Nexcess
Nexcess Blog Logo
October 16, 2018

Headless WordPress: What Is It?

In the years WordPress has been around, we’ve seen it grow from a small community project into one of the largest CMS platforms available; currently powering over 30% of the web. In that time, multiple iterations have come and gone, and various developments continue to make waves in the WordPress community. (Gutenberg, anyone?).

Headless WordPress is one of those developments. A form of Headless CMS, headless WordPress allows for expanded creative freedom by allowing you to adopt an alternate front-end suited to your needs. This article will cover what headless WordPress is and some of the benefits and disadvantages of adopting this development style.

Headless WordPress

WordPress is primarily used to create, manage, and distribute content from within the WordPress installation. Most people think of WordPress as a Content Management System (CMS), but it has the potential to be much more than that. Headless WordPress is another potential use for WordPress, and it is gaining popularity in the industry. Headless WordPress aims to solve page load times and content delivery to multiple publishing platforms.

WordPress has two primary functions.

  1. Backend Administration: Provide a backend admin panel where a user will log into the site and manage the content.
  2. Front end Website: Present the content from the backend on the exterior of the website. Also known as the front end.

Together, the front and back end deliver dynamic content and serve it to the end user as quickly as possible. All of this happens thanks to a layer of PHP between the two ends.

The backend of WordPress uses PHP files to communicate with a database. When a user interacts with the backend of WordPress, the PHP files pull down the data from the database to populate the fields on the screen. The user edits the data and clicks the publish button. Now the same process is reversed. The PHP files save the data to the database.

The front end of WordPress is similar to the backend in regards to how the data is interacted with by the end user. When a website user visits a WordPress website, PHP files interact with the database to gather all of the content needed to populate the web page. This is where the WordPress theme is used. WordPress themes are PHP files used to interact with the database on page load and produce a finalized HTML output that is used to render the page.

All of this happens in the hosting environment provided by your managed WordPress web host.

Key Takeaway: PHP powers the front and back end of your WordPress website.

What Is Headless WordPress?

A Headless CMS enables publishers to create and manage digital content in one place, while developers interact with the data using a different programming language in another place like an app, custom website, or both. 

Headless WordPress is a development method using WordPress as a headless CMS. Developers can utilize the WordPress REST API to build the front end of a website or application with another coding language. Developers can also use tools like WPGraphQL as an alternative API. 

The backend of WordPress remains intact, allowing publishers to create posts and pages, edit theme appearances, and access other various settings. The front end uses a different web technology and an API to request data from a hidden WordPress dashboard. Developers can use any kind of software that requests data over HTTP and displays it to the end user.

What are the Benefits of Headless WordPress?

WordPress already has a staggering number of benefits. However, there is always room for improvement. Faster page load times, content distribution and offline capabilities are among the top desired. In order to achieve the requirements of a business or website, you may want to introduce a Headless WordPress environment to:

  • Increase over all page speed
  • Distribute selective data content to multiple publishing platforms
  • Build static sites with WordPress on a small budget

Each one of these have a unique reasoning for adopting the headless WordPress method. Let’s take a look at each one a little closer.

Increase overall page speed

Headless WordPress developers can use a tool like JAMStack to generate web pages into a prebuilt file during the time of deployment. The idea here is to pre-render WordPress pages and posts into prebuilt files that can be served from anywhere using a Content Delivery Network (CDN). In other words, we use prebuilt files served over a CDN for faster page speeds by reducing the time to first byte.

Developers can also use a PWA, or Progressive Web Application, to interact with the API. A PWA uses modern web technologies to provide web applications with some of the same functionality. A PWA can cache the content from an API and render instantly when the page changes on a user’s device. Cached content also works while the device is offline.

Nexcess Dev Sites allow you to create, develop, and push without fear.


Distribute content to multiple publishing platforms

Before the WordPress REST API was introduced in version 4.7, the only way to get your website content from one place to another included creating an export file, CSV, XML or any other kind of export methods. The problem still becomes needing to edit the content on multiple platforms to match. If you make a change on your website, you also need to copy and paste the content into an application for a 1:1 aspect ratio.

Now with tools like the WordPress REST API and WP GraphQL, you can syndicate the same content to multiple publishing platforms by providing access to your API. Publishers like newspaper organizations utilize this method once an article is written and needs to be shared with their affiliated stations across the country. Providing access to an API allows the end developer to interact with the data and use it on their preferred platform.

Build static sites with WordPress

Static websites are a popular alternative to client rendered web applications. The content does not change frequently enough to warrant dynamic page rendering, or rendering the page on the fly.


A brochure website is a term used to describe a website only displaying content to help educate users passing by. Brochure websites are typically static files living on a Content Delivery Network that make up a website. There are thousands of websites online with the sole purpose of raising awareness for a cause. Not meant to drive sales, rather provide a link to help an individual get started or to make an online donation. These websites do not need to fetch the same information from a database every time a web page is requested. They simply need to display a couple paragraphs, a few pictures and provide contact information.

Tools like Gatsby can pull content from a WordPress backend and create static files while also providing a seemingly “in-app” user experience. In many use cases, a static website can be used as a landing page to find out more information about a company or service.

Headless WordPress Use Cases

Let’s take a look at a couple scenarios where a company can make use of a headless WordPress installation.

Restaurant Business Owners: In many cases, restaurant websites do not allow a guest to place an order online, but do provide users with a digital copy of their menu which is helpful for carry-out or delivery orders.

Hotel and Casino: Some companies might use a third party tool like a CMS or Booking engine to collect transaction data. A static website can display a hotel room type and all of the amenities while providing a link to the booking engine to start the checkout process.

News Papers and Content Publishers: News organizations share data with affiliate partners 24/7. Think of these partners as “Sister Broadcasting Stations”. In a perfect world, you could have one headless WordPress installation where every journalist can log in and write an article. Once approved, the article is added into the mix of available content and distributed to all of the partners. It can be as simple as adding a post to a specific category in the back end of WordPress. WordPress does a great job with adding content into specific buckets for distribution.

Use WordPress as the Backend for Anything

Although we’ve concentrated on using WordPress to power the front end of a website or application, a headless WordPress installation can be used as the backend for any kind of project. 

What are the Drawbacks Of Headless WordPress?

One of the reasons why WordPress is popular is due to the easy use of installing a WordPress theme. In most cases, a couple bucks and the click of a button can transform the look of your website into a professional-looking site. It makes “building a website” simple and easy. Gone are the days of learning HTML and PHP to build your own custom WordPress theme templates to achieve your website’s unique look.

Having to build a separate front end for your website or application can be costly and time consuming compared to buying and installing a prebuilt theme. In the case of our earlier mentioned restaurant, the owner may not want to spend all day building a unique front end. They want something to go up quickly so they can get back to serving customers.

In conclusion

Headless WordPress installs are mostly utilized by developers. As the web technology progresses, more WordPress users are going to start looking for alternatives to publish content to multiple publishing platforms and load blazing fast speeds.

  Take advantage of a better WordPress hosting solution with Nexcess.