Don’t Lose Your Head: How to Know if a Decoupled Website is Right for You

Sep 28 2021
Decoupled websites — also commonly known as headless sites — are all the rage in the web development industry right now. Touted as the best option if you want a creative, compelling, user-friendly site, decoupled websites do offer some interesting advantages. And since you’re always looking for the best way to reach your audience, it stands to reason that you want to explore whether this latest trend can help you reach your marketing goals more effectively.

But don’t let the hype sway you just yet. Before investing in a headless solution, you need to explore whether a decoupled website will truly support your business needs.

There are times when a decoupled site may be the best option to further your goals and objectives — we’ve worked with clients for whom headless was the clear best choice. But more often than not, you’ll find that a traditional, coupled site — powered by a flexible, scalable, and adaptable CMS like Drupal — offers many of the perceived advantages of a headless option with fewer headaches along the way. 

It comes down to a simple equation. Will you gain more than you sacrifice? Asking the right questions and evaluating common misconceptions will help you conduct a cost/benefit analysis to inform your decision. 

What is a Decoupled/Headless Website?

There are two parts to every website. The front-end is the side the user sees and interacts with. The back-end is what makes the front-end function — it’s where the developer programs, codes, and builds the logic that delivers information to the user. 

In a traditional website, the front-end and back-end are connected in every sense — like two parts of a singular entity. They’re powered by the same software and live on the same server. The website’s content is displayed directly by the CMS using templates and a theme. 

By contrast, a decoupled or headless website is really like having two websites. The front-end and back-end might live on separate servers and may be built using totally different software. Even the coding languages are likely different. The front-end still needs the back-end, of course. But in a decoupled site, the connection comes via an API integration that enables the two systems to communicate.

Because of their complex structure, decoupled websites can take twice as long to build — and often cost significantly more than their traditional counterparts.

Does a Decoupled Structure Increase Performance? 

The most widely touted advantage of a headless site is its performance, specifically in terms of load time and speed. An excellent example of a decoupled site is Facebook. They built a JavaScript front-end framework called React, which enables real-time updates and social interaction. Because React doesn’t have to wait for the back-end to refresh content across the entire site, the user experience is seamless and smooth. 

That’s great for Facebook and other large user-experience based companies like Netflix and Airbnb, who have adopted React as their front-end solution. And if your business has advanced user needs, it might be great for you, too. Headless sites tend to provide a more dynamic experience for users as they interact with an app, especially when using a mobile device. The headless/decoupled structure allows for the instantaneous response users expect from these large platforms. 

But here’s the thing. Facebook, Netflix, and Airbnb are very intricate and complicated websites. And they’re huge. Most organizations don’t need that level of complexity and scale. Therefore, shaving off a fraction of a second of performance time simply isn’t worth the investment it requires for many businesses. 

What’s more, even decoupled sites need to be built and optimized for high performance. So if the site isn’t constructed well or maintained appropriately — or if the front-end application is clunky or poorly designed — you won’t see the boost in performance you expect.

For most websites, a well-built traditional site can offer similar — and in some cases even better — speed and performance. 

Speed up your website performance
Speed up your website performance.

Is a Decoupled Website Easier for an Internal Team to Design and Maintain?

Another reason decoupled websites have received so much buzz is that, in today’s world, more internal tech teams prefer to focus on the front-end experience. They know how to develop a standalone mobile app or interface, but they don’t have the back-end skills to create an overarching infrastructure or framework. That leads companies to select an off-the-shelf CMS like Contentful because all the coding and programming work is already done. Then, their internal team connects that proprietary solution to the myriad front-end apps they’ve developed.

Businesses whose back-end infrastructure generally stays the same year after year — but who constantly update their front-end apps, displays, and interfaces — might benefit from a decoupled site. For example, say a large insurance company has a parent site that outlines the company’s suite of products. But connected to that site are a host of smaller sites — one for each branch location. A headless website might be the best solution in this situation because each branch could easily roll out minor customizations without needing to touch the back-end of the parent site. 

But a traditional website can support many of these needs, too. A scalable and adaptable CMS like Drupal makes it easy to create a strong content strategy and share editorial and curation responsibilities with others across your organization. And an expert partner can set up the integrations, scripts, and rules that support beautiful and pleasing applications on desktops and mobile devices alike. 

So again, it comes down to whether what you gain outweighs the cost. And that’s why it’s important to also take a hard look at the drawbacks of a decoupled site.

What are the Drawbacks to a Decoupled Site?

There are (at least) two significant drawbacks to pursuing a decoupled site. Both can lead to unnecessary headaches and challenges over time.

A Decoupled Site Could Limit Your Ability to Flex and Grow Depending on the Type of CMS You Choose

Whether you have a decoupled or traditional website, your CMS is still the engine that powers the whole machine. And as we said earlier, what usually ends up happening in a decoupled scenario is that the front-end team pulls a closed-source CMS off the shelf due to its plug-and-play functionality. 

These proprietary systems offer a wide range of features and functionality, but what you get on day one is pretty much what you get on day 1,000. Any changes you request will incur a fee — assuming the changes you want can be made at all. In truth, there are many times organizations have found themselves boxed in by their proprietary system. A closed-source CMS simply isn’t the best choice if your needs might change over time. 

The solution for this is to hire a good developer who can build a decoupled site with user experience and back-end support, flexibility, and scalability in mind. An open source CMS can support your marketing needs for years to come, whether your front-end is headless or not. Furthermore, if in the future you decide you want to move to a coupled solution, you’ve already laid a strong foundation to do so.

Hire the right developer
Hire the right developer to meet your needs.

Decoupled Sites Typically Cost Significantly More — Both Upfront and Over Time

Since headless websites essentially consist of two separate sites that are connected via an API, it is often more expensive to build and maintain them. You may see increased costs in the following areas:

  • Hosting websites on two servers or buying multiple software packages and design options is inherently more expensive. 
  • Since front-end and back-end development typically requires different skills, you’ll need to pay two teams to work on the site rather than just one. 
  • If your website functionality involves new tech or unusual features, expect extended timelines to implement those new features since they’ll likely need to work on both ends.
  • Updates can take longer and be more expensive on a decoupled site.

In short, decoupled sites are complicated. They involve complex costs and more programming support than you may think at first glance — especially if you need additional back-end development as your business evolves and grows. For a complicated enterprise website, it might be worth that investment, but for a simple website like the majority of websites on the internet? It will rarely be worth the cost.

A Good Developer Can Help You Weigh Your Coupled or Headless Options

The best thing you can do as you consider whether to pursue a traditional or headless website is to talk to a knowledgeable, unbiased vendor. A good developer will help you articulate your goals, understand your needs, and identify the solution that is the best match for your situation (even if it means recommending a less expensive path). 

We’ve built coupled sites and decoupled sites. We know which use cases work best for each option. And we’d be happy to objectively help you figure out which route is best for you. So let’s chat.

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