In many spheres, WordPress is still seen as a platform for running simple sites and blogs. As soon as the client’s requirement ramps up to the next level, where more complex requirements come under discussion, many agencies with skills in more than one content management system start thinking of using a different solution for development. But WordPress is much more than a simple tool to build a simple website.
Content management systems on the web have been used for managing content and also running the “front end” of websites: the bit which the visitor sees. This methodology works well, but with the requirement for more complex solutions – amongst them, “web apps” and phone apps – it can often make sense to build and maintain the content management part completely separately from the website.
WordPress is taking a big leap forward when version 4.7 comes out in December, with the official launch of the REST API as part of its core functionality. (A technology which has been available as a Featured Plugin for a long time.) WordPress’ REST API allows any system to fetch data from a website running WordPress, and do what it likes with it. This allows the content management system to concentrate on managing the content, whilst the experienced front end developer can build an independent website or app in the language which most makes sense. For example, React.
The catchy term for this separation of data management and front end output is “headless CMS”: the content management system has no “head” (or public appearance). The main advantages of loading data in this way are that the CMS doesn’t need to be made more complex with all the code for the front end output, and the front end can be built more quickly and in a more agile way by developers using pretty much any communicative code available. The CMS provides the data in a structured, consistent fashion, and the receiving code filters, formats, converts and displays it.
I’m going to work on a simple example once the API is in public use, to use as a specific example of the advantages for developers of smaller sites. For now, here are a handful of high-profile non-agency sites using a WordPress installation via the REST API: often anonymously to power a completely separate front end.