what is headless wordpress

What is headless WordPress? Even if you’ve been using WordPress for years, that’s a question you might not know the answer to. If you Google it, you’ll get a lot of tech jargon that might leave you with even more questions, so let’s try to answer it as simply as possible.

Headless WordPress is a type of configuration where you still use WordPress to manage all the key functions of a website, from creating and managing content to user registration. However, it’s called “headless” because you don’t use WordPress to generate the part of the website that users see and interact with (i.e., the front end).

In this post, we’ll dig a little deeper into what headless WordPress is and how it works. We’ll also discuss the benefits of this approach and when it makes sense to use it. Let’s get to it!

📚 Table of contents:

An introduction to headless WordPress (and how it works)

Headless WordPress is a term used to describe a decoupled configuration where the frontend layer (the “head”) is separated from the backend content management layer.

In traditional WordPress websites, WordPress provides both the backend (where you manage your content) and the frontend (where users view your content).

In a headless setup, however, you use WordPress only as a backend, while employing a separate technology or framework for the frontend. This means you’d use WordPress for tasks such as content and user management, connecting to third-party apps, and more. You interact with WordPress using the dashboard as usual, but how you create and design the frontend is up to you.

The idea behind headless WordPress is to leverage the power of the WordPress REST API to fetch and manage data:

The WordPress REST API handbook.

This means it’s possible to render and display this data with any programming language or library, such as React, Angular, or Vue.js:

React.

This setup might seem overly complicated. However, it can offer a lot of benefits.

The benefits of headless WordPress

Now that we’ve answered the question “What is headless WordPress?,” it’s time to talk about why it makes sense to use it. Setting up a headless website often requires a lot of work. Therefore, you’ll need to make sure this approach is the right option for you.

👉 In terms of benefits, here’s why so many websites use headless setups:

  1. Greater flexibility. If you don’t like the way in which WordPress handles the frontend, including themes and the Block Editor, a headless setup enables you to choose a custom approach. You can use any technology stack or platform you want to create your website’s frontend, while relying on WordPress for everything else.
  2. Potentially faster page loading times. A separate frontend enables you to leverage modern web development techniques like server-side rendering and Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) to improve site performance and reduce page loading times.
  3. Improved security. Separating the frontend from the backend makes it more difficult for hackers to exploit WordPress vulnerabilities, as they no longer have direct access to the underlying installation.
  4. Integration with third-party tools. The WordPress API enables you to request data from WordPress and use it on other platforms. For example, if you have a mobile app for users to read news or blog posts, WordPress can host the content and the app can request it using the API.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of using WordPress in a headless setup is that the software is open source. It’s fully customizable to suit the project’s needs, and it’s relatively easy to use. Compare that with developing a backend from scratch and WordPress becomes a very tempting option!

What is headless WordPress used for? Example use cases

If you use WordPress for a blog, portfolio site, or any other small project, the headless approach might sound interesting but unnecessary.

Let’s discuss some real-life use cases. That way, we’ll be able to better illustrate why this configuration makes sense for some projects.

👉 You might use headless WordPress for:

  • Ecommerce sites. Online stores can benefit from the flexibility of headless WordPress, as it allows for a fully customized shopping experience. Instead of being limited by how WooCommerce or other WordPress plugins display products and checkout pages, you can design your own ecommerce experience.
  • News portals. Media outlets and news portals often need to update multiple feeds simultaneously as new articles come out. A WordPress backend can push updates to news sites and apps through the REST API. For example, TechCrunch has used a headless WordPress approach since 2018 [1], with a WordPress backend connected to a React app frontend.
  • Mobile apps. Using the REST API enables you to manage content for your mobile app through a WordPress backend. This means you can build the app using any development framework you want and continue to use WordPress in the background.

Keep in mind that any headless WordPress project will rely heavily on the REST API. This means that you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the framework.

Pros and cons of using headless WordPress

Now for the next question – what is headless WordPress actually useful for?

Well, there are a lot of benefits to using headless WordPress. However, this type of setup is not for everyone and certainly not for every project.

With that in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of a headless WordPress setup.

👍 Pros:

  • It’s much more flexible than a regular WordPress setup.
  • You can connect the WordPress backend with any third-party tool you need.
  • It enables you to develop the frontend using any technology stack the project requires.
  • It’s a perfect backend solution for simple mobile apps.
  • Headless WordPress websites may load faster depending on how you develop the frontend.
  • There’s an additional layer of security since attackers have a harder time trying to access the backend.

👎 Cons:

  • Headless WordPress requires you to be a developer or to work with one in order to create the frontend and connect it to the CMS.
  • You need to manage the frontend from outside of the WordPress dashboard.
  • You won’t be able to benefit from many WordPress plugins and themes, especially if the plugin relies on frontend functionality. You can still use some WordPress plugins to add important backend functionality, though.

Unless you’re a developer, using headless WordPress for a simple website such as a blog or a brochure site might be overkill. We only recommend using this approach if the WordPress frontend limits the scope of your project.

What is headless WordPress? Now you know! 😎

In this post, we tried to answer the question “What is headless WordPress?.” This setup enables you to use WordPress to create custom websites and applications.

Instead of developing a backend from scratch, you can use WordPress to power your site and create any kind of frontend you want.

This approach can be perfect if you want to design a custom ecommerce experience or use WordPress to power a mobile app. To get started, you can read 👉 our guide on how to create a headless WordPress website and check out the basics of the WordPress REST API.

Do you have any questions about how headless WordPress works? Let us know in the comments section below!

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