Headless CMS vs. traditional CMS: What’s the best fit for my project?

Finding the best Content Management System (CMS) for your business can be difficult. There are dozens of options to choose from. Some are commercial, others are open source. Some are popular and widely used, while others are niche and built for very specific purposes.

So, how do you navigate this? We think part of the answer lies in distinguishing traditional CMSs like WordPress or TYPO3, from headless CMSs like Contentful or Netlify. Let us elucidate this matter.

Definitions, definitions

What is a traditional CMS?

A traditional CMS is an all-in-one solution that allows you to store, edit, deliver, and display content on the internet. The back end (code and database) is tightly linked to the front end (layout and design). Let’s take WordPress as an example. The CMS’ four core functionalities are realized as follows.

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There’s a predefined MySQL database that serves as your content storage. Then, the WordPress dashboard provides you with an interface to manipulate your data — be it text, photos, etc.

The WordPress theme is a collection of front end files (HTML templates, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript) that determine how your content will be displayed as a website. The link between the database and the theme is the PHP application code. It basically takes the data from your database, and pushes it into the layout.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS like Contentful doesn’t bother with the delivery and display of your content. It’s focused on the storage and managing of data — all back end, no front end. Hence the appellation: its head (the front end) is gone; it is headless.

Most headless CMSs come with a user interface that allows you to edit your data. You can also create and manage content via an API. Speaking of which, APIs are essential to the concept of a headless CMS.

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A headless CMSs’ powerful APIs allow developers to pull content from the database into any kind of application, regardless of the coding language or device on which the content will be displayed.

This decoupling of the back end and front end is the main characteristic of headless CMSs. The ways in which you store and display your content are not tightly linked, as they are in traditional CMSs. This comes with a number of benefits and disadvantages.

Use Cases, Pros & Cons

When should I use a traditional CMS?

Use a traditional CMS if your organization does not have a (big enough) team of developers, cannot afford external developers, or needs full control over the content, its delivery and display.

The advantages of a traditional CMS like WordPress are clear. It requires only a modicum of technical knowledge from its users. It also allows site managers and content creators to control the appearance of their website. For instance, they won’t need a developer to change the font of blog article titles.

On the other hand, traditional CMSs come with considerable limitations, especially for more complex projects. The tight interconnection between the four functionalities—storing, editing, delivering and displaying data—can make traditional CMSs error-prone and compromise website stability. An issue in the front end can affect the functioning of the back end, and vice versa. Traditional CMSs are also more susceptible to security issues.

When should I use a headless CMS?

Use a headless CMS if you’re looking to build flexible, scalable, and unique applications and websites. Use it if you want to display your content across multiple platforms, e.g. on iOS and Android phones, smart TVs and watches, mobile and desktop devices, or even in virtual reality..

Here’s Martins Laucis, Internal Product Lead at CodeControl: “It is difficult to extend your existing content to different platforms with conventional solutions. The API-driven approach offered by most headless CMS solutions offers a really flexible and developer-friendly way to build applications accross different platforms.”

According to Martins, the fact that headless CMSs are language-agnostic has another benefit: “It makes it easier to find good developers, because you don’t have to go looking for that really good php person.”

All applications connect to the database via API. The database itself is built from scratch, catering to a project’s specific requirements. It’s a much more efficient process than having to remodel the pre-existing database of a traditional CMS.

On the downside, a headless CMS makes you more dependent on your developers. Your site managers won’t usually be able to create something as simple as a marketing landing page by themselves.

Traditional CMS Headless CMS
Language agnostic X
Cross-platform support X
Stability X
Code efficiency X
Easy set-up X
Full control from site managers X

The cream of the crop

What are the best traditional CMSs and why?

Let’s say you opt for a traditional CMS. Which one should you pick? This, of course, depends on your requirements. For insights, have a look at our guide to pick the best CMS for your business.

Generally speaking, WordPress, Drupal and Joomla! are good choices for smaller businesses working on projects of low to middle complexity. As open source solutions, they are cost effective and provide all-in-one systems with some degree of flexibility.

For larger corporations and enterprise-level projects,l TYPO3 is an excellent choice. While not as easy to use, it’s a powerful, scalable CMS that is constantly updated by top-notch developers.

What are the best headless CMSs and why?

There are a lot of interesting options, such as: ButterCMS, Grav, Netlify, Strapi, GraphCMS. All of these headless CMSs are open-source systems. Here at CodeControl, we use Contentful.

Last thoughts

Obviously, it all boils down to your needs. If you prefer to build a project on WordPress in order to have full control over content creation and layout, we’ll help you create the best possible website on that platform.

In general, we recommend using a headless CMS, though. In our experience, the benefits we mentioned earlier clearly outweigh the disadvantages. Headless CMSs are extremely flexible and scalable, and can be used to display your content on any kind of application or device

Also, should you need any support defining your needs for your project—including picking the best CMS, or finding talented developers to realize it—we’d love to help. Just send us something at hello@codecontrol.io :)


Philipp Nagels

À propos de l'auteur.

Philipp Nagels is a freelance writer and psychologist based in Berlin. He has years of experience in online journalism and copywriting. Among other places, he’s worked for Die Welt, Axel Springer Brand Studios, Upday, and Deutsche Bahn.

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