I wonder where headless WordPress will land. And by “headless” I mean only using the WordPress admin and building out the user-facing site through the WordPress REST API rather than the traditional WordPress theme structure.
Is it… big? The future of WordPress? Or relatively niche?
Where’s the demand?
Certainly, there is demand for it. I know plenty of people doing it. For instance, Gatsby has a
gatsby-source-wordpress plugin that allows you to source content from a WordPress site in a way that consumes the WordPress REST API and caches it as GraphQL for use in a React-powered Gatsby site. It has been downloaded 59k times this month and 851k times overall, as I write. That’s a healthy chunk of usage for one particular site-building technology. Literally, every use of
gatsby-source-wordpress is using WordPress headlessly—that’s just what it is/does. If you’re interested in this, here’s Ganesh Dahal digging deep into it.
And that’s just one thing, it doesn’t factor in entire companies and products dedicated to the idea.
What is headless an improve to?
The Gatsby integration makes a solid case for why anyone would consider a headless WordPress site. I’ll get to that.
Many advocate the reason is architectural. It de-couples the back end from the front end. It tears down the monolith. As a de-coupled system, the back and front ends can evolve independently. And yet, I’m less hot on that idea as years go by. For example, I’d argue that the chances of simply ripping out WordPress and replace it with another CMS in a headless setup like this is easier said than done. Also, the idea that I’m going to use the WordPress API not just to power a website, but also a native reading app, and some digital internet-connected highway billboard or something is not a use case that’s exploding in popularity as far as I can tell.
The real reason I think people reach for a WordPress back end for a Gatsby-driven front end is essentially this: they like React. They like building things from components. They like the fast page transitions. They like being able to host things somewhere Jamstack-y with all the nice developer previews and such. They like the hot module reloading. They like Prettier and JSX. They just like it, and I don’t blame them. When you enjoy that kind of developer experience, going back to authoring PHP templates where it takes manually refreshing the browser and maintaining some kind of hand-rolled build process isn’t exactly enticing.
But will headless WordPress become more popular than the traditional theming model of WordPress that’s based on PHP templates that align to an explicit structure? Nah. Well, maybe it would if WordPress itself champions the idea and offers guidance, training, and documentation that make it easier for developers to adopt that approach. I’d buy into it if WordPress says that a headless architecture is the new course of direction. But none of those things are true. Consequently, to some degree, it’s a niche thing.
Just how niche is headless?
WP Engine is a big WordPress host and has a whole thing called Atlas. And that effort definitely looks like they are taking this niche market seriously. I’m not 100% sure what Atlas all is, but it looks like a dashboard for spinning up sites with some interesting looking code-as-config. One of the elephants in the room with headless WordPress is that, well, now you have two websites to deal with. You have wherever you are hosting and running WordPress, and wherever you are hosting and running the site that consumes the WordPress APIs. Maybe this brings those two things together somehow. The deploy-from-Git-commits thing is appealing and what I’d consider table stakes for modern hosting these days.
Another reason people are into headless WordPress is that the end result can be static, as in, pre-generated HTML pages. That means the server for your website can be highly CDN-ized, as it’s literally only static assets that are instantly available to download. There’s no PHP or database for server-side rendering things, which can be slow (and, to be fair, dealt with) since it adds a process ahead of rendering.
What’s “the WordPress way” for going headless?
I’d lump any service that builds a static version of your WordPress site into the headless WordPress bucket. That’s because, ultimately, those sites are using WordPress APIs to build those static files, just like Gatsby or whatever else would do.
That’s what Strattic does. They spin up a WordPress site for you that they consider staging. You do your WordPress work there, then use their publish system to push a static version of your site to production. That’s compelling because it solves for something that other headless WordPress usage doesn’t: just doing things the WordPress way.
Shifter is another player here. It’s similar to Strattic where you work on your site in the WordPress admin, then publish to a static site. I believe Shifter even spins your WordPress site down when it’s not in use, which makes sense since the output is static and there is no reason a server with PHP and MySQL needs to be running. As an alternative, Shifter has a headless-only WordPress setup that presumably stays spun up all the time for outside API usage.
It’s fun to think about all this stuff
But as I do, I realize that the ideas and discussions around headless WordPress are mostly focused on the developer. WordPress has this huge market of people who just are not developers. Yet, they administer a WordPress site, taking advantage of the plugin and theme ecosystem. That’s kinda cool, and it’s impressive that WordPress serves both markets so well. There’s just a heck of a lot more WordPress site owners who aren’t developers than those who are, I reckon, so that alone will keep headless WordPress from being anything more than a relatively niche concept for some time. But, ya know, if they wanna put GraphQL in core, I’ll still take it kthxbye.