Thinking about switching to a headless CMS?
In this article, Ignite’s Director of Strategy Chrystal Lenardson will walk you through what a headless CMS is and how it’s different, and how you can optimize your content for it.
What is a Headless CMS?
Simply put: a headless CMS is a content management system with no front-end.
In typical content management system speak, the front-end is what a user sees. The back-end is where all the content is uploaded, managed, and stored.
Think of it as a shoe store. The bulk is all stored and managed in the back (the back-end), while a few products are presented to shoppers out front (the front-end).
Traditionally, most CMS’s pair the two together: the backend is where content is created and assets are stored before being seamlessly pulled through to the front-end and published in HTML.
Seems like a pretty efficient system, right?
Absolutely. And for a while, it worked really well.
But as digital marketing has evolved, the way users view and interact with websites has changed dramatically.
See, back in the day, users would overwhelmingly view content just one way: via desktop.
Which meant that having a system that turned your back-end content into something screen-worthy was an incredible tool to have at your disposal.
But as time went on, users started to take in content across multiple devices. Now, smartphones, wearables, voice devices, are all common devices where content is consumed.
When using one CMS to store and deliver content, it meant producing content that was viewable on those multiple devices could be costly and time-consuming, often requiring marketers to produce multiple forms of content tailored to each device.
Because of this, marketers found they needed new delivery systems to reach their audiences.
How Does a Headless CMS Work?
Think of it this way: what looks great on a desktop screen usually doesn’t translate well to a smaller mobile screen, let alone an even smaller, compact screen featured on wearables.
To accommodate the new demands, headless CMS was born. Using this kind of system, where content is produced is separate from where it’s presented.
With the two separated, the content doesn’t need to change, only the way it’s presented does.
So, instead of using your CMS to deliver content, you would use an API. Using an API allows content to be delivered to any kind of device.
You’ll often hear the phrases “decoupled CMS,” and “headless CMS” thrown around in regards to this subject. A few things to note about each:
- A decoupled CMS refers to a CMS which separates the front-end from the back-end. These will often still include page templates and other delivery tools and are a good option for anyone without trained tech support.
- With a traditional CMS, the “head” is the frontend. A headless CMS doesn’t have a frontend, hence it being headless. That means the content can be published anywhere using an API, but it doesn’t come with any frontend tools
Another big thing to understand about a purely headless CMS: you can’t build a website on its own.
With a traditional CMS (think WordPress), you can create an entire site with themes or templates, upload and store content, and publish it all in the same place.
A headless CMS doesn’t come with those theme and template options, and instead requires that you build a site first, and then connect the CMS’s API to upload content.
Why Use a Headless CMS?
The most obvious advantage to a headless CMS is the flexibility it offers.
As we covered above, the need to produce content in a variety of forms is real, and a headless CMS offers a way for marketers to deliver content to any type of device.
Essentially, that means you can deliver one piece of content in multiple forms – for a desktop, smartphone, app, etc.
The possibilities don’t just end with your traditional reading devices. The capabilities of a headless CMS mean that it can deliver that same content to VR devices, smart speakers, and even enabled cars and smart appliances.
Because of that, it saves content creators a lot of time previously spent creating and optimizing content for different devices.
With that comes some peace of mind, as well. With a headless CMS, there’s no need to worry over how your content will appear on different devices.
It also gives you a little more control and flexibility over how your content appears on the frontend. Without templates and themes, you and your design team can create a customized, unique design and experience.
Additionally, a headless CMS leaves room to customize the delivery of content for any new innovations that come along (and if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that’s there will be innovations in digital marketing).
Outside of that, the separation of content from presentation allows for quick fixes, changes, or complete overhauls to be made to your site without having to alter or re-implement your existing CMS.
Another major benefit to a headless CMS is that it comes with extra security. Site hacks and attacks are an all-too-common occurrence and major issue where CMS’s are concerned.
When you go headless, you’re a bit more protected. Because they’re separated from the user interface, your content and management system are better hidden.
What are the Disadvantages of a Headless CMS?
A headless CMS does come with a few drawbacks.
One of the most noticeable is that without the ease of a template, a lot more work needs to be done design and tech-wise to get a site up and running.
If you don’t have a team on hand that can handle such tasks, a headless CMS could end up costing time and money to implement.
Another major drawback is that a headless CMS has the potential to hurt your SEO.
Traditional CMS’s work so well with today’s SEO because they produce HTML pages. Search engine bots then crawl those HTML pages and rank them accordingly. They also tend to feature built-in or downloadable SEO plugins and tools to help the process.
With a headless CMS, it’s a backend-only solution, meaning you’ll lose some of the SEO functionality you’ve grown accustomed to.
Take meta tags. They aren’t automatically output, so this process would have to be done manually.
Similarly, if you have a multilingual site, you’ll need to take care of translations on your own.
Tasks like that will require someone dedicated to – and skilled – to ensure these kinds of features are implemented just right to ensure no damage is done to your SEO.
How to Optimize for SEO
The good news here is that most traditional SEO rules apply.
Things like keyword research, link building, and regular posting of high-quality, relevant content will remain instrumental in optimizing your CMS, no matter what kind you’re using.
The thing to keep in mind here is that you’re creating one piece of content to be shared in multiple forms. Doing so means that that piece of content needs to be optimized for a variety of formats.
So for best results, keep the following in mind.
Focus on Natural Language
As search engines and AI evolve, their moving beyond keyword heavy text. They’re simply getting smart enough to understand intentions, synonyms, and more natural language.
For marketers and content creators, that means keywords should be used as naturally as possible, and far less often.
Think instead in terms of conversations. How would you explain a given topic to a friend? You wouldn’t recite the topic, keyword or phrase multiple times per minute. Instead, you’d use context, synonyms, and simple language.
That’s exactly how you should approach content in a headless CMS. To appeal to as many people across as many devices as possible, your language should be easy to understand and natural.
Don’t worry about search engines understanding it – as I said, they’re continuously getting smarter with innovations like Natural Language Processing, AI that helps search engines process natural language.
Optimize Content for Voice Search
No one can ignore the impact of voice search. In fact, it’s predicted that 50% of searches will be done by voice by 2019.
That’s major, and means that the content you’re producing needs to translate to voice devices like smart speakers, smartphones, etc.
That’s one of the biggest benefits of a headless CMS: it lets you create one piece of content used simultaneously across desktops, smartphones and voice devices.
Your job is to make sure that content is optimized for voice.
To do that, keep an emphasis on natural language and question phrases, and make sure you’re optimizing your content for a featured snippet spot.
Optimize Your Metadata
We talked before about how some features we’re familiar with – mainly meta tag output – will require a little more work with a headless CMS.
So when using this system, it’s crucial that you (or whoever is responsible for creating or optimizing content) be familiar with how to create an effective meta tag.
Meta tags are generally made up of title tags, meta descriptions, and keywords.
They’re basically a synopsis of what readers will find on the page, and help search engines understand what the page is about.
Often, the description here is pulled for the search results, and it’s what will help readers decide to click on your page. Because of this, your meta tags and descriptions can play a big part in your CTR.
You’ll definitely want to include your keywords here, but again, in a natural, not-keyword-stuffed way.
Use SEO-Friendly URLs
We’ve all seen a bad URL.
It usually looks something like this: www.website.com/products/12345/93hl
In other words, it’s unhelpful and unpleasant to the eye.
A good, SEO-friendly URL, on the other hand, includes the page keyword and gives the audience an idea of what the page is about.
For example www.website.com/blog/optimize-for-headless-cms
Not only will your readers thank you, but search engines can better index and crawl your site.
Wrapping Up Headless CMS
Migrating to a headless CMS certainly comes with its advantages, specifically if you’re a business that needs to format content across a variety of devices or works primarily with non-web content like apps or smart devices.
However, a headless CMS isn’t for everyone, and in many cases sticking with a traditional CMS – or even giving a decoupled CMS a try first – is the best option.
When it comes down to it, the decision will come down largely to your resources at hand and the demand you have for a CMS that separates the back and frontend sections.