Headless CMS SEO: What You Need to Know

SUSO 04 October 2023

A comprehensive guide on headless content management systems, and their application for SEO.

Author: Tomasz Stokpa, SEO Specialist

Tomasz Stokpa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headless CMS has been the talk of the web development industry for quite some time now – more specifically, since 2015. This was when the concept of headless CMS became more than just a buzzword used by web developers.

headless CMS interest over time

 

Since then, the popularity of headless content management systems has grown immensely, with more and more websites being based on headless solutions. 

Perhaps you’ve also been considering making the switch from a traditional CMS to a headless system. 

This guide will explore everything there is to know about headless CMS. We’ll discuss what makes this CMS so popular, talk about its technology, and explore how it can impact one’s Google search visibility. 

But before we delve into all the pros and cons and the influence of a headless CMS on SEO, let’s start from the very beginning, that is…

What Is a Headless Content Management System?

When a CMS is described as “headless,” it means that the CMS is decoupled from the front end or the presentation layer of a website or application. 

In a traditional CMS, the back end is responsible for content management, and the front end is responsible for displaying that content is tightly integrated into a single system. However, in a headless CMS, this integration is removed, resulting in a decoupled architecture.

headless cms

 

The term “headless” comes from the concept of separating the “head” (the front end) from the “body” (the back end) of the CMS. 

This decoupling is achieved by providing an API (Application Programming Interface) that allows developers to access and retrieve content from the CMS without having to use the CMS’s built-in templating or presentation system.

Such an approach provides more flexibility and scalability, allowing developers to reuse and deliver content to multiple platforms and devices without restructuring the back end. 

It also allows developers to create unique and tailored user experiences without being constrained by the CMS’s pre-built templates or themes.

Using a headless CMS, you can also store your data in one place and use it in various different places without having to install additional instances of your CMS. You can serve data as you want, where you want and who you want using only proper API requests to your headless CMS.

You can, for example, use WordPress as a front-end engine but get information from a different source than its back-end. The same data could be used in your mobile application or in your company’s internal dynamic JavaScript website. 

All these things could be done using only one source of data. You can also decide which data and how it will be presented in various places. 

You can serve content as static HTML documents from Googlebot’s point of view. Everything depends on what CMS you choose and how you’ll present it on the front end.

Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS – Key Differences

Let’s see what the main differences are in each step between traditional CMS and headless CMS:

Aspect Headless CMS Traditional CMS
Content Presentation Content is separated from the front-end (headless). Content and presentation are tightly coupled.
Front-End Development Front-end built separately using any tech. Front-end restricted to CMS templates/themes.
API Access Provides APIs for content retrieval and updates. APIs may be limited or not available at all.
Flexibility Highly flexible to integrate with various devices and platforms. Limited flexibility and mostly suited for the web.
Learning Curve May require more technical expertise. User-friendly and relatively easy to learn.
Scalability Scales well for various digital touchpoints. Scalability may be limited by CMS architecture.
Customisation Customisable front-end UI and UX. Customisation mainly restricted to CMS options.
Development Workflow Front-end and back-end development can proceed independently. Development is often sequential and interconnected.
Performance Potential for faster loading times and performance due to decoupled architecture. Performance may be impacted by CMS overhead.
SEO and Performance Improved SEO and performance with an optimised front-end. SEO and performance may depend on CMS efficiency.

How Does a Headless CMS Impact SEO?

You’ve likely heard that Google and Googlebot can’t properly handle headless SEO. This is as problematic as websites based on JavaScript frameworks years ago! But it’s totally not true.

First and foremost, headless CMS doesn’t directly present any content to users and Googlebot. 

The front end does. 

It means that there’s no problem for Google to use headless CMS as long as our front end serves appropriate content and respects SEO requirements. 

To be considered proper for Google’s search engine, the front end of a website must meet several SEO requirements. Some key considerations include:

  1. Mobile-Friendly Design -The front end should be responsive and optimised for various devices, especially mobile phones, as Google prioritises mobile-friendly websites in search rankings.
  2. Page Speed – A fast-loading front end is crucial for SEO. Google prefers websites that provide a smooth and speedy user experience, as it positively impacts user engagement.
  3. Structured Data Markup – Implementing structured data markup helps search engines understand the content better, leading to enhanced search result listings with rich snippets.
  4. Accessibility – Ensuring that the front end is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities, can improve SEO and user experience. This will also force webmasters to use elements such as image alt text (alt tag).
  5. Crawlability and Indexability – The front end should be designed to allow search engine crawlers to crawl and index the website’s content effectively.
  6. User-Friendly URLs – Utilising descriptive, human-readable URLs that contain relevant keywords can improve the website’s search engine visibility.
  7. Optimised Metadata – Each page should have unique and optimised meta titles and descriptions that accurately reflect the content and include relevant keywords.
  8. Proper Heading Structure – The front end should utilise proper heading tags (H1, H2, etc.) to organise content hierarchically and help search engines understand the page structure.
  9. Quality Content – Providing valuable, original, and relevant content that addresses users’ search intent is crucial for ranking well in Google’s search results.
  10. Internal backlinks – A well-structured internal linking strategy is essential for SEO. The front end should have a coherent internal linking system that connects relevant pages and distributes link equity throughout the website. Proper internal linking helps search engines discover and index content more efficiently, improves website navigation, and enhances the overall user experience.

Of course, those are only the most common things to remember about. There are plenty more things to take care of depending on website type, topic, and size.

Advantages of Using a Headless CMS Over a Traditional CMS

We want to focus on three main areas where headless and traditional content management systems could compete and build significant differences. 

Those areas are:

  • Mobile support
  • Overall Website Speed and performance
  • Front-end management

Why these three and not the other things? 

We live in times where everyone has at least one smartphone with access to the internet. If that access is made by cellular plan, the website must work fast. And even if speed is not that important, overall website performance is crucial to give users and Google relevant information needed at this time. 

Finally, a webmaster must have quick access to front-end and back-end managing systems to serve relevant information to Google and its users. There’s nothing worse than a slow,unresponsive website showing irrelevant information. 

Depending on the chosen headless CMS, you can easily out-take traditional CMS in all the above elements. 

It’ll require you to use the proper theme system, but in general, your website will be faster, better performing, more responsive, and easier to manage than with traditional CMS. 

At least in theory. Here’s a quick roundup of how headless and traditional content management systems compare when it comes to SEO:

Aspect Headless CMS Traditional CMS
Mobile Support Inherently mobile-friendly. May require additional customisation for mobile responsiveness.
Responsive designs for different screen sizes. May rely on themes/templates that lack responsiveness.
Consistent & optimised user experience on mobile devices. Potential suboptimal mobile experiences.
Overall Website Speed Decoupled architecture enables faster performance. Tightly coupled frontend/backend may result in slower performance.
Lightweight frontend applications. Potential for longer page load times.
Improved page load times and reduced bounce rates. Impact on user experience and SEO rankings.
Easy Front Management User-friendly interfaces for content management. Frontend management capabilities available.
Faster content updates. May have a learning curve for content creators.
Flexible and customisable front-end management. Limited customisation and flexibility in front-end management.

Headless CMSs offer inherent mobile support, faster website speed, and more straightforward frontend management compared to traditional CMSs.

Furthermore, its decoupled architecture allows for responsive designs, efficient content delivery, and user-friendly interfaces, making it a preferred choice for organisations seeking modern and optimised web experiences.

Who Should Use a Headless CMS?

Given the multiple benefits a headless CMS brings to the table, it’s no surprise that so many users and organisations decide to integrate such systems into their web development strategies. 

But who exactly can benefit from using a headless content management system? Some of the key users who should consider using a headless CMS include:

  • Developers and technical teams: Headless CMS allows developers to use their preferred programming languages, frameworks, and technologies to build custom frontend experiences. This allows them to create highly optimised and performant websites or applications.
  • Content creators and marketers: Headless CMS separates content management from presentation, enabling content creators and marketers to focus on producing and managing content without worrying about its display and distribution across multiple platforms. 
  • Multichannel publishers: Headless CMS solutions allow organisations that need to publish content across various platforms, such as websites, mobile apps, or IoT devices with an efficient way of delivering the same content to different channels and devices. 
  • High-traffic websites: Headless CMS allows organisations to scale their websites and applications independently. This is particularly useful for high-traffic websites and applications, as it enables better performance and reduces the server load.
  • International organisations: Businesses with a global presence can manage localised content easily with headless CMS. By storing content separately from the presentation layer, translating and managing content in different languages becomes more straightforward.

Overall, headless CMS is an excellent choice for organisations looking to future-proof their content management approach, improve development efficiency, and deliver content across multiple channels and devices seamlessly. 

The truth is, however, that any organisation with an online presence can benefit from a headless CMS. Whether you run a small or large company, a local website, or a blog, a headless content management system can prove invaluable. 

Should you use it then? We’ll leave that decision to you. 

If you’re leaning towards taking advantage of a headless CMS, though, we’d like you to consider a few things first…

What Should You Consider When Choosing a Headless CMS?

If you want to unlock all the benefits a headless CMS offers, you must choose a reliable CMS. Here’s a quick guide on what to consider when searching for a headless content management system:

Easy Installation

First of all, easy installation is a must-have. Not everyone has high technical skills to run NPM manager, configure Docker or modify JSON files to set proper values. 

This is one of the reasons why traditional CMSs like WordPress, with the most known 5-minute-long installer, are so popular to this day.

This is also the reason why people choose to pay Headless CMS vendors to keep their instance of the website even if there is an option to download a free, open-source version of the same solution!

Generally speaking, if you ask what headless CMS has the easiest installation process so far, and we are not talking about setting it up in a cloud, we would say that Cockpit looks quite easy to install. Worth trying are also GhostCMS and Strapi.

Fast Data Management 

The second thing is how quickly you can import data from your current traditional CMS. If your traditional CMS has the use of REST API, there’s a big chance that exporting data to the new solution would be quite easy. 

There should probably be additional plugins or code sheets that will allow you to move your content from WordPress/Joomla/Drupal to, for example, Strapi, GhostCMs, or Cockpit. Look into the plugin repository or through GitHub to find a working solution. 

SEO Features

Another thing is the preparation of a new headless CMS for SEO. It’s absolutely necessary to have a website ready to build its visibility in Google and other search engines. Things that your new headless CMS must have, in our opinion, are:

  • Place for text in meta title and meta description
  • Support for structured Data/Schema.org markups
  • Support to setting custom URL Slugs/routing
  • Support for canonical URLs 
  • Automatic XML Sitemap generation

These are the main things which help get you first steps in building visibility in Google for your website. 

Which headless CMS gives you the most control over SEO at this moment?

In general, every headless CMS should give you the possibility to set proper SEO elements but not in a way you know from, for example, WordPress. 

There’s no RankMath or Yoast plugin that will create SEO fields and options for you. You’ll need to set them all by yourself. There’s the whole logic of creating and filling input data based on typed text.

In Strapi, for example, you can create a component that will hold all previously set-up SEO fields that will be possible to use for every new type of page.

Similar solutions working better or worse should be found in every top-tier headless CMS. Proper configuration of inputs and data entrance should help you in easy content management.

Integrations

Finally, it’s good to have a CMS that is ready to be integrated with various solutions like calendars, cloud drives, and others. The vast majority of the most popular headless CMS solutions have various ways of delivering those solutions, usually in the form of a “plugin market” (e.g., Strapi, Sanity, or Contentful). 

Almost every headless CMS has some kind of plugin marketplace to use. Some are easier, some hard to use, but for someone who successfully could install Headless CMS on a server, installing a plugin should be a piece of cake.

Headless CMS vs. WordPress – Which One to Choose?

Despite the growing popularity of headless CMS solutions, WordPress remains the favourite content management system for web developers.

In general, both headless CMS and WordPress aim to streamline content creation, management, and delivery, but they take distinct approaches to achieve this goal. 

Therefore, the choice of whether to use a headless CMS or a traditional solution will ultimately fall down to any of the popular headless platforms and WordPress. Let’s take a quick look at how these systems compare:

Headless CMS Pros and Cons

Headless CMS Advantages

  1. Performance & SEO: Headless solutions offer superior performance by separating the back end from the front end, leveraging static site-generating frameworks like Gatsby or Next.js. This leads to blazing-fast load times and improved search engine rankings, which is especially beneficial for large websites with high traffic.
  2. Use of Modern Technologies and Tools: A headless CMS allows developers to leverage modern development standards and tooling, making it easier and quicker to build sophisticated websites and web applications.
  3. Multi-lingual Support: Headless platforms offer better support for multilingual translations, providing a more seamless experience for international visitors. Features like internationalisation routing and content delivery networks enable fast and efficient multilingual support.
  4. Tailored to Team’s Use Case: Headless solutions offer greater flexibility, allowing customisation of the user interface to match your team’s operations and requirements.
  5. Omni-channel Capabilities: A headless system enables businesses to publish content across multiple channels and devices simultaneously, ensuring a consistent user experience across various platforms.
  6. Easily Swapped: Such systems provide an advantage in future-proofing businesses as they enable easier swapping of the backend without redesigning the entire website or application.
  7. Improved Security: Headless websites with static site generation reduce exposure to malicious attacks, enhancing security compared to a traditional CMS like WordPress.

Headless CMS Disadvantages

  1. Expensive to Implement: Implementing a headless CMS can be resource-intensive and costly, as it may require third-party services or tools for specific features and functionalities.
  2. Content Preview Limitations: Headless CMS architecture separates content management from presentation, limiting content editors from previewing content appearance on the front end before publishing, which can be frustrating.
  3. Lacks Out-of-the-box Features: Headless CMSs may lack some out-of-the-box features and functionalities compared to traditional CMSs, requiring custom solutions or third-party integrations.

WordPress Pros and Cons

WordPress Advantages

  1. User-friendly: WordPress provides a user-friendly interface with a WYSIWYG editor, making content creation and editing easy, even for non-technical users.
  2. Customisable: WP offers a vast library of themes and plugins, allowing users to customise the look, feel, and functionality of their websites.
  3. SEO-friendly: The system includes built-in SEO features, such as clean permalink structures and sitemap creation, along with various SEO plugins for optimising content.
  4. Mobile-responsive: WordPress themes are designed to be mobile-responsive, ensuring a consistent user experience across devices.
  5. Multi-user Capabilities: WordPress allows multiple users with different roles and permissions to access and contribute to the website.

WordPress Drawbacks

  1. Security Risks: It can be vulnerable to security risks if not kept up-to-date, and its popularity makes it a target for attacks.
  2. Limited Flexibility: Customising content delivery in WordPress may require extensive adaptations to existing themes or plugins, which can be time-consuming.
  3. Plugin Compatibility Issues: Some WordPress plugins may cause compatibility issues with other plugins, themes, or the core site, leading to broken functionality or errors on the website.
  4. Performance Issues: Performance may be impacted by resource-heavy plugins and themes, leading to slower load times for the website.

The Bottom Line: Should You Use a Headless CMS?

Choosing between headless and traditional CMS depends on the specific requirements of the business. 

In general, standard CMSs, for instance, WordPress, are well-suited for small to medium-sized businesses with basic content management needs, offering user-friendliness and customisation options. 

On the other hand, headless CMSs provide greater flexibility, scalability, performance, and customisation options, making them a more suitable choice for businesses requiring complex websites and an omnichannel experience. 

You may also consider combining both platforms if you believe your case demands the strengths of each system. 

Whatever your final call will be, though, we hope that this guide has answered your most burning questions regarding headless content management systems. 

Should you use one? To quote a classic SEO saying – it depends

However, given the numerous advantages headless CMSs offer, giving such a system a go might be worth the risk.

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