• Content

Introduction to Headless SEO: Understanding the Basics

Kate Parish
Kate Parish
March 24, 2024 · 11 min read
Edge Experience: What Performance Means for Personalization

With the rise of headless architecture, businesses across various industries are increasingly adopting this trend, and there’s no sign of slowing down. In fact, more than 60% of retail companies plan to incorporate headless systems into their work-frame.

Leading e-commerce platforms are actively implementing headless solutions to meet the growing demand for personalized customer experiences. For instance, Shopify promotes headless architecture on all plans. Magento, BigCommerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and others also offer their users rich headless commerce functionality.

What’s the essence of headless architecture? The concept stems from separating the “head” (front end) and “body” (back end) of a website/application. The two parts communicate with each other through APIs. The decoupled environment gives greater flexibility in how content is delivered and presented.

As headless systems become more popular, marketers are daunted by the numerous questions about search engine optimization:

  • Will adopting a headless approach affect SEO?

  • What’s the logic of implementing SEO within headless architecture?

  • Are there any differences from regular SEO?

While switching to a headless CMS may seem like a tempting idea, businesses should be aware of certain SEO challenges it might present. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between traditional and headless CMS solutions SEO-wise and highlight a few practical suggestions for boosting an SEO strategy with headless CMSs.

How Is Headless SEO Different from Regular SEO?

If you’re struggling to level up your SEO game, it’s time to consider a headless strategy. Headless SEO is a set of search engine optimization tactics used for websites created on a headless CMS. To get a better grasp of the idea, let’s explain the notion of a headless CMS first.

A headless CMS is a content management system where the frontend presentation layer and the content depository are detached, with content deployed via APIs on any digital channel you select, be it a mobile app, website, smartwatch, or another channel. Due to this separation, marketers have the freedom to manage content independently, while developers can utilize the best tech stack to build faster, automate changes, and manage digital assets at scale.

When planning out an SEO strategy in a headless CMS architecture, it’s essential to consider a few aspects:

  • Contrary to traditional CMSs, where you typically build web pages, headless CMSs focus on creating content models. Content modeling defines the content structure at a granular level. Namely, it centers on identifying types of content needed for a specific project, assigning attributes to each content element, and mapping out the rules of how these components are interconnected.

To have a better understanding of content modeling, study the image below showcasing a content model of an article.

In simple terms, a content model is a blueprint for arranging content so that it can be used and presented effectively in different formats across various platforms. A well-organized content model provides a cohesive data flow, establishing the relationship between various content elements.

  • Headless CMSs give complete control over the technical setup, enabling SEO experts to tailor their CMSs to particular requirements, for example, customizing ‘robots.txt’ or sitemap files, generating specific schema templates for different content types, and much more.

Headless CMSs make any optimization possible. But the only snag is that SEO pros have to handle a wider spectrum of tasks, like adding validation rules to avoid mistakes, applying customized logic to canonicals, designing faceted navigation, determining pagination settings, and more, which is not typical for a traditional CMS environment. There’s also a great deal of cooperation with developers to ensure everything is implemented correctly.

  • A headless CMS totally defies the logic of its traditional counterpart in terms of content rendering. Traditional CMSs rely on server-side rendering when the whole HTML page is delivered for every URL. Search engines have no difficulty crawling and indexing such pages.

Meanwhile, in headless CMSs, pages are dynamically rendered on the client side (usually through JavaScript frameworks), and new content is fetched via APIs. Search engine bots may struggle to crawl and index such content accurately upon initial request. To fix this, developers often implement server-side rendering for initial loading, ensuring content in a headless CMS is accessible and indexable by search engines immediately.

As for traditional SEO, it exists in monolithic architecture and is associated with regular, legacy CMSs. These systems have a coupled setup, where the backend (content depository) and frontend (presentation layer) are tied together. It’s, in essence, a pre-packaged solution with a sufficient number of standardized templates, a user-friendly admin interface, and drag-and-drop editing. Besides, it comes with built-in tools to fulfill basic SEO tasks, such as ensuring content readability, handling URL structures, and providing meta descriptions, among others.

There’s no need to be a technical expert to manage and deploy traditional SEO. However, in this case, ease of use might come at the expense of certain restraints, including limited custom design capabilities, sluggish site performance, insufficient control over SEO, and overdependence on SEO plugins.

A Comprehensive Guide to MACH Architecture and Technologies

Learn everything you need to know about MACH architecture

SEO Benefits of Choosing a Headless CMS

Headless CMS solutions address the weaknesses of traditional content management systems and offer impressive benefits. Let’s analyze them in detail.

Omnichannel Experience

With user behavior consistently changing, people search and consume content across multiple devices and channels (web, mobile, email, app, etc.). Headless CMSs allow businesses to structure content in a way that it can be reused and repurposed across various platforms, providing a consistent brand experience.

Another great perk of using a headless CMS is its ability to manage content from one place and update it in real-time. This eliminates the risk of discrepancies that may occur when publishing content separately for multiple channels like mobile apps, websites, etc.

Extensive Flexibility

The decoupled architecture of headless CMSs allows teams to tailor SEO best practices for various platforms without being restricted by the CMS's frontend capabilities. For example, with headless CMS solutions, elements like structured data, meta tags, and canonical URLs can be optimized more efficiently, enabling extensive control over how search engines crawl, index, and display content.

Improved scalability

In a headless CMS environment, decoupling the backend (where content is stored) from the front end (how content is displayed) allows each component to scale independently. Additionally, headless CMSs can easily integrate with advanced tools and technologies due to their API-driven nature, facilitating growth and adjustment to new trends.

Faster Loading

With headless CMS, developers are not limited to using particular tools and programming languages. They have the freedom to work with the latest technologies, such as top-tier JavaScript frameworks (React.js, Angular.js, Vue.js, etc.), to build the front end. This leads to faster load times, which is a crucial SEO ranking factor.

Greater Security Capabilities

Cybersecurity remains a hot topic regardless of what industry your business operates in. Headless CMS is the right call to reduce security risks. Here’s why:

  • In a traditional CMS, the front end and the back end share the same codebase. In case of any vulnerability in plugins, themes, or the CMS code, the entire system can be disrupted. Headless CMS, conversely, eliminates security threats by decoupling the two components;

  • Headless CMSs apply modern authentication methods like JSON Web Tokens (JWT) and OAuth to safeguard their APIs. These extra security layers prevent any unauthorized access or data breaches, allowing only authorized apps or users to access the content;

  • Headless providers ensure that software updates against bugs or security vulnerabilities are carried out automatically.

Challenges a Headless CMS Poses for SEO

Despite their enticing advantages, headless CMS solutions aren’t devoid of certain drawbacks. We’ll discuss the most apparent problems teams can face when switching from a monolithic to a headless CMS.

Technical Complexity

Contrary to traditional systems, which are easier to set up and manage thanks to pre-built themes and customization features, headless CMSs don’t have the luxury of a built-in design. Developers often need to build the front end from scratch. This involves a deep understanding of various technologies and frameworks as well as a firm grasp of APIs necessary for fetching and displaying content.

Besides, outsourcing the task of writing code to a tech team can result in a longer, more complex development process and higher overhead costs.

Lack of Ready-Made Configurations

The beauty of using traditional CMS platforms is that they handle lots of challenging technical SEO tasks by default. With headless CMSs, the responsibility falls on you. This implies extra time and effort in configuring the different aspects of technical SEO, like XML sitemaps, redirects, metadata, and more.

Best Practices for SEO Success with a Headless CMS

Headless SEO typically follows traditional SEO principles, such as generating valuable content that satisfies search intent, enhancing user experience, and optimizing website structure so search engines do not crawl and index invalid pages.

However, when it comes to implementing certain technical and on-page SEO elements, a headless SEO strategy requires high expertise. In the checklist below, we’ve outlined the effective practices to achieve the best possible SEO results while working on a headless CMS.

  • Opt for SEO-friendly frontend frameworks like Next.js or Vue, which enable faster content rendering for higher SEO scores. Also, server-side rendering (SSR) should be implemented for the initial load to ensure the website’s content is visible to search engines right away. SSR is the process of generating fully formatted HTML web pages on the server before sending them to the client's browser.

After the initial load, client-side JavaScript steps in to handle user interactions, eliminating the need for further server requests. This hybrid approach creates a win-win situation by combining the content flexibility of headless architecture with the performance and SEO benefits of traditional server-rendered CMSs.

  • Use schema markup so search engines get a full grasp of your content. With headless CMSs, you can seamlessly transform content models into comprehensive, rich schema markups. In cooperation with a dev team, you can also create the custom schema for individual URLs or for each element in a content model and then establish rules for displaying it as a single script on the front end.

  • Optimize meta tags. These pieces of data inform users and search engines about the content of your web pages. In a headless CMS, it’s best to include the following elements of metadata on each page: title, meta description, meta robots, content type, viewport, language tag, and open graph tags.

  • Use concise and readable URLs with a keyword inside them. You want to make sure the dev team adds a field to edit the URL slug for specific pages.

  • Multiple versions of a web page can cause duplicate content issues. To avoid this, set canonical URLs for search engines to index the right pages. Define canonicals in the page's <head> or HTTP header. Settle on using absolute URLs, including the domain and protocol, and assign only one canonical URL per page.

  • Create an XML sitemap, but consider updating it regularly because it’s a dynamic file. Include only indexable canonical URLs with a 200 HTTP response code in the sitemap. Ideally, your sitemap should live in the root directory. But if needed, you can locate it in a robots.txt file.

  • Voice search is gaining more popularity, especially among mobile users. It’s a fast and convenient way of looking for information. Approximately one-third of global users opt for voice queries on mobile. This number is bound to multiply in the next few years. With headless CMS, you can adjust content for multiple devices and various formats, including voice search. Focus on conversational phrases and natural language to optimize content for voice devices efficiently.

Embracing the Future: Is Headless Better for SEO?

While traditional SEO remains an essential part of digital marketing, its headless alternative unlocks unique possibilities for content presentation and workflow efficiency. Improved speed, performance, and UX are the most prominent points in favor of going headless.

Adopting a headless approach enables you to keep up with the latest trends, incorporate advanced technologies, and deliver content across any channel possible. An SEO strategy implemented through a headless CMS offers greater control and flexibility but, at the same time, requires more technical expertise.

When deciding on the best route – traditional or headless SEO – weigh all the pros and cons. The choice mostly depends on the specific project needs, the technical capabilities of your team, and long-term SEO goals.

A Comprehensive Guide to MACH Architecture and Technologies

Learn everything you need to know about MACH architecture

Keep Reading on This Topic