Episode 9: Content Management Systems
One of the most common requirements that I (and I suspect anyone working in website design today) deals with is the ability to have the client edit their website directly. Now there are literally hundreds if not thousands of different content management systems. They range from simple blogging software, to e-commerce focused to more full featured systems to enterprise level systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. What I want to talk about today isn’t what the best content management system is (they all have their strengths and weaknesses) but rather determine if you need a content management system and if that answer is yes, how to go about selecting one that will work well with you.
Content management systems defined
Put simply a content management system allows you (the client) to edit your website without needing to know anything about HTML, CSS or any other technical knowledge. In the early days of the internet websites tended to be more static in nature. If you needed to edit your website you would contact your webmaster, send the desired changes along and wait for your webmaster to make those changes. Content management systems put the ability to edit your website in your hands and cuts out the webmaster (for the most part). Content management systems have evolved dramatically since the early days of the internet and today there are many well-refined options available to website owners.
Do I need a content management system?
Now before we get too far ahead of ourselves I’d like to do what I do with my own clients and have a discussion about the pros and cons of content management systems and determine if you in fact need one for your website?
Pros of a content management system
- Can edit content without your website designer
- Format of content will be uniform across website
- Allows different access permissions for editing content
- Puts the website owner in control
Cons of a content management system
- The cost of adding a content management system is often considerable
- Code tends to be bloated and can open a website to security threats if not kept current
- Design may be constrained by the content managment system framework
- Unless used regularly users may forget how to use the content management system
Questions to ask yourself
The answers to the following questions will help you answer if you need a content management system for your website. It will also help you avoid the added expense of implementing a content management system if you really don’t need one.
How often will the website be updated?
If you are updating your website more than once a month a content management system will serve you well. However, if you are updating less than once a month you will more likely be better off simply working with your website designer to make edits.
Do you have sufficient resources to commit to a content management system?
Many of my clients are small business owners and the last thing they need is one more thing to worry about. If you are going to implement a content management system make sure you have people who will be responsible for using it regularly.
Do you plan on having a blog on your website?
Blogging has grown exponentially in recent years. It’s a great way to keep website content fresh. If you are planning on blogging (or have other types of frequently updated content) than a content management system will definitely be needed, but if not a content management system may not be required.
If maintenance will be done in house does your person know HTML?
Contrary to popular belief there are ways to maintain a website in house without a content management system. If you have someone who knows HTML, he/she may be able to edit the website directly. A standards based website separates content from the design so basic HTML skills are all that’s needed.
For more on this topic see my blog post titled Do You Really Need a CMS?.
How to make a good decision in choosing your content management system
OK, so you’ve answered the hard questions and determined that your website needs a content management system. What now? First and foremost you want to avoid making the mistake of building your website with a content management system that doesn’t fit your needs. This may sound like a no-brainer but I have had far to many people come to me over the years where this exact thing happened. Choosing a content management system that doesn’t meet your needs will cause you countless headaches. So how do you avoid this scenario?
Obviously your website designer will work with you to steer you in the right direction. However, even before that I recommend starting with your requirements and go from there. Think about the types of content you need to add and update. Is there e-commerce involved? Is there a blog? A calendar? Event listings? Once these requirements are nailed down then and only then should you begin working with your website designer to make a decision regarding your content management system. The reality is that while your website designer will work closely with you to make good decisions he or she can do so only if you have thought through what you need the website to do. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you can easily make a bad decision and get in a bad situation.
Using an existing content management system or building from the ground up
I tend to group content management systems into two categories. The first is an off the shelf solution built by a third party. The second is to have a proprietary content management system built from the ground up around your requirements. Personally, I come down on the side of the first option. For the clients that I work with the second option is often cost prohibitive. I am also of the opinion that off the shelf solutions have become very refined over the years and are robust enough to accommodate the needs of my clients. This is not to say that building a content management system from the ground up isn’t an option, however it is an option best reserved for large corporations with a full IT department. The other advantage an off the shelf solution has is that if your website designer wins the lottery and decides he is going to ride his bike across the country, you will easily be able to find another website designer who works with the system on which your website is built. The same cannot be said of a proprietary system built from the ground up.
Costs associated with a content management systems
As I mentioned earlier the costs associated with content management systems can vary wildly. For the sake of this discussion I am going to limit our explorations to common small business systems. (For those building a content management system from the ground up your costs will be significant to even develop the system itself.) Typically there is a licensing fee that is nominal (or non-existent for open source solutions). The costs of a content management system typically come in configuring it to meet your website requirements and training staff to use the system and support them in the opening weeks. There are also some additional expenses after your website launches (keeping the system current with upgrades as newer versions are released) but again these tend to me rather small and based more on your website designers time than anything.
Examples of content management systems
The systems I mention below are in no way meant to suggest these are the only options available. (Compiling such a list would be a monumental task.) Instead I have opted to highlight popular systems that I have used and/or are in frequent use today. Because I work primarily with PHP nearly all of these systems below are PHP based.
For basic editing
The following content management systems will give you control to make basic text edits but are somewhat limited in what they can accomplish.
These content management systems will build a solid website focused on blogging.
If your website has a primary focus of selling, using one of the following content management systems will server you well.
For more advanced features
The following content management systems can accomplish blogging, ecommerce and many other features (forums, wikis, calendars, etc.).
Before jumping into a content management system take some time to make sure it is really what you need. If it is, do yourself a favor and write down a list of requirements. Armed with these requirements your website designer will be able to work with you to select a content management system that meets these requirements. Let these requirements drive your decision. A content management system is a big decision and not one that should be taken lightly.