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Emilia Lebiedowska
Front-end Developer
Business
30.08.2023 | 7 min

Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS: Which One is Right for Your Project?

Nowadays, there are loads of possible options for building and running a website. It’s fair to say at this point that the process has never been easier. With the constant evolution of WordPress and the emergence of easy-to-use, no-code platforms like Webflow, we’re in the golden era of easy and efficient website development and management. On the other hand, it’s never been more difficult to choose the right content management system (CMS). The number of options and key characteristics to take into account can easily give you a headache if you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for. One of the most significant aspects to look at is headless CMS vs. traditional CMS. So, in this article, I’ll explain all the differences between the two options. And by the end, your decision process for the best CMS should be much easier.

Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS: Which One is Right for Your Project? - 2024 54
Table of Contents
  • CMS Decision Process 101: Be Thorough
  • Traditional CMS and Headless CMS: Key Characteristics and Possible Applications
  • When is a traditional CMS a better choice?
  • When Is a Headless CMS a Better Choice?
  • Summary. What do I need to know before I choose a CMS for my project?

CMS Decision Process 101: Be Thorough

Before I move on to the differences between headless and traditional, it’s fair to point out that both options are valid and can be used to our advantage. Just because it’s traditional doesn’t mean it’s bulky or outdated. And just because the other one runs headless doesn’t mean you need to be afraid of it. Although I admit, it might sound disturbing. 

But in all seriousness, neither option is necessarily better than the other because it all depends on our requirements and what we expect from a CMS. 

That’s why the critical process is figuring out those requirements. Before making a choice, we need to make sure that we’ve considered all the variables, which may include security, ease of use, maintenance, scaling, SEO, and a few others that we’ll discuss in the following paragraphs. 

So, if there’s one thing I’d like to point out, it’s that we should be thorough with this. Site migrations can be time-consuming and very expensive. Trust me, you don’t want to go through this process only because you picked the wrong CMS. 

Traditional CMS and Headless CMS: Key Characteristics and Possible Applications

The most popular options for traditional content management systems are WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, as well as a lot of e-commerce-specific options, including Magento and WooCommerce and quite a lot more. 

A traditional CMS is an all-in-one solution combining content creation and delivery in a single package. It typically includes a user-friendly interface for creating and editing content and templates and themes for designing the website's appearance. The content and the presentation layer are tightly coupled in a traditional CMS, meaning that content is created, stored, and displayed within a predefined structure. On top of that, most content management systems take care of technical aspects, including domain, hosting, security, and updates.

A CMS is considered headless when it separates content creation and storage from the presentation. Those kinds of platforms focus on managing and delivering content via APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). The key advantages of this model include better flexibility, scalability, SEO, and even security. It’s an ideal solution for multi-platform content delivery. The disadvantage is, of course, the higher cost of development.

When is a traditional CMS a better choice?

Time and Budget

These two aspects are closely tied together. First and foremost, a vast majority of traditional CMS platforms offer a wide range of ready-to-go templates, plugins, themes, integrations, and many other solutions that take very little time and effort. Quite a lot can be done without writing a single line of code, drastically decreasing the development cost. 

The downside of that is, of course, the high cost of custom modifications, integrations, out-of-the-box features, and everything else that’s not already there in the system or in the form of a plugin. 

But it’s fair to say that if your project doesn’t require a unique approach, traditional CMS platforms should have everything you need. 

Ease of Use

The idea of modern CMS platforms in the traditional model is to allow non-technical people to create compelling websites. That’s how a lot of them advertise themselves, but is it true? 

In a large part, yes. Especially with the emergence of convenient drag-and-drop platforms, small businesses and bloggers can fairly easily create great-looking websites with a little budget. In most cases, these types of platforms take care of all the technicalities, including hosting, security, updates, and a few other aspects that generally would take time and require some level of expertise.

And when it comes to content creation, the process is fast and intuitive. 

Plugins and ready-to-go integrations

Suppose your project requires integrations with other popular systems or fairly popular features that are widespread across the web. In that case, you’ll most likely find perfectly functional plugins that would sort that out for you with a few clicks. 

Whether you need some e-commerce extension, marketing plugin, or analytics tool, you should be able to find an easy solution, especially in the most popular traditional CMS platforms. Some of them may even be free, others may cost, but you probably won’t go bankrupt by any means. 

Of course, there are some potential issues. First, you don’t have complete control over those plugins, and there’s a risk that some outdated extensions could pose a security risk. Second, keep in mind that, even if not right away, you might need something that a plugin cannot provide. In that case, there are two possible options:

  • If it’s possible, you hire someone to write that feature, which can be very costly. 
  • If it’s impossible, you might have to migrate to another CMS, which could be an even longer and more expensive process.

So, we’re once again reminded about the need to figure out all the essential requirements for a project right from the get-go.

When Is a Headless CMS a Better Choice?

Security

With the convenience of traditional CMS platforms comes popularity. WordPress, of course, leads in that category. As of May 2024, the most popular platform had a 62,7% market share. Unfortunately, that results in a highly increased susceptibility to cyber-attacks. WordPress is very well-known by hackers, there are plenty of known bottlenecks, and the situation doesn’t seem to change despite very frequent updates. 

And while there are less popular, traditional content management systems that are praised for good security, the headless way is undoubtedly a safer option. It allows us to implement any number of security measures, depending on our needs. For example, we can integrate data with Amazon Cognito, add multi-factor authentication, and anything else we can imagine. 

So, in some cases, if security plays a crucial role, it’s simply a no-brainer to go for a headless CMS.

Scaling and Integration

In a headless CMS, content is distributed across all platforms from one place, which makes it perfect for efficient multi-platform content delivery. It allows to singlehandedly publish on websites, mobile apps, and many other devices, including, for example, IoT home appliances. So, if your project requires that kind of versatility, here’s your huge advantage. 

At the same time, traditional CMS platforms require more server resources and tend to struggle with performance bottlenecks, higher database loads, and many other issues that become more cumbersome the more traffic you get. And that brings a whole set of risks regarding security, user experience, and even SEO. 

Headless architecture gives devs the opportunity to eliminate most of those issues, making websites much more stable and faster. 

Finally, if we need to add features and functionalities to a traditional CMS, we’re usually limited to very expensive custom development (if it’s even possible) or available plugins. And the problem with plugins is that we don’t have complete control over them. There’s a high chance that, at some point, they won’t be updated anymore, or worse, they’ll become a security liability. The headless CMS path gives us much more freedom and scaling potential. 

SEO

Website performance and stability are core elements of SEO, so as we’ve explained in the previous part, headless CMS is a much more reliable option here. With headless, you can achieve significantly better scores in load times and overall page speed on multiple platforms. In that sense, it’s not a match. 

Of course, traditional CMS platforms offer many SEO optimization plugins and easy integrations with external tools. There are numerous integrations available for headless CMSs, and unlike traditional CMSs, we won't have a performance ceiling.

If you’re interested in completely custom content management systems, I highly recommend further reading of another article on our blog:

5 Reasons Why You Should Build Custom CMS for Your Business

Summary. What do I need to know before I choose a CMS for my project?

To sum up, there are several questions you should ask yourself before making the decision:

  1. What’s my budget?
  2. How fast do I need my website?
  3. How crucial is security for my project?
  4. Do I need any unusual features?
  5. On how many platforms will I publish content?
  6. Will I need any integrations? 
  7. How easy should it be to use and maintain?
  8. How scalable should it be?
  9. Will I need e-commerce functionality?
  10. What kind and how many customizations will I need? 

And possibly a few more, depending on the type of project. 

In most cases, if you’re planning something fairly straightforward, a traditional CMS will probably be your choice. It will be cheaper, faster, and easy to manage.  

Headless CMS will likely be a better option for more complex, out-of-the-box projects. It will give you almost unlimited flexibility, scaling, SEO potential, and better security. 

But it’s not like you need to answer all those questions yourself. We can help you make the right decision in terms of the type of CMS, planning, development, delivery, and everything that comes afterwards. 

So, if you’re looking for a partner for your web development project, we’re here for you. 

Arrange a call here.

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