Headless WordPress Sites: What Are They and Should You Use Them?

Edited by Michael Levanduski


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Headless WordPress sites allow you to use the familiar WordPress tools for managing your content while decoupling it from the rest of your front end so you can operate the site as you need it to work while still getting WordPress’s trusty CMS. If you’re looking for more customization for your website, a headless WordPress site is an option that both your content and development teams will appreciate.

Key takeaways:

  • A headless WordPress site uses WordPress as the CMS but builds a fully custom site.
  • While headless WordPress offers more flexibility, you’ll have to do some coding.
  • You’ll use an API to set up headless WordPress.

What Is a Headless WordPress Site?

WordPress is customizable, but it’s not the best website builder because it relies on themes. Many WordPress themes will help you get some structure and functionality, but it’s a bit limited to what has been done before.

Unless you want to spend a lot of time or money to get a custom-built theme, building your website with WordPress can be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

This is where a headless WordPress site can come in handy. A headless WordPress site is an extension of a headless CMS, which is a CMS that has been separated from its typical architecture.

A CMS is your back end, and it’s usually paired with a front end — the part that visitors to your website see — designed to work with it, but a headless CMS allows you to keep the familiar back end. Still, it accesses it through an application programming interface (API) or software development kit (SDK). This allows you to build a fully custom site that serves your needs while keeping a functional and familiar CMS.

A headless WordPress site specifically lets you keep the WordPress back end and operate it with your site. WordPress developers created the Rest API back in 2016 to enable this.

Through this API, you won’t get to use the “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) editor that allows you to preview how the content will look on your site, but you’ll be able to use the same back-end functionality for creating and managing content. Many WordPress themes are made to be compatible with headless WordPress.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Using a Headless WordPress Site?

There are benefits and downsides to using a headless WordPress site. Because WordPress is so familiar, it can be difficult to imagine what it would be like to operate a site without the front end. But it’s worth considering if your site would be better served by using a headless WordPress and a front end that’s more friendly for developers to work with.

Pros of a Headless WordPress Site

  1. More flexibility: While WordPress is well known for being an extremely flexible platform, this becomes exponentially more true with a headless WordPress. You’re no longer restricted to the WordPress front end and can enjoy the freedom of building your own site with the tools that are more functional for what you need, all while keeping the WordPress back end for your publishing needs.
  2. Better security: WordPress is secure but does open up the possibility for a security threat because your site is hosted on a database that must be contacted every time someone visits it. A headless WordPress lets you use a static site generator that has no active web server and cuts out the possibility of certain cyberattacks like distributed denial of service (DDoS) or malicious server requests.
  3. Improved performance: Headless WordPress sites can cut down on some of the less responsive parts of the WordPress front end and can be streamlined considerably. This means your site will run faster, load quicker, and be easier for people to access and navigate. It may be a matter of milliseconds in practice, but if your site has lots of visitors and can handle that traffic more smoothly, it’ll make a major difference.
  4. Easy to set up: Thanks to the Rest API, it can be very easy for your development team to set up a headless WordPress. Even if you’re handling things on your own, if you have a little bit of experience with front-end development and implementing APIs, you’ll be able to integrate Rest API quickly and easily into your site and enjoy the WordPress back end with your ideal front-end option.

Cons of a Headless WordPress Site

  1. More complicated coding: While setting up a headless WordPress is pretty straightforward, especially if you have a development team, it can be a little complicated for a beginner with limited website-building experience. Sticking with a standard WordPress site might limit your functionality a bit, but it also will eliminate a lot of headaches if you aren’t sure what you’re doing.
  2. Slower for publishing lots of content: For some sites, publishing content is secondary or a tool for improving SEO. For others, it’s the primary goal of the site to produce consistent content. If you are publishing a lot of content and you want to be able to do it quickly, headless WordPress might not be ideal.. You want to be able to utilize the full CMS, and it may be better to keep it intact rather than separate it from the front end.

How to Set Up a Headless WordPress Site

Setting up a headless WordPress site varies, depending on your site and what you’re hoping to accomplish, but here’s a simple guide to the basic framework for setting up your headless WordPress site:

  • Download the Rest API: WordPress provides a download of the popular Rest API that you can access any time you want from GitHub.
  • Upload the Rest API to your WordPress plug-ins folder: You’ll need to put the Rest API in the same folder that you put your other plug-ins in order to activate and operate it.
  • Activate Rest API: Rest API should show up on your WordPress site with the other plug-ins that you have installed. Make sure it’s active so that you can start using it.
  • Direct the permalinks: Open the Settings menu, click on Permalinks, and select either Custom Structure or Post Name. Set your permalink to direct to your site where you want the content to appear.
  • Install Custom Post Type UI plug-in: You’ll need to download and install the Custom Post Type UI plug-in by dragging it to your plug-ins folder. Once there, you’ll be able to make posts on your Headless WordPress site.
  • Create a new post: Once you have activated the Custom Post Type UI, you can start creating your content. Make sure the checkbox for Rest API is set for “True” and it should appear on your site.

Frequently Asked Questions About Headless WordPress

What is the point of headless WordPress?

Headless WordPress is a separation between the back-end administration area and the front end visitors see of a website. Developers benefit from the security of WordPress while using different technologies for the front end.

What is headless WordPress, and how do you use it?

Headless WordPress is when any website manages content and data by using WordPress as the back-end software. But it utilizes different technologies to display the data on the front end.

Who should use a headless CMS?

A headless CMS works well for publishing, media, entertainment, and e-commerce businesses that want every page to have its own custom look and feel.

What is the difference between headless WordPress and WordPress?

The primary difference is that you create every view your user sees with the headless option.

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