What are the 5 main differences between a Headless CMS and CMS

Over a quarter of a century ago, in 1996, Bill Gates wrote that “Content is King”. He’s certainly been proven right over the intervening years. So now, in a world where perpetual content is increasingly important for online visibility, the management of that content is an ever more pressing issue. When businesses, organisations and content creators build an online presence, CMS software will form part of this. We look at the differences between a headless CMS and CMS in its more traditional form.

Traditional CMS

Traditional CMS software is structured to enable users to create, manage, and modify content for a website without specific technical knowledge. The front end templates and back end administration are rigidly linked. In this way, there is little flexibility in functionality and presentation. A traditional CMS typically relies on a plugin framework to include additional features and functionality to a website.

Headless CMS

The main element that makes headless CMS software different is that it has no presentation layer. The CMS manages the raw content at the back end but not its presentation. Data is retrieved from the CMS through a separate API developed to fit the needs of the organisation’s presence. In this way, the content can be simultaneously displayed and edited across websites, platforms and apps.


The API (application programming interface) layer that sits between a headless CMS and the user interface is a crucial part of how the two CMS differ from one another. Where a traditional CMS rolls together content and how it is presented to the user, headless CMS relies on a separate API layer to translate content to a variety of channels. In other words, APIs allow computer programs to communicate with one another. Software that uses APIs to provide data and functionality is generally more flexible, scalable, and integrable. In this way, organisations that employ dedicated teams of developers are able to benefit from separate API and CMS software.

How do They Differ?

In use, it’s helpful to understand the practical differences between a headless CMS and CMS as a standard solution.

1 – Development and UI

A headless CMS is generally more desirable for developers. This is because it empowers them to select the appropriate front end tools, frameworks and languages that fit with their working process. Conversely, templates are the basis of a traditional CMS as it focusses on website based experience. These can be more restrictive, which works for organisations or individuals looking to create a fairly standard frontend experience However, more bespoke and large scale requirements benefit from the freedom from limited functionality and standard templates. So companies with a dedicated front end development team can employ a headless CMS to design in synch channels that stand out from competitors.

2 – Channels and Editing

As a headless CMS is a back end software, there is total freedom to decide which front end applications should be engaged on individual occasions. All content can be managed from within a central hub and accessed by each channel from a content delivery API. By remaining unconnected to the existing interface, developers can rapidly model new content types in response to user experience. In this way, the time required for editing and delivering to different media channels is drastically reduced. Alternatively, content and layout are rigidly connected within a traditional CMS. Therefore it can’t accommodate platforms that it wasn’t originally designed for and cannot easily be reused.

3 – Administration

Generally speaking, as a standard CMS provides an all-in-one solution, it will offer a simpler administration experience. This means that it can be used by less technical editors and marketers within an organisation, without the requirement for developer expertise. Conversely, headless CMS platforms tend to have a more complex administration experience. Headless CMS will tend to require additional implementation cost and time in order to build or integrate the front end.

4 – Optimisation / Loading

Implementing a headless CMS solution is a great way to optimise page loading times and integrity. The freedom of programming language that accompanies a headless CMS means that teams of developers can build a front end that is completely streamlined. Obviously, this is fantastic for SEO and organic reach, leading to and higher conversions. Google core vitals continue to prioritise user experience for page rankings, so load times are increasingly important for more complex websites and apps. For simpler, smaller scale websites, this may not be such an important consideration.

5 – Security

By separating the front and back end of a CMS, security is automatically improved. This is because the attack surface for a headless CMS is smaller than that of a more traditional CMS. Ordinarily, the API used to present content from a headless CMS is read only. It can also be placed behind further layers of code, such as an application or security layer. This makes it less vulnerable to attack. This is not to say that traditional CMS is inherently insecure. However, by its nature, headless CMS is structured to offer extra security functionality, which is important for some larger scale operations.

Which is better?

The short answer is neither! It really depends on your circumstances, business size, personnel infrastructure and strategy.

Go for Headless CMS…

… If you’re an organisation or business who employs a team of developers, whether in house or outsourced. You are likely to be larger of scale, and possibly growing, so future proofing is important. Headless CMS is easier to scale and is better equipped to change your online presence with you as you grow. You are likely to have multiple channels to manage with regular content, so the ease of editing will free marketers up for more strategic work. Development teams are able to create websites and apps that fully utilise flexibility and cross-platform usability. Plus they can build in bespoke functionality that your organisation requires.

Go for Traditional CMS…

… If you have no access to development personnel. You may have limited resources or be operating on a smaller scale, without the pressures of a multiple channel presence. If using  a straightforward template based website fulfils your needs at this time, there is no need to overcomplicate things. Templates do not need to be devoid of originality, though. Remember that traditional CMS sites can be developed to look unique too!