Traditional content management systems
, which first emerged in the 1990s, are complete, vertically-integrated systems that create and publish content. They were developed to provide a way to create and maintain websites without needing to hand craft the HTML code for every page. Systems like WordPress and Drupal are still hugely popular today and have an important role to play in content management.
The basic organizational unit in a traditional CMS is a web page. While CMSs employ different strategies for managing information, presentation rules and interactivity, all traditional CMSs are capable of delivering web pages at their front end.
By contrast, a headless CMS ignores responsibility for presentation and interactivity and deals only with the content itself. The front end (head) is simply missing, hence “headless”, and needs to be complemented by separate systems which manage publication to various channels: web, app, digital display, print etc.
For authors familiar with traditional CMSs, having to work with content devoid of aesthetic features can seem counterintuitive and a bit of a pain. So, why do it?
Benefits of Headless CMS
Potential Pitfalls of Headless
Footnote – Separation of Content and Presentation
A headless system forces us to design the structure of our content independently of presentational considerations, a strategy known as the separation of content and presentation.
The goal of “separation” is typically driven by the desire to make content (or IT systems) more maintainable and adaptable to different use cases. In short: efficiency.
In the case of a formatted technical document, elements which impart meaning (semantics) are generally considered to be structural (part of the content itself) and elements which apply aesthetic styling to published output are considered presentational.
The separation of these two concepts is an ideal or aspiration rather than a strict set of rules and this can lead to confusion and disagreement when trying to come up with the “right” answer to a particular implementation challenge. There is rarely a completely neat way to decide what is content and what is presentation.
A classic example of this is a page break in a DITA
document that is to be presented both in print and online. On one hand it is structural (it denotes an endpoint), but it only becomes meaningful when the content is presented as a set of printable pages. Websites usually dispense with the notion of page breaks, in favor of continuously scrolling text.
The apparent contradiction can be resolved if we apply a bit of common sense. We need to put some kind of signifier into the content structure (let’s call it a section break) which tells the print publication system to “put a page break here”. A web publishing system might interpret this as a good place to insert an ad.
By calling it a section break, rather than page break, we have managed to keep our content structure free from “presentational elements”, while keeping control over pagination of printed outputs.
Given the pros and cons, when is a headless CMS the right solution? If you are implementing a small-scale website whose content changes slowly over time, a simple “brochureware” site for example, then a traditional CMS is likely to be the best fit. Authors have maximum control over the look and feel and can tailor the user experience to the intended audience.
If you are working at scale with content that will be valuable in a variety of channels, then a headless CMS could be the way to go. It will help you to establish and maintain good practices for creating well-structured content that is easy to repurpose and lends itself to automated processing. The benefits of reduced maintenance costs and increased content leveraging (and resulting reductions in localization cost) in the long term should offset the higher up-front costs.
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