What is a web CMS and why should you still care?

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    In this article, we’ll talk about what a web content management system is and what different types are in use today. You will also find a quick comparison table at the end of the article which highlights the main difference between the traditional “monolithic” and the “headless” systems.

    A user trying to choose between different web CMSs.

    What is a web content management system (Web CMS or WCMS)?

    On a basic level, a web content management system is simply an application used for creating, editing, managing, and publishing content of any form (text, image, video, etc.) on the web.

    What is special about a web CMS, is the fact that it allows non-technical users to create and publish content, without requiring any in-depth coding knowledge. In a case where no CMS is available, a website must be created from scratch by developers with in-depth coding knowledge. This means first the foundations of the website (such as the core texts, images, etc.) have to be implemented with HTML. Then, these basic blocks are further enhanced through different means in order to look unique. Finally, some extra functionality is usually added through JavaScript or similar means.

    A web CMS not only empowers non-technical users, but additionally allows:

    • Collaborative contribution: A web CMS allows multiple users to contribute to the creation process and publication of data through workflow management. Each user can also be assigned to a specific role, such as editor, admin, etc.
    • Organized content storage: The web CMS allows users to have a central repository of content, which can be accessed at any time.
    • Reorganization of resources: Since a web CMS empowers non-technical users to create content on a website, resources (both human and non-human) can be re-distributed to achieve higher optimization and proficiency.

    Depending on the type, different CMSs can offer a huge variety of other capabilities. For that, you should first get familiar with the different types of web CMS.

    What are the main types of web CMS?

    While there are many different web CMSs, each with different capabilities, they can be generally divided into two main groups: “Monolithic” and “Headless

    1. Monolithic (Traditional)

    In the early days of web CMS, many companies started to offer CMS capabilities mainly as a tool for blogging. These systems gradually evolved to include any kind of website creation, be it entertainment, media outlet, or eCommerce. WordPress is one of the best-known examples of this kind.

    The name monolithic refers to the way content creation is handled in these systems: a monolithic CMS aims to offer every single functionality (creation, storage, presentation, and management) in one package, this is why they are also known as all-in-one solutions. In these systems, the front-end and the back-end are chained together.

    The graphic representation of how a monolithic CMS works.

    A monolithic system

    Should I use a monolithic web CMS?

    The fact that monolithic systems link the two ends and handle every step of the way means they are very popular in certain situations.

    Generally, these systems have:

    • Low entry-level barriers
    • Easy to implement presentation with built-in templates and plugins
    • Building an entire website from one place

    These benefits make monolithic systems a logical choice for creating simple and small-scale websites. For example, a personal website where you simply introduce yourself and share your CV and work portfolio, perhaps supplemented with a blog.

    Generally speaking, if your content output is going to be minimal and if you do not mind using generic templates for the presentation side of your website, then a monolithic CMS is a great choice.

    However, the same characteristics that make them a good choice for a simple website, turn into deep flaws when the use case is a bit more complex.

    The problem with monolithic web CMSs

    As soon as you want something bigger than a simple website, the monolithic systems start to show their age:

    • The interdependence of the front-end and the back-end means a limited programming framework, restricted content types, and often high maintenance efforts.

    • This interdependence also means creating content for new channels (such as websites that are compatible with different device screens, or an app that is supposed to complement the website) can be extremely difficult and time-consuming, as for each case content must be created from scratch.

    • If you plan to be present in different platforms (website, phone app, smart watch app, etc.) then you will end up with multiple CMSs, which results in complicated workflows.

    • Any traffic on one of the ends directly affects the other end. This results in re-occurring instances of visitors experiencing longer load times.

    • The monolithic architecture is not capable of offering complete customization to its user, resulting in generic-looking websites.

    • In cases where the content output is relatively higher (such as eCommerce shops, media websites, etc.), operations eventually end up requiring more and more resources just to function normally.

    • In the case of eCommerce, responding to market trends and creating the appropriate content for them requires a lot of effort and is consequently slow (due to the heavy reliance of marketers on the IT team in creating new landing pages, limited editing possibilities, etc.).

    • The interdependence of the two ends also increases the risk of a total shutdown, as any threat to the front-end, also has the potential to affect the back-end.

    These problems are especially important for bigger companies and enterprises. As omnichannel continues to dominate the digital space, monolithic CMSs are falling short in expanding to other territories and remain exclusively website-centric.

    The same is true for personalization. With the current emphasis on targeted content creation and hyper-personalization, nothing is as damaging as using a pre-made template and sharing the same “look” with countless other companies.

    This is why many enterprises who were looking for better personalization, omnichannel publication, and more flexible environments started to move away from monolithic systems to a more modern solution.

    2. Headless

    Headless CMS evolved as a solution to the shortcomings of the traditional monolithic systems. If you look at the problems mentioned above, you realize that most of them are the result of the link between the front-end and the back-end. That’s exactly what the “headless” systems do differently:

    The headless system separates the presentational layer from the back-end. You can use the same core “body” (back-end) to create as many “heads” (front-ends) as you may need. This is where the term “headless” comes from, as there is no single fixed “head”, but a countless number of different “heads” (websites, phone apps, voice-activated assistants, smart watches, VR headsets, etc.) which can be there based on your needs. To learn more about Headless CMS, we recommend our article on Headless CMS Explained in 5 minutes.

    A graphic representation of how headless systems work, delivering content through APIs.

    A headless system

    This separation of the front-end from the back-end fixes many problems that are associated with monolithic systems. The first obvious outcome is that omnichannel publishing becomes a simple task, as headless systems can publish content on different platforms and devices simultaneously.

    Furthermore, developers can choose any technology they are already familiar with and do not need to learn the technology for any specific CMS since headless systems are highly flexible.

    Another big bonus is the fact that one developer can also focus on their own work without handling the bugs of an already existing stack of technology - therefore it is easier to optimize pages for Google page speed and even relaunch parts of the website without needing to care about the content.

    Should I use a headless web CMS?

    Unlike the monolithic systems, a modern headless web CMS does not exclude bigger operations, nor does it sacrifice simplicity by reducing your choices.

    A headless CMS can be used easily for a multi-platform online business or a small-scale website. To make it easier to see the differences between the two approaches, take a look at the following table:

    Traditional CMS Headless CMS
    Approach Monolithic Headless through APIs
    Targeted Devices Web-only All devices
    Setup Based on specific CMS rules Based on your existing tech stack
    Coding Co-existing content, CMS, and Front-end code creates dependency, making each addition a complex task Content is independent and works with API calls. Any new "head" can be added with simplicity
    Customer's Interface Pre-built templates with minor customization possible Absolute control over the presentation of content
    Technology Choice Dictated by the CMS Free Choice
    Redesign Changes require modifying the whole system Changes are isolated to cases
    Platform independence - Yes
    Cross Platform Support - Yes

    Because of the obvious advantages that come with a headless architecture, many monolithic CMSs have been trying to adapt their products to imitate headless capabilities, however their traditional architecture usually holds them back.

    How web CMS is moving towards headless

    If you look at the differences between the two approaches, and consider how many people prefer to access the web on multiple devices compared to a decade ago, then it makes sense to see a push towards headless systems.

    In 2020, more than 50% of all website traffic worldwide came from mobile devices. This is not even considering all the apps that people use on their devices everyday. This figure alone shows why monolithic CMSs are quickly becoming obsolete. While monolithic CMSs focus on websites on a particular device, a headless CMS gives the possibility to publish the same content simultaneously on every device and platform.

    Many monolithic solutions such as Wordpress and Drupal have already started to offer their own rendition of “headless approaches”, however these systems were built with monolithic principles at their core.

    If you believe a headless system is the right move forward for you, then you should consider using a system that has been built as a headless CMS from the ground up.

    Storyblok is one of the true headless systems where everything has been put into place with a headless vision since the beginning. The best way to see if a CMS is the right choice for you, is to get some hands-on experience first, or get personal feedback from real specialists.

    Storyblok offers a completely free trial experience where you can see how things work for yourself. Additionally, our specialists are always available for further advice on headless systems. Simply contact us here.