WordPress vs Headless CMS - An Overview
It can be difficult to evaluate which Content Management System (CMS) is better for your needs. This article outlines the advantages and disadvantages of both providing you with some ideas from which you can make an informed decision.
Co-Founder / CEO
May 10, 2023
When it comes to choosing a Content Management System (CMS) to manage your website you could easily be overwhelmed by options. It is an incredibly fragmented category populated by numerous players that the general public won’t be familiar with. The category leader is undoubtedly WordPress - the most popular CMS on the market. However, in recent years numerous players have emerged that are winning market share and carving out viable niches by offering a better fit, particularly for commercial websites. At the same time, WordPress’s popularity is on the wane in certain areas - it is after all 20 years old and was developed in a very different era.
Before we dig into the details it is important to be aware of a key point. Decisions as to which CMS is best suited to your requirement can be made with input from numerous people, and the context is key. It depends on what the site is for (personal or commercial use) and what you are looking to achieve. Sites range from simple basic personal websites to enterprise-grade websites that need to scale and meet the needs of different languages for example. The context for this article relates specifically to address the question as to which CMS is appropriate when viewed through the lens of growing tech sites, be that B2B, SaaS, or high growth startups.
In short, if you are after a very basic entry-level solution WordPress will be perfectly suitable (although I have a personal preference for Squarespace and Wix), but as I will argue, if you are looking to power a growing or scaling tech website then WordPress is no longer a sensible option.
There is no doubting WordPress’s popularity - it is the world’s best known CMS powering over 40% of all websites.However, it was initially developed as a blogging platform, is now 20 years old and was built in a very different era to the world we currently live in. It has sustained a significant ecosystem of developers, with a vested interest in preserving its supremacy, but there is no doubt it has also got a growing army of critics who feel that it is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to commercial websites.
WordPress is a free and open source CMS used for the creation and maintenance of websites. It is known for its relatively straightforward user interface (although I’d argue it does not scale well) and it is of course a very familiar CMS. Anyone working in a marketing function will be likely to have encountered it in a role. You can get started for free, but costs quickly add up as you look to add features (through Plugins), or to source a nice design (via a template) or to look to improve speed (via improved hosting). That all said, the overall costs tend to be attractive when viewed against other solutions. Depending on the context of use though, you may need to rely on an external WordPress developer on a retainer for maintenance purposes.
Advantages of WordPress
Some of the key advantages include:
WordPress is a very versatile solution being used for everything from blogging to e-commerce stores, and can scale as the site grows.
There is a rich ecosystem of freelancer developers, extensive documentation, and community groups that can help you solve any issues.
There are lots of themes and plugins that can help extend its capabilities.
The interface is relatively user-friendly, and given its ubiquity it is likely that someone on the marketing team will have had prior experience using it.
Disadvantages of WordPress
However, when I view WordPress through the lens of someone looking to decide as to how to power a commercial or business site e.g. high growth tech startup or SaaS business I feel there are several significant disadvantages that weaken its appeal.
I have worked with numerous WordPress sites and find that over time performance degrades, website bloat can occur and site speed becomes a problem. Of course, this can be due to a myriad of factors ranging from hosting to image compression to the number of plug-ins in use. As a general rule though as sites mature, WordPress issues increase, and I find performance issues crop up too frequently and thus represent a major disadvantage.
Again the security issues with WordPress can be levied at most CMSs equally. After all, most breaches are due to the user more so than the platform itself. However, because of its popularity, it attracts its fair share of hackers. The themes and plugins also introduce significant vulnerabilities especially when updates are pushed yet the end user may be afraid to action them in case they ‘break the site’.
3- Dependency on Add-Ons
To really make the most of WordPress you need to rely on a whole host of add-ons and plugins which can negatively impact performance and introduce security vulnerabilities as mentioned.
4- Ongoing Maintenance
As companies mature, the years pass and many different marketing personnel have managed and maintained a WordPress website the issues tend to mount up. It is thus common to have a WordPress developer on retainer in place to simply help fix issues as they crop up.
Common Use Cases
As mentioned its versatility makes it a popular choice for both consumer and business sites. It has significant brand recognition, in a CMS category where the competition is fragmented and has weak brand recognition which also helps account for its wide use.
WordPress and B2B SaaS
I’m firmly of the view that WordPress is not a good choice for growing or scaling B2B SaaS and technology companies. I feel the requirements of growing B2B SaaS companies relating to highly performant, secure and scalable, and beautifully designed sites are best achieved via another route.
Of course, many B2B SaaS sites still run on WordPress, however, research we’ve undertaken at Contento has surfaced numerous issues, especially for maturer websites. These tend to relate to performance issues, security vulnerabilities and ongoing maintenance costs. We undertook some primary research published on Medium - Analysis of the Content Management Systems (CMS) of the Top 25 B2B SaaS Websites in Ireland (2023).
In that report, we found that:
The cohort on WordPress had an average site speed (US) of 2.49 seconds, whereas the average for those on a Headless CMS was a mere 1.1 seconds.
The curiously named Headless CMS [What is a Headless CMS?] is a category of CMS that has emerged in recent years - although the purists will argue it has been around since circa 2013. The category has become popular primarily with developers who value its flexibility, scalability, and security as well as its performance.
Unlike traditional monolithic CMSs like WordPress, a Headless CMS is decoupled - so the frontend and backend are separate. The Headless CMS refers to the back end - essentially the content repository which then feeds the head via an API. For the less technically inclined, it means the all-in-one approach is broken down into constituent elements enabling ‘best of breed’ decisions to be made spanning everything from hosting to the CMS, to front-end design (the presentation layer). However, going back to a point I made at the start - the benefits of a Headless CMS are best suited to a particular cohort that values speed, flexibility, and security. The need for a structured content approach and developer dependencies upfront also means that it is not for everyone. But it is a sensible approach for high-growth tech companies that value the above benefit set and will have someone in-house be that a software developer or engineer who can assist with the initial setup.
Advantages of a Headless CMS
The following advantages are likely to appeal to a growing B2B technology website:
It is possible to create blazingly quick websites using a Headless CMS due to the use of Static Site Generators (SSGs) and Content Distribution Networks (CDNS). As referenced above, there was a material difference between tests we ran comparing leading B2B SaaS websites in Ireland with those on Headless CMSs enjoying faster speeds on average than those on WordPress.
A headless CMS is considered to be more secure than a traditional CMS in part due to the reduced attack surface given that the content is only exposed via an API (rather than the entire CMS platform). Similarly, the use of best-of-breed solutions (most of which have enterprise-grade security) means that the responsibility for security largely lies with other providers (who manage their updates and patches). A problem for WordPress is that users can neglect to update applications due to a combination of fear, negligence and ignorance.
Flexibility covers everything from more straightforward switching capability (no vendor lock-in) through to developer flexibility to configure the front-end and setup using their preferred frameworks and tools.
4 - Scalability
Headless CMSs are highly scalable and can easily handle large volumes of traffic without compromising performance.
Disadvantages of a Headless CMS
There are several disadvantages with a Headless CMS for the average user, which are less relevant for tech companies where there is usually access to in-house software and development skills. Of course, the product lead will never be happy for devs to be working on “the website” but after an initial set up the developer dependency decreases significantly.
These disadvantages include:
1- Increased Complexity Setting Up
The setup does require your developer to be familiar with API’s, frameworks and databases. Again from experience, we’ve found that most developers can easily manage given the fact that there tends to be well established vendors with documentation that helps navigate the set up phase. Similarly, the use case we are describing here is for tech companies who will usually have sufficient in-house experience to manage the set-up.
2- Migration Challenges
In many instances there is a migration needed off a legacy solution like WordPress. Depending on the site complexity it may impact timelines and costs.
3- Less Mature Ecosystem
As described above, the WordPress ecosystem is mature - ranging from the developer network, to the range of themes, to the plug-in ecosystem.
Common Use Cases
As a relatively newer technology, it is probably crossing from an early adopter phase to an early majority one. Developers were amongst its first adopters not surprisingly and it has become popular across all industries especially consumer brands where Omnichannel is an important requirement. The list of brands that have switched across includes the likes of: Accenture, Adidas, Conde Nast, Costa, Deliveroo, eBay, Figma, IBM, McDonalds, Netflix, Nike, Pizza Hut, Shell, Sonos, Toyota, and Walmart.
Headless CMS and B2B SaaS / Tech companies
A Headless CMS tends to be very well aligned with the needs of most growing and scaling B2B / SaaS companies due to the following reasons:
Likely to have someone ‘technical’ in-house to support the initial set-up
Likely to require a CMS that is blazingly quick (speed is vitally important)
Likely to have an in-bound marketing + SEO requirement
Likely to want a beautifully designed site optimised for conversions
Likely to want robust security in situ from the start
Likely to want to use cutting edge technology without constraints due to the choice of CMS
Contento the Headless CMS for B2B SaaS
So what is Contento and why is it relevant?
Historically, most Content Management Systems have been ‘horizontal offerings’ - so industry agnostic. We believe that vertical saas will represent the next big growth area - where SaaS providers offer highly targeted offerings tailored for specific niches. Here at Contento, we believe that there are some unique characteristics associated with growing B2B tech websites that can be better met through a vertical offering than via the old horizontal model of relying on an array of plugins to get the specific features you require.
Contento offers all the advantages you’d expect from a leading Headless CMS with a distinct technology slant. We assume you are looking to build and manage a B2B SaaS or tech site you are looking to grow and scale and thus we bake in features to help you achieve these specific goals. We also believe that the marketing function has been badly neglected by the leading Headless vendors and thus we have built our offering to ensure it delivers for both the marketing and the dev side of the company.
WordPress as a Headless CMS?
Can WordPress be used as a Headless CMS? In short, yes there are a number of options including WordPress REST API (WP Engine) which exposes content via API’s. However, it again falls into the camp of trying to extend WordPress beyond what it was originally designed for and thus is not advisable save for the most technical developer team.
In summary, your choice of CMS is what we call a “horses for courses” selection, as the use case and context will help shape your decision. As this article has argued, a Headless CMS represents an attractive choice for growing tech companies looking to future-proof their choice with a CMS that scales as they grow. It then becomes a case of choosing a Headless CMS from an ever-growing array of options. Here at Contento, we believe that our offering delivers on the needs of this particular cohort of users.