Headless CMS vs Static Site Generator

Static site generators (SSGs) are a hot trend right now in the world of web development. Why? Because static sites have several benefits, such as faster load times, security, and simplicity, they often appeal to developers. However, they do fall short in some ways when it comes to being dynamic, which is where a headless CMS prevails. This article will explain the differences between a headless CMS and a static site generator to help you choose the best solution for your project.

In this article, you can find out which out of Headless CMSs and SSGs is the best choice for you:

What is a Static Site Generator?

Static site generators (SSGs) are software tools that automate the process of building websites from static files. Typically, they take content from different files, create HTML files, and combine them into one complete website to be uploaded to a server. 

These tools allow developers to work in isolation and focus on the business logic and design without having to manage server hosting, install dependencies, or handle deployment.

Static Sites Vs. Dynamic Sites

While static web pages are basic HTML files that load quickly, dynamic web pages require the browser to execute JavaScript code to display. Static websites differ from dynamic websites in that dynamic sites load differently depending on various changing data inputs, such as the user's time of day, location, or actions. On the contrary, a static website is a site that serves already-stored HTML files to the client. When a user visits a page, the browser displays the accompanying HTML file.

Static site generators are used to serve static pages to a user from a template engine. Dynamic sites that interact with a CMS give customized experiences. Most of the work is done in real-time when a visitor sees a dynamic website, unlike static sites.


Read this next: What is a Headless CMS


Examples of SSG

With the emergence of Jamstack, a multitude of static site generators are now available. Here are just a few of the most popular options:

Jekyll

Jekyll is a popular open-source static site generator. It powers GitHub Pages, a free static site host.

“Jekyll is a simple, blog-aware, static site generator perfect for personal, project, or organization sites. Think of it like a file-based CMS, without all the complexity” - Jamstack.org

Docusaurus

Docusaurus makes it possible for users to create documentation websites without having to worry about infrastructure or design issues.

“Simply write docs and blog posts with Markdown and Docusaurus will publish a set of static HTML files ready to serve.” - Jamstack.org

Hugo

Hugo is a "general-purpose" static website generator. Hugo can design and produce pages quickly.

“Hugo takes a directory with content and templates and renders them into a full HTML website.” - Jamstack.org


Benefits

Handles high-volume traffic

Static sites are easier to scale to huge visitor numbers since they consist of flat files, not code and databases.

Fast rendering and output

Static site generators load pages quickly since they don't need databases. Static web pages are the fastest rendering web pages since they're pre-baked.

Customization

CMSs are coupled to a database with certain fields, limiting your possibilities. For example, with a CMS, you’ll need a plugin, a short-code, or bespoke functionality to add a Twitter widget to some sites. The widget could be put directly into a file or snippet with a static site. 

Easy maintenance

CMS platforms require a lot of integrated software. If you don't host your own CMS, you'll need to pay for upgrades, maintenance, and security. You can host a static site on any HTML-returning server. You can set it and forget it with fewer moving pieces to update and safeguard.

Affordable

Running a static site is cheaper than a dynamic one built with a CMS due to its scalability, absence of a complicated database and maintenance/security needs, and lightweight hosting costs.

Version Control

A CMS allows users to add, remove, or edit material. A few clicks erase the webpage. Static sites are usually safer with storage options such as flat files and private databases. You can even use deployment methods to develop the site remotely and update the live server when the updated content is pushed, evaluated, and approved.


Disadvantages

Requires some expertise

You won't go very far unless you have some development experience. The process is more complicated than using a CMS; there are fewer tools, and you may have difficulty finding ready-made plugins and templates.

Many forefront decisions

Even the most popular static site generators are used by a small percentage of the web community. You'll need time to research and weigh the many SSGs, templates, and plugin choices. 

Slow initial setup

Creating your first static site will take some time. You must understand the build process and develop template code. The use of scripts for the deployment of an application is also possible.

Website inconsistency

Static sites are adaptable: anything in the source content can be presented on a web page. Users may insert scripts, widgets, or a variety of unwanted objects. However, a CMS can limit the user's options if set up to do so.

Issues with larger sites

If a site has thousands of pages, daily material and news, and dozens of authors, editing and publishing content can become challenging. A CMS may be more realistic for the needs of a larger site.

Complicated server-side functionality

A headless CMS is the better option when you need user logins, search tools, or other server and database interactivity.

Poor Marketing Experience

You will need to regenerate files to see output constantly with an SSG. Unlike updating content in a headless CMS, real-time SSG updates are slow because the site has to be rebuilt, tested, and deployed.

Growth marketing playbook

The ultimate growth marketing playbook

The exact 41 strategies we used to grow from 4-figure to 6-figure traffic in one year.


When to Use a Static Site Generator

Here are some examples of sites that likely don’t need to be dynamic:

  • Any sites that are content heavy and don’t require constant updates are good candidates for SSGs. Examples include personal blog posts, documentation pages, landing pages, portfolio pages, and brochure sites.
  • An SSG would be a suitable choice for websites with high volume information that needs to be fast. For example, a weather forecast website can pull weather information from an API and display it quickly.

Read this next: Headless CMS Use Cases


When Not to Use a Static Site Generator

While many third-party apps and plugins can increase the functionality of a static site, at some point, using a headless CMS is the better option to reduce complexity. Here are a few scenarios of when an SSG shouldn’t be used:

  • When you have complex personalization requirements based on clients, time of day, geolocations, etc.
  • When you need to update current information often.
  • When your marketing team wants advanced editing and collaboration.
  • When you need to connect to a database. 
  • When you want to develop online shops, user-registered sites, and other complex sites.
  • When real-time data and dynamic experiences are required.

Marketing and Site Generators

While developers build and maintain static sites, marketing teams are the ones that update content constantly. Static site generators are great for developers but frustrating for marketers. Using an SSG alone puts limitations on marketing teams. Most SSGs don't have a WYSIWYG editor or workflow tools for content development. 

For larger sites, editing and publishing content becomes complicated, and the need to constantly republish the site can slow down the workflow. The problems multiply as more pages need to be updated.

A modern, CMS-based site provides developers the power they need to design the features their consumers want while saving time on implementation. Meanwhile, marketing teams may produce content using familiar web-based, see-what-you-get tools that interface easily with current data and technologies integrated with the CMS.


Alternatives to Site Generators

You don’t need an SSG or any assistive technology to build a simple site if you are familiar enough with web development. However, there are tools besides the SSGs that can assist you in building a more flexible, scalable site quickly. Let’s review them:

Server-Side Rendering

Server-side rendering (SSR) renders web pages on a server and sends them to the browser (client-side). SSR provides a rendered page to the client, whose JavaScript package runs the single page application (SPA) framework. Because it is retrieved on the go, the content is always up to date. Also, it’s quick to load and performs better than a static generated site.

Headless CMS 

A headless CMS offers dynamic sites with better functionality and user-friendliness. It can handle larger websites better and has a user interface that is used to produce content. There are typically fewer third-party apps needed to create websites.

Ecommerce business guide

How to Choose a CMS: The Ultimate Guide (With Bonus Checklist To Ask Your Vendor)

The definitive guide to choosing the right CMS for your business plus bonus questions and checklist to ask your CMS vendor.


Conclusion: It Comes Down to Your Needs

Before deciding, consider your project's size, complexity, update frequency, users' location, expectations, your team's development talents, and hosting and/or deployment variables.

Static site generators are less code-heavy than a headless CMS. They are great for when you want a speedy, simple website. Generally, they have a simpler architecture and caching logic, and they are cheaper than building a website with a headless CMS platform. If you don't require dynamic functionality provided by a headless CMS for your site, an SSG may be a suitable option.

However, based on the complexity and freedom of your wants and needs for your site, a headless CMS can offer you faster, smarter, and more original content management. It’s also better for creating sites that require databases, user logins, personalization, and other complicated features.

Are you evaluating CMS?


Sam Saltis
Sam Saltis

An entrepreneur at heart with over 20+ years of experience in building internet software, growing online companies and managing product development.

Loves all things SaaS, technology, and startups.

You can find him feeding his beloved fish when he's back in Australia.

Previous PostWhy Use a Headless CMS?
Back
Next PostHeadless Commerce: The Complete Guide to Selling [2022 Edition]