are built on this robust open-source content management system, from personal blogs that rarely receive any visitors, to expansive, powerful websites representing billion dollar brands.

As companies evaluate their web development options, a key decision involves choosing between a traditional web build and a modern headless approach. This distinction, while not solely determined by the CMS, remains a significant factor in the overall web architecture and ultimately impacts content management, delivery, and presentation across different digital platforms.

Before we tackle this question, let’s define what each refers to.

 

What is the difference between traditional and headless CMS?

While the technical differences between the two run deep, we’ll focus on the high-level considerations you need to factor in while making a strategic business decision on which one to choose for your organization or brand.

In this context, we’ll assume that you’ve gone ahead with WordPress as the CMS of choice. 

Traditional WordPress CMS

Call it Traditional. Conventional. Monolithic. Or just WordPress. It all refers to the same ubiquitous content management system that we have all come to love (to varying degrees).

Regardless of your technical expertise, WordPress allows you to quickly create and manage websites using an endless array of themes, plugins, features and tools. The WordPress Plugin library has millions of plugins – many of them free or relatively low cost, that can be deployed and customized with a few clicks.

Looking for a chat feature? There are hundreds (probably thousands) of plugins available for you to choose from. Need to work on your site’s SEO ranking? We’re sure you’ll find a tool that works for you.

Headless WordPress CMS

On the other end of the spectrum is the headless CMS approach, which still utilizes a backend system (such as WordPress) for content and database management, but does not have a predefined frontend component associated with it.

In a traditional WordPress setup, you can easily access the backend to customize your website’s theme and appearance according to your preferences. While this isn’t inherently impossible with a headless approach, it requires a more substantial upfront effort to establish the desired look and feel, since the frontend and backend are separated, and customizations are not as straightforward.

Instead, with Headless WordPress, the content on the WordPress backend is fetched by the front end using REST APIs. The front end can be built using technologies and frameworks like React.js, Angular.js or Faust.js, thereby giving your developers the ability to build and customize powerful websites (or Apps) to their liking.

How will a headless site affect operations?

Since you’re on the Wallop website, we’re going to assume that you are in some way connected to the hospitality and travel industry. So how does a headless CMS affect you – as someone working on your hotel or resort’s website?

If you’re a person who does the content entry, or creates new pages using existing modules, a headless WordPress configuration probably wouldn’t affect your workflow too much. You will continue to login to the admin area, open up the page or post you want to edit, add and/or remove content to your liking, and push it live.

However, there are two stakeholders who are most affected by a Headless site:

  • The person responsible for the operation and smooth running of the website (i.e. owner, GM, Marketing Director, etc.)
  • Website visitors

Let’s see how. We’ll assume now that you’re the owner of the hotel, and are either (a) looking for a brand new website for your new property(ies) or (b) looking to upgrade your existing website(s) by building a brand new one. There are several reasons why you may want to opt for a headless build.

    • It is super fast. The front end fetches all of the relevant content from the WordPress backend using APIs, with none of the extra clunkiness that comes with a traditional WordPress build. Since they have more control, developers also aim to deliver a more efficient code using modernframeworks like React.js
    • Headless WordPress is more secure. Since there is no direct exposure to the backend database, this leaves less room for hackers to go in and wreak havoc on your website
    • Headless CMS architecture offers a future-proof solution. Firstly, it liberates you from the development constraints associated with a traditional monolithic WordPress setup. Moreover, it allows for more flexibility when updating or redesigning your website, as your content remains organized and accessible. Since the CMS functions as an API, you can seamlessly integrate the same content across multiple platforms, such as web and mobile apps, without the need for manual duplication. This adaptability makes it easier to transition between backend systems down the road, should the need arise.

So why would anyone choose a traditional WordPress build?

  • A headless build is more expensive and requires longer turnaround times. We’re building a lot of the modules and functionalities that make your website shine from scratch – this will inherently require more time and resources.
  • It’s more complex. Need to make changes to that calendar integration? You will need a developer (or a development partner) to achieve that. Want to have a nice chat integration? You will probably need a developer here as well. There is a silver lining here: you may still be able to use many of the backend plugins (such as Yoast) with a few adjustments. As a rule of thumb, anything that a website visitor interacts with directly will probably need a developer if you are looking to make changes beyond content. This can be a major shock for the more casual WordPress users who are used to its plug-and-play capabilities.

Remember when we said that the WordPress backend (admin area) experience remains the same if all you are doing is content entry or making adjustments in settings? Well – almost. Deployment, or the process of pushing your changes live, will take longer depending largely on the size of your website: we’re talking a couple of minutes for a small site to 20+ minutes for websites that have hundreds of pages/blog posts. Although this does smoothen out over time, it can be particularly frustrating in the ‘website building’ phase when you are spending time making countless updates and just want to see everything working with the click of a button.