WordPress is still the most popular content management system in the world. Up to 65% of all websites using a CMS were built using WordPress. Many website owners opt for this particular system somehow out of habit, convenience or a lack of enough information regarding alternatives to WordPress.
But is it really a good idea?
For a variety of reasons, WordPress is not the ideal product for every project. What’s more, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that WordPress is most often not a good solution at all – regardless of whether it’s implemented in a traditional, monolithic way or as part of the newer Headless/Jamstack approach.
We created this article for those looking for alternative ways to manage website content. And what will it cover?
- What is a headless CMS?
- Why should you use a CMS other than WordPress?
- Headless WordPress
- Why a headless CMS may be a better option than WordPress?
- Descriptions of recommended alternatives to WordPress
- When is headless CMS not a good solution?
What is a Headless Content Management System?
“Headless” is quite an unfortunate name for such a flexible technology that offers unparalleled design freedom. Actually, the name properly denotes the decoupling of the front end from the back end. In other words, if a traditional CMS was the body, the “head” would then be the front-end, with all the components such as the front-end framework and templating system.
A headless platform is provided with no default front-end or templates. The content is just stored as raw data in the database, and can be accessed and published on any channel or device, and through any framework – using the developers’ preferred technologies.
In a headless system, content is accessed through API calls. Therefore, it is capable of being viewed without the templates or plugins, wherever it is asked to be viewed. This can be used to create a traditional browser-based website or connect the back-end to anything else, including mobile apps or IoT devices, such as digital kiosks, billboards and smartwatches.
Why use a CMS other than WordPress?
Whether in blogging or e-commerce, headless has been all the rage in recent years. Among the many benefits of decoupled architecture are greater design freedom, speed, and lower TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). However, headless content management is not a brand-new concept really. Before WordPress even rose to its global dominance as the world’s most popular CMS, websites stored content in databases, and queries were used to pull it from databases to the users.
The headless approach to web architecture is only a more modern take on this design and something that has been increasingly gaining traction in a multi-device world. In a headless content management system, the system exists solely for content input, editing, containing, and sorting on the back end.
WordPress, on the other hand, is a popular example of a monolithic CMS – a setup where the back end and front end constitute one entity. Headless systems follow a design philosophy in which such a setup is decoupled. Among the many design advantages of the architecture, a headless CMS helps you future-proof your site.
A headless CMS is a developer-focused, API-first system, which gives you greater flexibility to migrate your content in the future, as you are not tied to themes and plugins. Content can always still be accessed independently of the front end used to display it, allowing you to freely change the front end and display the content on any number of new devices.
In a headless setup, the back end is used for content creation and organization.
But can you go headless on WordPress?
You can decouple WordPress’s back-end from the front-end using plugins. This approach gives you a fast and lightweight headless CMS, where WordPress is only used as the back-end for the content. In this design, you can use REST API to extend the content management you’ve crafted in WordPress beyond your theme.
However, the disadvantage here is that you’ll miss out on all the tooling that made you choose WordPress in the first place, and you still get many of the disadvantages associated with running your site on WordPress.
In addition, you will also lose most of the benefits generally associated with headless, such as low cost and minimal developer support. The cost of a headless WordPress setup is as much or more than a true headless setup.
However, running WordPress as a part of your headless stack requires more effort in terms of development, ongoing maintenance, security, and SEO. In addition, you’ll also lose the convenience WordPress users love and expect: the live, WYSIWYG preview of the content created in the back-end.
Why a natively-headless CMS could be a better solution than WordPress
While you can go headless on WordPress, it is still a monolithic system at the core, which leads to certain limitations. Among the key disadvantages is the fact that multiple plugins are needed to build the site experience you really need. This approach leads to sluggish, cumbersome design, and can seriously add up to the total cost of ownership.
There are a few reasons why a natively-headless CMS is better than WordPress:
There are some big-name sites powered by WordPress. Notable examples include The Next Web or Time Magazine. These websites handle a great amount of traffic, but there is certainly a significant investment involved.
Even if you don’t have a dedicated development team, there’s no guarantee that you’ll gain the results you’re looking for when launching on WordPress. In addition, the user experience that such a website delivers may not be so great, either.
Running on Wordpress can get expensive over time
On the face of it, WordPress is cheap, but the cost can quickly get out of control as you develop your website – adding new plugins and paying developer hours to make sure everything works properly. We think companies should spend money on growing their business, not on maintaining complex technology, shouldn’t they?
WordPress is open source, which entails certain challenges. Like any (mostly) free software, it doesn’t come with support – there is no official development team, no phone number to call, and no way to submit a support ticket. You’re basically left to your own devices to fix and support your own website. On top of that, any potential errors can be difficult to diagnose.
WordPress plugin reliability is hit and miss
There are times when WordPress, a theme, or a plugin may stop working as a result of an update. There is also no guarantee that plugins will work nicely together. There is no way to safeguard against it – the best you can do is ensure you always make a backup copy and test all the new features before pushing them to the live server.
There are many WordPress plugins that can add functionality to your website. But installing many plugins will inevitably slow down your website. This adds extra development time to customize each plugin in order to fit your website.
Third-party plugins are typically pieces of software written by third parties. And not every developer takes security seriously – plugins have certain vulnerabilities and issues of their own. For example, a plugin may work fine on its own but crash when another one is installed, causing conflicts and possibly breaking your site.
This leads us to security concerns.
It is quite risky to develop a web portal using WordPress because of its security concerns. WordPress is used by millions of websites, which makes it an obvious target for hackers.
Hackers can tell if a site runs on WordPress, and exploit a common vulnerability on every similar WordPress website, without even knowing or caring who they belong to. And a hacked WordPress website can be difficult to repair. Of course, security plugins are available, but they won’t protect you.
It is true that every website on the Internet is vulnerable to hackers in some way. A custom website would have to be targeted specifically. Also, running a website on WordPress puts you at the whim of other developers who are under no obligation to release timely updates for the themes or plugins you’re using. Unless the budget is exceptionally tight, it is often better to get a website developed properly from the get-go.
Poor SEO performance
WordPress only gives you basic SEO optimization. If you want to boost your website, you have to download special SEO plugins, which slow down the loading speed of your project.
WordPress offers a number of SEO plugins, and by picking and choosing the correct ones, you can optimize your website. Due to the lack of control, you cannot do SEO properly without a custom headless website.
WordPress is also notorious for messing up sitemaps due to its category system and special tags that create duplicates. If you want to fix all these problems, you need to learn SEO or hire a specialist. From a financial perspective, a custom website built on top of a headless back-end can save you a lot of trouble.
Slow page speed
The speed at which a page loads impacts both the user experience and search engine rankings. The average user hates slow websites and won’t wait for the page to load for more than two seconds. We know Google and other search engines rank websites according to their speed.
Making WordPress fast is no mean feat. Due to heavyweight plugins, crowded databases, and a frustrating codebase, page loads can inevitably get slow. This is further compounded by large, unoptimized images, unreliable hosting, heavy themes, unoptimized homepages, an unreliable CDN, and many other factors. The list goes on.
A headless website is lighter, leading to faster page loads, which translates to better SEO. In addition, with a fast content database and API calls from the front end, your site can be more responsive.
Traditional CMSs are big systems that require you to use the various tools and integrations that the vendor makes available. As a result, technology stacks can become rigid and difficult to modify or expand. The end result is that the company has great technology in some areas of their business – such as their CRM system or support ticketing system – but is restricted to poor technology choices in others.
The benefit of a headless CMS is that it can integrate with any third-party tool or microservice, which allows marketers and developers to switch between tools and adopt new technologies, thus staying on top of the latest technology in every aspect of their business.
Elimination of vendor lock-in
Headless architecture allows you more freedom in terms of possible integrations and future development. For example, you can use one tool for marketing automation, another for delivering experiences to smartwatches, and yet another for taking payments through voice-activated applications. All of these tools can be integrated and accessed through the same headless CMS.
The benefit of headless architecture is that if you face problems with an integration, you can simply use a different solution. There is no vendor lock-in.
You’re likely to look at WordPress as your first platform if you considering building a website. However, technology has evolved and there are many modern alternatives to WordPress today.
Using WordPress offers you a convenient CMS and simplicity but is also associated with a couple of limitations and disadvantages:
- WordPress is fast to start with but gets difficult to maintain with many plugins and integrations. It’s certainly not an all-in-one solution.
- Adding plugins can get the functionality you need but may make the site very slow, seriously impacting your SEO.
- The WordPress platform is built using PHP, which isn’t always the ideal web technology for all uses and tasks.
Popular monolithic WordPress alternatives
For those looking for a similar experience for content creation, there are many platforms that offer the simplicity of WordPress.
Wix is a super-simple website builder. Because it’s great for small sites like portfolios and simple business sites, it is often used by restaurants and stores. A limited range of customization options are available, including custom domain names and the ability to add certain functions.
Squarespace offers a broader range of features than WordPress. There is a subscription-based billing model available for this SaaS website builder. Squarespace has the following features:
- Website templates
- Domain names
- E-mail marketing tool
Nevertheless, website builders are, in general, very limited in terms of design. Unfortunately, this means you cannot alter your website as you wish.
Medium is a popular publishing platform that takes a different approach to WordPress. It is not a fully-fledged content management system and is mainly dedicated to blogging. It connects people to stories and ideas that matter to them.
Medium provides publishers with a clutter-free writing area and readers with similar reading experiences. The platform looks great on all screens and devices and users don’t have to worry about themes or plugins because there are none.
Medium allows users to leave in-line notes and responses to content. As Medium is a hosted platform, you don’t have to worry about the software. Unfortunately, Medium does not allow custom domain names anymore. They also had a WordPress plugin that made it all easier, however, it’s now unsupported.
Non-monolithic WordPress alternatives
Storyblok, the next-gen API-based CMS, is built to augment your web framework or the technology you already use with powerful front-end editing capabilities to bring your static websites to life. Unlike other API-based CMS solutions, Storyblok’s editor can directly work on the front end of the website.
Storyblok was designed to be scalable and flexible whether you’re building a portfolio site or a big corporate site. Storyblok can even be used in existing projects and provide editorial content to any system.
Storyblok is a headless, API-based SaaS CMS built with Ruby on Rails and VueJS at its core, but there is no need to know Ruby or VueJs to use it. You can go with your favorite technologies.
Who uses Storyblok:
- Harvard Business School
Sanity is a headless CMS whose decoupled architecture saves a lot of effort when restructuring or redesigning the website. Like with any headless setup, the content lives on the back end for multiple iterations of your website.
- Sanity offers robust collaboration functionalities, giving editors version control in the editor and custom editorial workflows, where Trello-style “kanban” boards can be created, allowing editors an editorial workflow tool out of the box.
- In Sanity, documents (aka pages) can be edited and published individually and editors working on them can be assigned custom roles and permissions, supporting the review and approval process.
Who uses Sanity:
- Rich Brilliant Willing
Ghost is a popular headless alternative to WordPress. It’s an open-source publishing platform built on a modern Node.js technology stack, designed for teams who need power, flexibility, and performance. In addition, Ghost provides a clean writing and browsing experience for bloggers and readers.
- Ghost uses RESTful JSON API. The admin back-end is decoupled from the front-end, but there is a default Handlebars.js front-end to get the site running as quickly as possible, as well as detailed documentation for working with the API directly or using provided SDKs and headless front-end framework integrations.
- Ghost ships with the Bookshelf.js ORM layer by default, allowing for a range of databases to be used. Currently, SQLite3 is the supported default in development, while MySQL is recommended for production. Other databases are available, and compatible, but not supported by the core team.
- Additionally, while Ghost uses local file storage by default it’s also possible to use custom storage adapters to make your filesystem completely external. There are a fairly wide range of pre-made storage adapters for Ghost already available for use.
Who uses Ghost:
- Strapi enables content-rich experiences to be created, managed and exposed to any digital product, channel or device.
- Strapi offers a high degree of granularity for building your own API. It applies to both configuring content types, fields, and components, as well as building content and managing it all in one place. Additionally, it is completely independent of the type of code editor.
- Strapi doesn’t support TypeScript without custom modifications. It is planned to be introduced to the core, but there is no specific date for this feature yet.
- As a downside, when it comes to developing and hosting production servers, Strapi requires slightly more sophisticated DevOps resources than traditional CMS like WordPress running on PHP and Apache or Nginx. This also creates a need to implement continuous integration and development processes, which helps to improve the stability of the codebase and maintenance over time.
Who uses Strapi:
Netlify is an extensible CMS that can be used with any static site generator. With NetiflyCMS, all digital assets are optimized and served from cookieless domains. In addition to fast static hosting, web-based command-line services are also available.
- The web-based interface includes rich-text editing, a real-time preview, and drag-and-drop uploads.
- At its core, Netlify CMS is an open-source React app that acts as a wrapper for the Git workflow, using GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket API. This provides many advantages. Content is stored in your Git repository alongside your code for easier versioning, multi-channel publishing, and the option to handle content updates directly in Git.
- Netlify is an extensible CMS built as a single-page React app. You can create custom-styled previews, UI widgets, and editor plugins or add backends to support different Git platform APIs.
Who uses Netlify:
- Victoria Beckham
The Contentful CMS platform is one of the earliest and most popular WordPress alternatives. It pioneered headless CMS with structured content, providing a unified content hub that enables content to be published on various devices.
- With Contentful’s CLI-first approach, developers can work from the command line using their favorite code editor. Contentful also allows developers to customize web app experience using React components.
- Editors can take a content form and create compelling experiences around it. Using Contentful, most businesses can customize their marketing content on a campaign by campaign and channel by channel basis. Content can be shared and utilized between different devices, such as a website and an Apple Watch.
- Contentful’s API allows you to distribute content at the click of a button. As soon as you publish your content, it will be available on mobile, web and any other platform you can think of. Contentful’s CDN ensures that your users receive content 24/7.
- Contentful offers a simple, uncluttered UI with extensions allowing you to customize and enhance the user experience. You can also integrate the Contentful web app with third-party systems to decorate structured content with metadata.
Who uses Contentful:
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Costa Coffee
The Prismic CMS was designed to be user-friendly for both developers and amateurs. With Primacy, content teams can create new pages independently, without involving developers in the process. In addition, there are many front-end development frameworks and languages to choose from (React, Angular, Node, Laravel, Rails, vanilla JS/PHP/Ruby, etc.)
- When developing custom features and integrations for Prismic, options are virtually endless. You can integrate with different third-party software and quickly launch new pages or landing pages without a developer.
- SliceMachine provides another benefit that makes Prismic more flexible: you can add a new section to your website after it is developed and then use that section on any other page (content type) in Prismic. You can, for example, add a new section to your homepage with no additional code.
- Prismic’s pricing gradually goes up depending on the number of users you need and how many repositories (independent working spaces) you need.
Who uses Prismic:
- Virgin Mobile
- Amnesty International
Why headless may not always be the best option
Running a headless site is not always the best option and may be a bit of an overkill in certain situations.
You only need simple publishing capabilities
Many web content management platforms support the essential capabilities to manage a single content stream without having to invest in the back-end complexities of a headless CMS. When running on WordPress, you sacrifice greater flexibility for the ease of use. It is, in most cases, easier to implement than a headless CMS.
You don’t care about your content marketing team’s workflow
Headless CMSes are built to make content marketing specialists’ work easier and quicker. It’s difficult to stop the ongoing web development trends and headless CMS are going to be the tools of the future when it comes to content publishing. The sooner you switch to headless, the better for your business and your marketing team’s daily work. Give them the ability to easily manage everything themselves, without relying on developers!
Of course, you can let you marketers do their job as usual for the next few years, but… would you do it, really?
There are many factors to consider when selecting a headless CMS solution, and the choice of a CMS platform should not be based on popularity alone. You don’t have to use WordPress, even though it is the best option for certain use cases. As evidenced above in this article, there are many alternatives on the market that may turn out to be the perfect match for your business needs.
Due to its simplicity, WordPress is a very popular platform for blogs and simple company websites. However, when it comes to creating a powerful, secure, and functional website platform, it may not be the best option around – WordPress is regularly hacked, offers slow performance, and requires continual technical attention.
In order to avoid spending time, money, and nerves repairing WordPress-based websites yourself, we recommend contacting our experienced developers for assistance.
If you want to be sure that you’ve selected perfectly for your needs, feel free to contact us. With the support of an experienced partner like Naturaily, you will be able to explore the potential of Jamstack technology to the maximum and benefit from its promising features.