The Truth About SEO and Headless CMS Platforms

Picture the content landscape in the early 2010s. Modern smartphones had just gained widespread adoption and the Internet of Things (IoT) was starting to develop into what it is today. Things were moving so fast that existing web content frameworks couldn’t keep up. Older content management systems (CMS) often struggled to provide seamless experiences on the new wave of mobile devices and IoT devices.

This was exactly what headless CMS platforms were meant to fix. Unlike traditional CMSs where the content is closely tied to the front-end design, headless CMS platforms decoupled content from its presentation, storing content in a repository from which it could be fetched through an API and optimally displayed for any device and platform.

Unfortunately for many early adopters, headless CMSs came with several disadvantages, the biggest one being the drop in online visibility that inevitably followed most migrations from traditional platforms. While many other headless CMS kinks have since been worked out, the difficulty of providing search engine optimization (SEO) for sites that rely on these platforms continues to be a serious challenge.

Why We Don’t Recommend Headless CMS Platforms for SEO

Decoupling web design and content may make displaying content somewhat more convenient across different platforms but, in practice, it also degrades the content’s search engine rankings. What’s the point of having content that responds to different apps and devices if fewer people can find it?

If you want your content to be easily found online, we’d argue that headless CMSs are a poor choice over traditional CMS platforms like WordPress and Drupal. Here’s a quick laundry list of various headless CMS SEO issues that keep us from recommending them:

1) Headless CMSs Do Not Prioritize Search Engine Visibility

For better or for worse (for worse, if you value being found on Google), most popular headless CMS platforms emphasize flexibility, simplicity, and scalability over search engine visibility. This is reflected in default feature sets of headless CMS platforms like Contentful and Kontent.ai. In particular, the heavy use of JavaScript by headless CMSs for page rendering can pose issues for search engine crawlers.

If you run a large business that already has serious brand equity, then the lack of SEO-friendly features might not be an issue. But if you run an unknown SME and plan to expand your business online, using a headless CMS can be a major hindrance.

2) Limited On-Page SEO Capabilities

Some popular headless CMS platforms do allow you to add meta descriptions and title tags, but these are just two of the many on-page SEO factorsthat are important for online visibility. On-page SEO is still doable for headless CMS content, but it generally uses up more time and resources compared to content on traditional CMS platforms.

3) Managing Headless CMSs Requires Rare Web Developer Skills

Unlike traditional CMSs, you can’t really expect a non-technical person to learn how to manage a headless CMS on the job. Frontend rendering is typically accomplished through different software from what’s used for backend content management, and a working knowledge of several coding languages is often needed.

Sites with headless CMSs also tend to be more expensive to develop simply because there aren’t that many developers and SEO specialists who are comfortable working with them. As a result, choosing a headless CMS almost always means that you either have to pay more or wait longer to develop the online properties you envision.

We’ve heard arguments that these hurdles for headless CMS should go down as these platforms become more popular. Unfortunately, more than a decade after headless CMSs arrived at the scene, it’s still difficult to find people who can work with them effectively.

4) There Aren’t Many SEO Plugins for Headless CMSs

The rarity of headless CMS web developers has also contributed to a lack of SEO plugins, even for leading headless platforms like Contentful. You’ll find a couple here and there but nowhere near the number available for traditional frameworks like WordPress.

If you or your client went with a less popular headless CMS, chances are you won’t even find plugins that do what you need. This means that your only solution may be to produce custom code, which may take significantly more time than simply downloading and activating a plugin.

5) Headless CMSs Can Be Bad for Your Content Too

Adopting a headless CMS can be detrimental to your web content’s quality, indirectly harming its SEO-friendliness. Content and web design are often developed to complement each other, and some content can lose some of its punch and relevance when it’s delivered on a medium that it was never intended for. For example, visually rich content designed for a desktop experience can appear a lot less impressive on smartphone screens.

In practice, the adaptability of headless CMSs also often leads to inconsistent branding and user experiences across platforms, especially in highly segmented or hierarchical organizations. Without templates, teams working on various platforms may interpret and present content in diverse ways, potentially diluting the brand’s identity.

Though this is more of a management issue than it is a technical one, it’s worth noting as many businesses simply lack the human infrastructure to make headless CMSs work for them.

Final Thoughts

If you want your content to be found on Google Search, legacy CMS platforms like WordPress or Drupal are the way to go.

We have to remember that the arrival of headless CMS platforms in the 2010s did not stop the evolution of traditional platforms. Though headless CMSs did seem promising, at the time, most of the touted benefits have since been rendered moot, thanks to the improvements to popular traditional platforms and the multiple fundamental drawbacks present in the headless approach.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that headless CMSs aren’t the future of online content management. But given the current challenges these platforms have for non-technical users and search engines, it’s clear that they are the wrong choice for startups and SMEs that want to leverage content marketing and SEO for growing their brands.

Arthur Piccio
Arthur Piccio
Arthur Piccio has been a professional content writer and developer since 2007. He has helped develop market-winning, localized web content for hundreds of brands based in the US, the Philippines, the UK, and Australia. He is currently a project manager at SearchWorks, the most respected SEO company in the Philippines.
Arthur Piccio
Arthur Piccio
Arthur Piccio has been a professional content writer and developer since 2007. He has helped develop market-winning, localized web content for hundreds of brands based in the US, the Philippines, the UK, and Australia. He is currently a project manager at SearchWorks, the most respected SEO company in the Philippines.