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Website Content Management Systems

There are a lot of content management systems (CMS’s) available for websites. What you choose will be influenced by a number of issues.

Questions you need to ask yourself or the business include:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Why do we need a CMS?
  • What do we need our CMS to do?
  • How will implementing a CMS make our web site pain go away?

Once you have answered the questions above, you can move to the implementation questions below. Do not move to the implementation level until you are sure you understand each of the questions above. The business needs must come first here.

Questions you need to ask the person you trust with your website include:

  • What CMS are you familiar with (if any)?
  • What CMS should we go with and why?
  • What language is the CMS written in?
  • What hosting platforms are supported?
  • How much does it cost to buy?
  • How difficult is it to make changes to the system that cannot be done via the CMS?
  • How widely used and supported is the CMS?
  • What is the exit strategy if the CMS is not suitable for our needs?

I will expand on these below.

What are we trying to achieve?

You need to have realistic expectations about what a CMS can do. It’s not necessarily going to solve your problems but it will help to provide a platform for you to solve your problems. If you are looking for a way to make changes to your web site quickly, easily and cheaply, a CMS may be of benefit if your site is going to grow but if you are not planning to expand your site much and you can make basic changes yourself now, a CMS may be an unnecessary complication. You are trying to make your website easier to manage after all and a small simple site will not be easier to manage with a CMS. A large site or a site that changes regularly or one that has multiple authors will definitely benefit from a CMS.

Ideally a CMS will be cheap to buy, cheap to implement, easy to learn, be flexible enough to do anything you need it to do and be cheap to maintain.

Why do we need a CMS?

When deciding why you need a CMS, look at your own situation, not the different CMS systems or what your peers are doing. Look at your content, the people that are dealing with it, any organizational difficulties you are experiencing, the source of those difficulties, and the associated problems they cause.

Think of the CMS as your librarian. A library of 10 books can be managed by anyone, a library of 10,000 books needs a structured system to manage it or the end users will have trouble finding the library of benefit. The bigger your site becomes, the more benefit will be gained by a CMS. In the same way a library system will be easier to put in at the 10 book stage in preparation for growth, trying to retro-fit a CMS to an already large and chaotic site will ultimately cost you far more. Using the same analogy, an untrained person can eventually find anything they want in a library given enough time but on the web, people are becoming used to having what they want when they want it and a large site that cannot be searched and may not be easily browsed may not be the image you want to project. A CMS will take care of the catalogues and searches for you in the background.

What do we need our CMS to do?

If your website is purely text based content then the CMS does not need to do much at all, if you want full control over images, links, menus, colours, fonts then you need a CMS that does this in a way that you (and the people you want to do site updates) can easily understand. If you want blogs, forums, polls etc, then you need to make sure this functionality is available (preferably for free) and easy to use.

Ultimately, you want the CMS to allow anyone (with the right security) to make any changes to your web site quickly and easily. As content builds in certain areas, you want the CMS to “page” your content to give users usable chunks of content rather than getting it all at once. Extra features such as version control, the ability to embargo new content, email articles, print friendly formats, automatically send reminders to review content after a certain date and search engine friendly URL’s are also often required.

How will implementing a CMS make our web site pain go away?

If you currently find yourself in a situation where you are making regular changes to your website but not directly, the costs of outsourcing web site updates quickly adds up. Unless you have a known marketing strategy and budget to absorb this, a CMS will allow non-technical users to upload and edit content on the web site without having to outsource it. You will no longer have to wait for the job to be done, the changes go live as soon as they are published.The more content there is on your web site, the more it will cost you to keep maintaining the site the old way (a badly written site may require every page to be touched to effect a layout alteration, a well written site in a CMS may only require one change that will affect all pages automatically). A CMS will also ensure consistency across your web site, hand coded pages may vary slightly for many reasons but as there is only a single display template, and content is kept seperate from the display, the CMS makes it harder for the end users to accidently alter the sites layout.

Other more subtle benefits for the visitors to your site include an easy and ready to use search system (the database that holds your content can be searched easily) and lots of (often) free plugins and modules to add functionaliy that would be too difficult and expensive to code for small things (calendars, polls, forums, image galleries etc)

Over the longer term, especially if your site continues to grow, the investment in a CMS from an early stage will pay off very quickly.

What CMS’ are you familiar with?

Obviously no-one can have full mastery of all CMS’. Your trusted web person will probably have a favourite. Find out what that is and why and ask for example sites where they have used it and make sure you understand (get them to show you if you don’t) how it works, how to add pages, how to upload images, how to edit page content and menus. Also make sure they are able to edit/create the template that you will use for your web site.

My personal preference at the moment is WordPress simply because it was so easy to develop for, has a very active user base and thousands of themes and plugins available. And it impressed me. I could do everything I needed to so I didn’t have a need to look at many others. Not as powerful as Joomla but easier to use, especially for non-technical users. To me it was a similar comparison to Windows Mobile vs Blackberry. Both give you a phone with email, one (Windows/Joomla) has more options, more flexibility, more complexity and can do more stuff, the other (Blackberry/Wordpress) doesnt do as much but it works and is easier to use for non-techie’s.

What CMS should we go with and why?

There are many web content managment systems available. Here is a list of them. They all have their own strengths, weaknesses and reason for being. Some are proprietary, some are open source. Most CMS’ will do what needs to be done, why would we choose one over the other?

Personally, I can see no benefit in purchasing a commercial CMS other than the fact that you will get some included support for it. There are many free and open source CMS that are just as good and while they have no official support, they generally have a loyal user/fan base that can provide support if/when needed. You can also buy books for open source CMS’ but rarely for commercial packages.

For this site, I currently run WordPress. I originally chose Joomla which I originally installed in a testing environment for my work Intranet based on a recommendation from a trusted colleague. Joomla had shown itself to be a suitable CMS for me but may not be for everyone and after having to do some development on WordPress, I preferred it from a development perspective. Joomla is definitely not the simplest CMS available but it is capable and flexible. However, after a few months, I converted my Joomla template to a WordPress Theme. For end users, especially small to medium sites and blogs, WordPress is probably going to do what you need with far less of a learning curve, Joomla and Drupal will do pretty much anything you need but are much harder to learn. For intranets and documentation sites, Mediawiki is excellent. It is quick, simple and it works well however it is not very flexible at all. In the past I have written CMS code both for my personal sites and external clients and since looking at the functionality available in the free CMS’, I could never again take money to write a CMS with a clean conscience. Other notable CMS that I have looked into include OpenCMS, Drupal, Mambo, Django , and DotNetNuke

CMS’ that try to do everything (which most of them do) can end up being quite difficult to use, especially for non-technical people. The less the CMS can do, the easier it is to use (eg MediaWiki). One CMS I wrote for a previous version of my personal web site only covered pages with regularly changing content, pages that rarely changed were hand coded as required unless it was easier (same page layout) as a content managed page in which case the CMS was used anyway. If you dont have technical people to handle your web site changes, perhaps a simpler CMS with fewer features is the way to go but if you have someone that can learn how it works, a fully featured CMS may save outsourcing costs later.

What language is the CMS written in?

Make sure the CMS’ language is widely used and supported. Most of the free CMS’s are written in PHP which is easy to code, easy to get coded and is completely cross platform (can be hosted on pretty much any web server, see below). If you go with other languages, make sure they can be easily modified and if you need to hire someone in, a more widely used language will be cheaper to get coding done for. Scripted languages have easy to access source code, compiled languages may not come with source code and may be harder to edit.

What hosting platforms are supported?

Pretty much every content management system supports MySQL as a database which is a good thing. MySQL is free, scalable and supported across most server platforms (especially Windows and Linux which is where you need it). SQL Server only CMS’ limit you to Windows Servers hosts and Oracle database systems tend to be expensive. PHP. Python, Java and Perl are also cross platform while Dot.NET is Windows only (servers, not end users). Basically as long as both the host language and the database system are cross platform, you will not be limited to certain web hosts. This site is currently hosted on a L.A.M.P server (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) which is a very common Linux hosting environment. I have almost too much choice for web hosting but being a cross platform CMS, I can host on Windows Servers if I want to.

How much does it cost to buy?

If you are not being recommended to use a free CMS, why not? Is there some functionality that a free CMS cannot supply? Is the “purchase” cost merely the implementation cost to migrate page look and feel and content? Does the CMS in question require additional software (eg MS SQL Server) that you dont have and would need to purchase (or licence) as well?

How difficult is it to make changes to the system that cannot be done via the CMS?

Obviously with proprietary commercial software, it can often be the case that if you want any “under the hood” changes, they can only be done by the vendor at a high cost. Open source code is easy to modify and usually not difficult to find freelance developers who can help out on an ad-hoc basis. Most of the free CMS’ are written in PHP, a very widely used and supported scripting language with many developers able to code in it. The same goes for the Java and Dot.NET CMS’s, there are plenty of developers around. One benefit of a scripting language is that the code that runs is also the source code so just by implementing a PHP CMS, you get the source code with it to edit as required.

The more widely used free CMS’s have a strong template/theme community. These can be both commercial (you pay for them) or free (you dont). Joomla and WordPress, for example, have hundreds or even thousands of templates available to make your site different from the default look and feel. All CMS’s are capable of having any theme written for them if a ready made theme cannot be found to suit (eg existing look and feel to be retained when a web site is ported to a CMS framework). I have developed WordPress themes for both simple and complex web site designs. With WordPress, you will probably need a custom theme if you dont want a blog as blogging is its main focus.

How widely used and supported is the CMS?

Get a common one, look at its user base and documentation, especially the support forums. If there are large numbers of users on the forums and large numbers of posts, you can be confident that others would have had the same issues (saving you a question), or someone reading the forums can help you. If there are very few users for a CMS, it will be harder to get it working for you if you have any issues. A quick Google search will give you a pretty good indication for how easily you will be able to find fixes to any issues you have.

Of the free PHP/MySQL CMS’s available, Joomla, WordPress, MediaWiki and Django all have significant user bases and active support communities.

What is the exit strategy if the CMS is not suitable for our needs?

Can the data be extracted in a portable format if you choose to change CMS’? This is a tricky one as each CMS has its own data format. You may be able to import data from one to another but basically put in the work beforehand (set up test sites using your shortlist with test data) to minimise the risk of having to change later which may be difficult (starting again from scratch). Any CMS’ in a database such as MySQL or SQL Server can have the database dumped out to text files or sometimes a spreadsheet format, which would save time if you had to re-create the site again in another CMS (you would not have to re-type it all) but if possible, find one and stick with it.

Posted in: Communications, The Web

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