Headless vs. Traditional CMS: Definitions, Pros and Cons

Headless vs. Traditional CMS
Source: Stencil

So you want to know the difference between a headless CMS and a traditional CMS. 

Depending on the size and goals of your business, choosing the right CMS will at the very least save you time and money in the long run. At best, it will set you up for a smooth technological path forward as you grow your eCommerce* business.

In this post, we’ll define the differences between these two content management systems—and help you understand the pros and cons of each by putting things in simple terms.

This is headless vs. traditional CMS. Let’s dive in. 

Traditional CMS defined

A traditional content management system ties together both the frontend and backend of your website. Think of it as one big system that has to perform data storage and business logic control, but also maintain user-experience related functions. 

With everything tied together, what tends to happen in a traditional CMS is that neither side—front end or back end—gets to have the power they need to perform at their best. 

By power, I mean how fast is the front-end load speed? How beautiful is the experience? The back end, likewise, needs power to store data efficiently and relay that data to the systems that need it in the fastest way possible. 

With these two competing agendas, neither the front end nor the back end is prioritized under a traditional CMS. They’re both interconnected and only performing at a strained capacity at best. 

Headless CMS defined

A headless content management system allows you to separate out the front end from the back end. This allows the front end to be built in the way that a brand would want it to be built: fully customizable for the best user experience. 

After all, if you’re prioritizing both brand and growth for your business, then it’s not enough to rely on a template front end experience. Full customization is the way to go. 

Headless vs. traditional: Pros and cons

Pros of Headless

  • Faster site speed
  • Leverage best technology 
  • Easier to set up an international presence (more on this later)
  • Better SEO ranking because of canonical structure and site speed

Cons of headless

  • More expensive to maintain
  • Because there are more moving parts, there is a greater risk of bugs or breaks
  • Not connected to as many integrations or systems
  • Unsupported by a larger company (on the other hand, you purchase a traditional CMS from a company)

Pros of traditional

  • Less costly to maintain 
  • Mostly bug-proof because things are being tested and has less flexibility overall, which means greater consistency
  • Backed by a company 
  • Has more integrations with third party tools

Cons of traditional

  • Naturally slower load times 
  • Doesn’t leverage the latest technology 
  • Must regularly be updated
  • Harder to internationalize. (It’s more costly to go global because different currencies and translations are never maintained on a single CMS)
  • Rigidity to what you can do with SEO flexibility (specifically to URLS and metastructures)

Our favorite? Headless

For our partners, who are midsize to enterprise sustainable eCommerce companies, we tend to recommend choosing a headless CMS. The ability to fully control the user experience through customization is worth the extra cost and labor. 

In today’s competitive eCommerce market, brand is equally important as growth tactics. Retention—and building a memorable shopping experience—matters just as much as customer acquisition. 

*One caveat: In eCommerce, the traditional CMS is built into the eCommerce engine itself. Platforms like Shopify, Magento, and BigCommerce have their own inbuilt CMS engines. In eCommerce, you can separate out the CMS into a headless one while still being connected to everything else.