What is a headless CMS ?
Headless CMS might be a term you have heard from your web development team, your CMS refers to your Content Management System, used traditionally to update content on your website via a login to the admin interface. When we talk about “headless” imagine the “head” of your website i.e. the frontend, the presentation layer and the “body” is the backend of the website, so the content repository.
The term “headless” relates to “chopping the presentation layer (head) off the website”. A headless CMS is an interface that allows you to add content and a RESTful API (JSON, XML) to deliver content wherever you need it. The focus being storing and delivering structured content.
In contrast, a traditional CMS is often referred to or called monolithic, regular or coupled. These CMS’s utilise a combined frontend and backend, so all aspects of the website including content storage, content creation, design and how the content is displayed on devices is managed from the central CMS, usually in a HTML page. Due to this traditional CMSs made it easier to get websites crawled as spiders and crawlers from the search engines were originally designed to crawl HTML. Also a lot of the more traditional CMSs have a myriad of plugins and tools that can be downloaded to assist with SEO efforts.
A headless CMS comes with only the back-end solution, so unlike traditional CMSs they have not necessarily been built to allow users to easily add metadata, page titles, descriptions, etc. and this functionality needs to be built when using a headless CMS to assist with SEO.
SEO best practices for a headless CMS
Essentially a lot of SEO principles needing to be implemented for a headless CMS are typical of any website, the difference is that the headless CMS needs to be built in a way that accommodates it otherwise it can hinder the ability for it to be crawled and indexed.
Speed - Google made changes to its algorithm back in July 2018 where it stated that page speed was not a key ranking factor. In other words, how quickly your site loads will affect its position in the search engine results and a penalty will be applied to those sites that take too long to load (40% of users will exit a site if it takes more than three seconds to load). You can test your site speed with tools such as GTMetric, and download a report to help you optimise load speed. This should help in understanding if your content is being served quickly enough via your headless CMS.
Mobile friendly - Google also announced back in 2015 that emphasis should be focused on delivering well structured content at speed, “mobile friendliness” and that adhering to responsive design would play a key role in the optimisation of websites.
Keyword research - Still an important part of SEO strategy. When considering how to optimise websites for search engines you need to understand what search terms your visitors are using to search for your product or service. Optimising for longtail and short tail keywords in this plan will ensure the best results. Tools such as SEMRush, Google’s keyword suggestion tool and Moz can help inspire a solid keyword strategy for your website.
Content is still king - Shoehorning in as many keywords to a page as possible is very bad practice, instead understanding the user intent and creating high quality and engaging content is key. Well written conversational content will not only keep users engaged it will aid content flow if you are optimising for voice or page readers. Keep content up to date and ensure you are serving the users' needs by informing them or answering a question in a compelling way. Consider building a user friendly workflow into your headless CMS that developers, website administrators and content developers can understand to ensure content is rolled out consistently and with less friction.
URL strategy - Search engine friendly URLs are important. Short, keyword-rich URLs tend to not only assist with user experience but allow for better SEO. This also helps when thinking about taxonomy and information architecture on the site to ensure pages are not too deep in the site and can be accessed easily by the user and search engine spider.
Titles, headers and meta - Less emphasis has been placed on things like meta description tags but these fundamentals still assist in SEO efforts. Ensure the title is not only compelling but also applied your keyword strategy. These elements are still looked at by search engine spiders and when constructing your headless CMS ensure these fields are present and easy to edit and optimise. Some examples of the fields needed and the character lengths are Title tag: 70 characters Meta Description: 160 characters Meta Keywords (some engines such as BING still use this, though meta keywords have been depreciated by Google, still good to have if you are optimising for more than Google): 5-10 keywords Robots.txt: what search engines should do with a page
Optimising for voice - Voice search is speech recognition technology that allows users to interact with a website, app or search engine with voice commands rather than typing via a device. This is becoming a more popular way of searching especially amongst mobile users. Google stated in 2018 that 20% of search queries are utilised using voice search. Optimising for voice means understanding that some search queries may be in the form of a conversational question, ensuring content is available and accessible on the site to relate to these queries is key.
Canonical URLS - Google states in its guidelines that duplicate content is considered spammy and may result in ranking penalties. One way to combat this is to ensure canonical URLs are implemented. Again, when building a site using a headless CMS ensure these tags are easy to edit and optimise.
XML Sitemaps - To ensure Google indexes and crawls all of your website it is a good hygiene factor to create a XML sitemap and upload this to Google Console.
Use schema - Schema.org is a great resource for adding data markup schema to your site. Schema can help you define certain information on a page, data feeds, etc. and it helps site crawlers enrich the information on your webpages to assist in richer results when displayed in the search engines.
Use a CDN - CDN stands for Content Delivery Network and can assist with website load time by minimising the delay in loading pages and content by reducing the physical distance between the server and the user.
Advantages and disadvantages of a headless CMS Advantages
Flexibility - A headless CMS allows greater control over the design of the website as the limitations from traditional CMS frameworks are removed.
Compatibility - A headless CMS is designed to allow you to deliver content to any device or touchpoint giving it great scalability to an omnichannel strategy and access to current and developing devices across the IoT (internet of things) .
Security - Reduction in the risk of security attacks by decoupling of the content stored in the backend. Google is enforcing HTTPS and it’s been speculated that HTTPS sites are favoured when it comes to SEO rankings.
Scalability - It is not always easy to predict the demand of your website in the future, with a headless CMS you can scale up or down any server as necessary.
Expensive - Managing and building a website on a headless CMS requires skilled resources and this can be expensive when compared to managing a more traditional CMS.
Multi-user control - Traditionally one resource would be primarily responsible for the administration of the website, with a headless CMS the front end and back end are separate, meaning multiple users with different skill sets and responsibilities. This can be difficult to manage operationally if this is not a model you are familiar with.
SEO - SEO needs to be a consideration in the build of the site and requires key focus that doesn't rely on plugins and more on in house technical expertise.
Building for SEO success
A critical part of the success of your website is your team supporting it, ensuring the right people are involved in the building of your site is critical. Ensure your content and SEO team are involved early to assist the developers in maximising the future performance of the website from the beginning if possible.
A technical SEO audit pre and post migration/launch will ensure any new web structure will not hinder performance and any issues can be resolved early on.
Of course, any choice of CMS solution will have its advantages and disadvantages, it will be down to your priorities and resources as to which solution works best for you. For instance, although a headless CMS requires specific expertise to implement and manage it it can offer a level of flexibility that a traditional CMS cannot.
In order to make sure your headless CMS has successful SEO is very dependent on ensuring the site is structured and built correctly from the beginning with SEO in mind. SEO, if addressed correctly and planned for, should not be a barrier to selecting a headless CMS.