It seems like everyone is talking about content management systems (CMS) these days. So what are they, why do you need one, and how should you go about determining which one is best for you?
Simply put, a CMS is a prepackaged website with the ability to edit and publish it yourself. It comes with all the structure of a fully functioning website except for the content, which you have to enter in yourself.
The primary reason that site owners choose a CMS is that software development skills aren’t typically needed if you’re using the out-of-the box functionality, making it a relatively inexpensive and quick way to build a website. But, like everything else, there are both benefits and downsides to CMS platforms.
It might seem obvious, but the primary benefit of a CMS is the ability to easily add, edit, and present your content, which greatly speeds up the development process and gives you a great deal of flexibility.
In addition, the larger systems provide a publishing module that helps organize the work flow of content publishing. This allows for the tracking of changes made in a staging environment, and provides the ability to move those changes to the live environment without ever having to touch the files.
Version control is another tool that is similar in nature. It will keep track of multiple changes made to each file and give you the opportunity to revert back to a previous version if something begins to go wrong. This is especially handy when multiple people are working on the same files.
With a good CMS, you can adopt pre-built modules that add functionality like shopping carts, media distribution, or blog-commenting. When your website grows, you want a CMS that will grow with it. The ability to change the structure of the site is important, as well. You may want to do a complete redesign once in a while to keep up with current standards, without having to re-enter all your content..
A good CMS has many security standards already incorporated into the design, and it has been thoroughly tested to help ensure that your data stays protected. Although some issues can crop up, it's a lot safer than a system that has experienced no testing at all. Most systems provide ongoing security updates as new threats are detected and corrected.
As mentioned above, it isn’t necessary to have coding skills to build a site in a CMS. In addition, depending on the complexity of the CMS, almost anyone can learn how to add and edit the content. With a CMS designed for a larger site, this ramp up may take a few weeks. But for the smaller systems you can be up and running within a day.
A good CMS is built to include all current SEO practices. The majority of SEO is built around keyword description meta tags, easy to read short links called URL normalization, and an optimized image naming convention. There is a fair amount of detail that goes into SEO, and so a great deal of time is saved when a system comes prepackaged with all the necessary components.
Once your content is in the system, it’s hard to export your data in a way that can easily be received by another system without the help of a developer. While you may think that you’ll be using the same CMS for a long period of time, you may change your mind, so it’s wise to explore the ability to export your content should you choose to change systems.
A CMS takes your content from a database and produces the HTML markup for it to display in a browser. When you install the CMS, it will come pre-packaged with a standard theme. This theme is the colors, images, and styling that will exist on every page. Often you can download other themes for most CMS systems. However, to create your own design, you will have to know how to alter the theme in order to incorporate your look and feel into the system. This generally takes someone with HTML and CSS knowledge.
Good CMS systems are constantly growing and becoming better. When a bug or security risk is found to exist in the system, the team puts out a new version to address it. They will also add new features in the form of updates. These updates can be applied from within the admin panel on most good systems; the only problem is, if you make extensive changes to the CMS, these updates may not work. And if you get too far behind in applying updates, catching up can be long and intensive.
In addition to considering the benefits and downsides, consider the size of your website, the anticipated traffic, the type of content it will house, how quickly you need it, and how much you’re willing to spend. The following recommendations are based on our experience with CMS systems based on the size of the site.
WordPress is great for smaller sites. It's also free, easy to set up, and fairly easy to learn how to use. WordPress is great for bloggers or photo gallery enthusiasts. There are a ton of user-built themes and plugins that provide extra functionality and design direction. You will need a server running PHP and MySQL, but most hosting companies provide WordPress installations for free through their admin panel.
These sites are typically 5-20 pages in size, cater to a decent amount of visitors, and may have either a large media cache available for download or some other form of online inventory available for purchase. CMS systems appropriate for this type of site have rules/workflows/pieces to monitor/re-use/update and may be open-source.
Drupal is a great example of a CMS that is appropriate for the size and anticipated traffic of a medium site. Drupal takes some study to get familiar with, but after that it's very flexible and fun to use. There are community-provided themes and plugins for extending Drupal’s core functionality, as well. As with WordPress, Drupal is usually provided for free from within the admin panel of your hosting provider.
These sites pull in a large amount of traffic and are typically more than 20 pages long. There may be a large searchable store, many pages of organized articles and other content, as well as a high level of site editors contributing to the work at the same time. These sites need a thorough planning stage, a good development team, and well thought out execution.
Kentico is one of the more complex CMS systems appropriate for this type of site. At $1,999 for a base license, it's not cheap; but if you want an enterprise level platform, complete with a whole suite of site management tools, it's the way to go. Kentico will handle millions of visitors a month with ease, but you should plan on a significant amount of planning and development time. For Kentico you will need a Microsoft server running .NET, and it will have to be installed by a web developer.
There are many options available to site owners looking to build a website within a CMS. Because of that, it pays to carefully consider both your current needs and anticipated growth to make sure that the platform you choose is right for your organization. To get started with a side-by-side comparison, see the Wikipedia entry on Content Management Systems.
For nearly 20 years, Catalysis has specialized in the digital integration of award-winning marketing campaigns that drive connected, measurable results. Our clients include Microsoft, Moss Adams, Banner Mattress, Thunder Valley Casino, BabyLegs, and WineBid.
The information contained in this publication is general and is for informational purposes only. Catalysis makes no warranties, express or implied, in this material.