How a headless CMS is different from a conventional CMS

January 21, 2022 | 5 minute read
Karma Bennett
Content Marketing, Oracle Advertising and CX
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Researchers predict that the headless CMS software market will grow 22.6% from 2020 to 2027. I’d been using content marketing systems for over a decade before I heard the hype about headless and was shocked to discover that my devotion to some legacy tools was keeping me from seeing where the technology is headed (pun intended). Today, I’ll spare you the same fate by explaining how a traditional CMS functions differently from a headless one.

In part two of this three-part series, I’ll show how these differences are driving the growth of headless CMS

What is a CMS? 

Though the term may sound generic, a content management system (CMS) does just what it says—it’s a system to create and manage the content of your website without you having to know how to code. 

Why do I need a content management system?

Coding languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript enable the dynamic diversity of the web. Without this code, web pages would all look the same. 

  • HTML - Without wrapping our content in HTML tags, web pages wouldn’t have any headings, sections, navigation, italics—even paragraph breaks! 
  • CSS - CSS code specifies all the style features of a site, such as fonts, colors, and layout.
  • Ajax and JavaScript (embedded in HTML) enable dynamic and interactive content.

Before the invention of content management systems, updating a website was costly and time-consuming, because every web page had to be hand-coded by someone who knew HTML. With content management systems, anyone can start a website and update it regularly. Consider the explosive increase in sites for wedding parties, how-to, family photos, nonprofits, bands, novelists, local businesses, etc.  

Thanks to content management systems, anyone who writes content can type text into a box, attach some photos, and change the page layout using a few simple settings. The interface of a content management system is meant to be easy to use while providing as many options as possible for design and layout. 

How a content management system works—the old way

The “head” is the part that faces you and thus refers to anything that deals with the content presentation process. Before headless CMS, content management systems were monolithic. Content creation and content presentation processes were interconnected within the same application.  

Though the site visitor would see a standard HTML web page, creating and publishing that page took a surprising amount of coding wizardry. In the most popular monolithic CMS, a PHP script built the web page on the fly for every visitor, every time it loaded. 

Think of it like the old Mad Libs game, where you fill in your own silly words (the content) into predefined blanks (noun, verb, etc.), which are combined to make a story. In the same way, a monolithic content management system begins with a web page layout that determines how content is presented to the viewer. 

For example, a blog page layout could consist of the header, sidebar, post title, post content, and footer. The CMS then fills in the blanks in the layout structure by sending queries to a database that contains all of your content. Like the blank in a Mad Lib, it pulls the title for the post from the database, followed by the author, followed by the date, followed by the blog post content itself, etc. Every piece of content in the web page is completely recreated one item at a time while the reader waits.

From the header to the footer, every section of the page requires a query to this database to find out what content to load. Thus if your page comprises 20 pieces of content, your browser must send 20 queries to the database for each person who views it. If they go to a different page, it must do the same thing again, recreating the entire page on the fly and serving it to the viewer as HTML.

As you can imagine, this is not the most efficient way to display a web page. It slows down page load performance considerably, which visitors and search engines don’t like. 

The old, monolithic approach to CMS is like giving the web browser flour, blueberries, and eggs and asking it to bake a pie for every visitor to your web page. With a headless CMS, content creators take the same steps behind the scenes but serve that content pre-baked to the end user. 

What is a headless content management system? 

The front-end display facing the site visitor is the “head” that’s lopped off in a headless CMS. A headless CMS takes the important part—creating and editing your content—and cuts this apart from the display of the web page. A dedicated tool specifically for layout and design handles the presentation process.

The content presentation features of monolithic CMS are ill-equipped for omnichannel campaigns. Having content presentation tied to content creation becomes a problem as more and more companies create content for various channels, platforms, screen sizes, objects, and apps. The same content must be presented differently on mobile, smart phones, kiosks, or game consoles. A headless CMS uses API calls to easily update all those other channels with one update to the CMS. The ability to push a single content update out to a variety of sources makes language or regional variations fast and efficient. 

Instead of being limited to the styles and themes provided by your CMS, you can use any tool you’d like to convert that content into a web page. Web developers love having the freedom to work in the coding languages they prefer, and content writers aren’t burdened with learning to design web pages. But that’s not why businesses are making the switch! Most of the benefits of using a headless CMS are under the hood. 

In part two of this three-part series, we pop the hood and look at the structural differences leading to more companies choosing a headless CMS. In the meantime, check out our full guide to content management systems.


Read the whole headless CMS deep-dive series: 

2. Who needs headless? When to upgrade to a headless CMS

3. 4 reasons businesses are switching to a headless CMS

Ready to learn more about the benefits of integrating a content management system into your marketing stack? Take our quick self-guided product tour below.

Karma Bennett

Content Marketing, Oracle Advertising and CX

Karma has over a decade of experience with content marketing and SEO. In addition to marketing, she writes about tech, music, and politics. You may find her shamelessly singing along with the muzak at the grocery store or giving marketing advice at

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