Choosing a Content Management System

Charlie R. Claywell
People discussing the layout on the computer screen

With more non-technical people overseeing websites, using content management systems has become an increasingly common way to manage web pages. Most of these systems are powerful, flexible, and easy to learn, and they provide a good way to build engaging, interactive websites. Whether or not one of these systems is the right choice for you depends on your particular needs and goals for your website, but it doesn't hurt to get some pointers on what to look for in a good content management system in case you decide you're ready for one.

Assess Your Needs

If you already have a site you put together with an HTML editor, you might find that moving to a content management system (CMS) makes your work load easier to handle. Take stock of your situation, and see how many of the following statements apply to you.

  • You update your site often.
  • More than one person needs to be able to do the updating.
  • You are struggling to maintain the look and feel of your site.
  • There is no way to document what was changed on your site or who made the change.
  • It is taking way too long to update critical information.

Even if only one or two of these statements apply, you still might want to consider a CMS. If most or all of them apply to your situation, it's really time to consider making the change.

Consider Your Content Goals

Before you even look at the various CMS options, you need to have a clear understanding of what your organization's goals and needs are. For example, if you have an ecommerce site, customer satisfaction and retention are probably high up on your goal list. On the other hand, if you are a non-profit group attempting to raise awareness about an issue, you may be focused on timely updates and an extensive library of content. Having a clear understanding of your content strategy will save you time and effort as you wade through the overabundance of content management systems.

What to Look for in a Content Management System

Although only a handful of systems are well-known to the general public, there are numerous systems available. Just because you know the name of a CMS doesn't mean it is the best fit for your site. Here are a few key components to look for.

Flexibility

Your main concern is whether the CMS will grow with you. If the direction of your site changes, or the amount of content you manage changes significantly, you'll need to know if the system can keep up.

Security

A quality system allows you to set up various permission levels because it's not ideal to let everyone have access to every part of your system. If a person's role is to update a page, you need a system that prevents him from accessing other sections of the site, including templates and style sheets.

Easy to Use

If the system has a steep learning curve, you may not make any significant gains by implementing it. When only a handful of people can adequately use a system, they will eventually become overwhelmed as the site grows and the workload intensifies.

Easy to Maintain

Using a CMS that's easy to maintain is especially important if your organization has limited tech resources. As a rule of thumb, the most technically advanced person in your group should be able to easily troubleshoot problems and train new users on the system.

A Variety of Features

Initially, you may only care about the features you currently need. However, you should also make an attempt to understand potential new options you may eventually want on your website, and make sure those options are available in the CMS you ultimately choose. For example, if you know that at some point you would like to add a cart to your site, be sure that the CMS you're interested in either has a cart feature built in or that one is available as an add-on.

Support

You will quickly realize in your research that content management systems fall into two broad categories: open source and proprietary. It's important to understand that just because open source CMS is free, that does not mean it is substandard. Conversely, just because a CMS is proprietary does not mean it is designed better. Probably the single most important issue in the debate between the two options is the kind of support provided. With proprietary software, you will most likely have a built-in support system from the company that created the system. With open source, you will have to rely on a loosely knit group of developers and community.

Popular Open Source Systems

Some of the most popular content management systems used on the web today are open source. The top three open source options are PHP-based, have a community of developers, have an adequate number of features, and are relatively simple to master.

WordPress

Wordpress CMS
Wordpress CMS

Current estimates suggest WordPress owns nearly half the CMS market share and it is certainly the most well-known of all the content management systems. Its biggest strengths are that it has an easy-to-use blogging tool, an extensive library of plug-ins, and a dedicated group of developers. Its main weakness is that your site's design can have a generic "WordPress" look. However, you can overcome that by purchasing a premium theme or hiring a graphic designer to create the look you want. The software is easy to install, but it's susceptible to hackers if you do not keep your updates current.

Drupal

If you intend to heavily customize your site, Drupal is probably a better choice. However, it comes with a tradeoff; it is a bit more difficult to learn than WordPress. This is because highly customizing your site is accomplished through modules, which are small packages of coding that perform a specified task. As such, you will need to understand how to implement, use, and possibly troubleshoot the module. Since many of these modules are produced by professionals for clients (although you still get them for free), they are high quality. However, to fully benefit from any module, you will need to learn exactly what it is designed to do.

Joomla

Joomla is caught in the middle between WordPress' "everyone can do this" approach and Drupal's "every site can be customized" approach. Its key strength is its ability to get a customized site up and running quickly. The software works especially well for smaller, simpler sites, but it does have two main weaknesses. The available add-ons can be difficult to find, and support for the product is not always as strong as it is for Drupal or WordPress.

Popular Proprietary Systems

Proprietary, or closed source, CMS fall into two classes: paid and free. Just like open source systems, there are plenty of systems out there, but here are three popular options.

DotNetNuke

DotNetNuke (DNN) software builds sites based on Microsoft .NET technology, instead of PHP like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla, and it has been used to build more than 1 million sites. DNN is robust with plenty of available modules, and it's easy to use. Some users feel it's main weaknesses are the requirement to use a Window server for site hosting, as well as the fact that DNN sites tend to perform better in Internet Explorer.

Although you can try a free 14-day subscription, you'll eventually need one of the paid subscriptions. The Professional Edition is available for about $3,500 with training and a one-year subscription. The Enterprise Edition plus Training and Elite Support One Year Subscription will cost you about $8,500.

ExpressionEngine

ExpressionEngine CMS
ExpressionEngine CMS

ExpressionEngine received 4 out of 5 stars from PC World, and one of its key selling points is that your site will not look like a CMS-designed site since everything is completely customizable. At approximately $300 for the ExpressionEngine 2.7.2 and $100 for the Freelance Edition, the software is relatively inexpensive, but it is still powerful enough to create a robust site. Its handy multiple website manager lets you manage more than one site with a single installation. Its main weakness is that it is designed for more advanced users, and beginners may find it slightly overwhelming.

Sitecore

Well-known brands like General Mills and Verizon use Sitecore as their CMS. Like DotNetNuke, this program is based on Microsoft .NET technology. One of the program's key features is its ability to re-purpose content for different formats, such as the various browsers or mobile devices. Another strength is the ability to customize content based on user experience. It's main disadvantage is price, which starts around $20,000 for the Primary Edition.

Making the Transition

Deciding you need a CMS and then choosing the correct one is just the beginning of the process. Once those decisions have been made, you will need to either migrate your current site into the new system or create it in the new CMS if it's a new site. To help ensure a successful transition, select an experienced person to oversee the implementation and make sure the CMS you choose has the level of support you need.

Choosing a Content Management System