These days, we’re all trying to build websites quickly and easily, and developers are turning to open-source content management systems (CMS) to help them get the job done. Multiple content management systems are floating around the web, and finding the right one has become extremely challenging. Without a clearly defined set of requirements, you might be tempted by fancy but ultimately useless functionality. What, then, should you keep in mind when facing the dilemma of choosing the perfect CMS?
A CMS can hugely affect the time it takes to update and maintain a website. This article aims to help developers find the right one for their project and will review some of the best ones out there.
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A CMS is a web application that uses a database (usually MySQL) or other method of organization to (as the name indicates) create, edit and store HTML content in a manageable way. A CMS lets you control and manage the content of your website without technical training.
Any system of organizing electronic information counts as a CMS. The earliest example of a purely content-related management tool was “StoryServer,” released by Vignette in around 1996. Over the next few years, many CMS packages were released by the likes of Documentum, Interwoven and Broadvision.
Between 2000 and 2005, the sector experienced a massive wave of mergers and acquisitions, leaving a number of users unsupported when their packages were abandoned as a result of mergers. By 2007 there were three types of systems: software editing, online editing and hybrid.
2008 saw the advent of extremely sophisticated CMSs capable of working in different ways for differing levels of complexity. CMSs could be used for product catalogs, document management systems (for document tracking), corporate intranet networks, real-estate portals, job postings and e-commerce applications. You could now add or delete images easily and edit your website’s text on the fly. And you could add an unlimited number of pages and offer a domain-specific search engine.
Many probably wonder whether CMSs are actually beneficial. My experience with the most popular ones assures me that using one is a smart decision. Check out the flowchart below:
Simply put, a CMS makes creating and editing content simple and easy. Developers often forget that this is its main purpose. They cripple themselves (and their customers) by constantly searching for more functionality.
Content doesn’t mean just text. Sometimes your website will require a contact form or user-authentication system. Look for a CMS that provides the required functionality you need without sacrificing ease of use.
Finding a CMS can be daunting, but if you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for, you can quickly weed out the options that wouldn’t help your business achieve its goals. Get a clear idea of your needs by asking these questions:
Keep these factors in mind, and tailor your decision to your website and ambitions; if you do that, you’re unlikely to go wrong.
Many organizations try to avoid the risk of a vendor going bust by choosing a complex CMS from a major vendor. But a huge vendor or widely used product isn’t necessarily right for everyone.
Find out details about the size and financial viability of the vendor, as well as the functional requirements of the product itself. A high price tag does not automatically make one CMS better or more capable than another.
Some developers feel compelled to purchase a CMS “for life,” which can cause them to choose the product with the most features for the budget. Before you know it, they’ve purchased an enterprise-level system for tens of thousands of dollars when a free blogging tool would have done the job. They fell for the age-old—but flawed—principle of “bigger is better.”
The more money you spend, the greater the risk. What’s more, every added function inevitably affects the usability of the CMS for the authors. At the end of the day, if a CMS is difficult to use, then the product is unlikely to sell and the vendor is unlikely to prosper, which could lead to a failed project and failed website for you.
The most practical approach? Keep it simple and keep it small.
Web developers need to remember that not everyone is as tech-maniac as they are. Your personal preferences and ability to operate the system don’t matter unless you’re making the website for yourself; the most important factor is whether everyone who needs to can use the system as intended. In the long run, picking a CMS that has a simple admin interface will be better for the organization—even if you have to customize it to meet the customer’s needs.
Don’t swing to the other extreme and choose an overly simplistic CMS just to avoid the behemoth. Make sure that extensions with the functionality you need are available for the CMS you choose. You might stumble upon many promising CMSs, but do not invest in one until you know that it has what you need. Unfortunately, some of the best CMSs out there are still being developed.
All too often, organizations rush into purchasing new technology before fully understanding the problems they need to solve. Without knowing the practical requirements of the website, you have no meaningful basis on which to select a CMS. So, first understand the website, and then the CMS’ requirements will become clear.
The content-management market is complex. Over a thousand products are estimated to exist worldwide, and almost every country or region has in excess of a hundred products available locally. The challenge is to find and understand these products, despite the few effective channels for customer research and vendor marketing.
A few vendors—mostly the international players, which are focused on the high end of the market—have spent money to be visible. Companies are often blinded by the assumption that a limited number of “real” CMSs are on the market; they evaluate only the most visible options.
Without having done the necessary research to identify a broad set of products, companies often get a skewed perception of the CMS marketplace. Instead, they must learn the market and to seek out all possible solutions. For more on this, see Step Two’s article “Understanding the CMS Marketplace.“
How should you establish a list of requirements? Circumstances vary, but here are 10 particularly important things to consider.
What is the primary function of the website? Is it static, or is it a fully functioning e-commerce website? Does it contain many multimedia files?
Define your website’s purpose, and then find a CMS that does that particular thing well. If images and video are the main focus, then you need a CMS that has built-in media support or great plug-ins to enable that functionality.
The editor is a core feature worth special attention. The majority of CMSs have WYSIWYG editors (as in “what you see is what you get”). The editor is the interface through which content is added and updated. Traditionally, editors enable the content provider to apply basic formatting, such as font and color. The dangers of traditional WYSIWYG editors are two-fold; first, content providers could be given too much control over the design; secondly, in enabling this amount of control, the CMS might mix design with content.
Your list of requirements should include an editor that does not give content providers control over appearance. At the very least, look for a CMS that allows the editor to be replaced by an alternative of your choosing. The editor should be able to handle external assets, including images and downloadable files, which brings us to the next point…
Images and files are poorly handled in some CMSs. Poorly designed, unusable systems frustrate users. Images, in particular, can cause problems. Your CMS should force content providers to add
<alt> attributes to images. You might want one that also has basic image-editing tools, such as cropping, resizing and rotating, but finding one that does can be a challenge.
How does the CMS you’re considering deal with uploading and attaching PDFs, Word documents and other files? How are these files displayed? Can descriptions be attached to the files, and is the search engine capable of indexing them?
Search is an important aspect of any website. Here are a few things to look for when assessing search functionality:
CMSs should allow for flexibility in the way content is retrieved and presented. For example, can you retrieve news stories in reverse chronological order? Can you display events in a calendar? Is it possible to extract the most recent comments and display them on the home page? Flexibility makes a CMS stand out.
If you intend to gather feedback from users, the CMS must provide that functionality, either built in or through a third-party plug-in.
You must at least be able to post forms and collect responses. Does the CMS make this process easy? Can you specify to whom the results are emailed? Can the results be written to a database or outputted as an Excel document?
Finally, think about how to manage users. Do you need to be able to reset passwords, set permissions or export user information to other systems?
As the number of content providers on your website increases, you’ll want more control over who can edit what, and that requires a CMS that supports access permissions.
Enterprise-level CMSs support workflows in which page updates have to go through a series of checkpoints before going live. Complex scenarios like this require the ability to roll pages back to previous versions.
The ability to revert to an earlier version of a page allows you to recover quickly when something is posted by accident. The most common use of versioning is to simply revert to the last saved state.
It sounds like an indispensable feature, but in my experience it is rarely used except in complex workflows, so think twice about whether you need it. That said, while once an enterprise-level tool, versioning is becoming available in more and more CMSs.
Avoid unnecessary “bells and whistles.” Some websites require a ton of advanced functionality and some don’t. It’s completely subjective. If you’re never going to have an online store, why consider a CMS outfitted for e-commerce? If you never plan to do anything more than post photos, why have a CMS that does a hundred things? Find a CMS that does the one thing you want well, and forget about the other features.
You’ll likely run into problems no matter which CMS you choose. Problems can be caused by add-ons, custom code and more. Choose a CMS with a support system; having somewhere to turn for advice and information is invaluable.
Support doesn’t necessarily imply making a phone call or submitting a ticket. Sometimes you can get quick, useful responses from a user community. Does the CMS you’re considering have support forums frequented by both users and the vendor? Are there off-site forums dedicated to that CMS?
Thorough documentation for the CMS is valuable and should provide information on everything, from basic use of the system to customizations and advanced functionality. It should also be accurate and easy to understand.
The basic purpose of a CMS is to make website maintenance easy, even for non-techies. Average users should be able to figure out, without many instructions, how to perform basic tasks like creating a page, editing content and changing the theme.
Make sure the CMS has a standardized format for every section of the back end. Consistent nomenclature is a perk; it helps users learn the system. If one section, for example, has a drop-down menu, then other sections should have the same type of menu for comparable options—not radio buttons or other selectors that could create confusion.
WordPress is a state-of-the-art publishing platform that focuses on aesthetics, web standards and usability. WordPress is both free and priceless! It has morphed from a basic blogging platform into a full-functioning CMS.
WordPress’ back end is intuitive; various functions are laid out based on the sections of the website. The back end is standardized and well organized, and learning how to perform different functions (and where to do it) is for the most part straightforward. The WYSIWYG editor provides all the basic functions one might need (including inserting images, video and other media) and makes it easy to toggle back and forth between HTML and rich-text mode.
WordPress makes it possible to design pages as you see fit with custom themes and page templates. From galleries to text-heavy websites, WordPress can do it.
WordPress’s shining feature, though, is documentation. The WordPress Codex is massive and covers everything from basic use to creating your own plug-ins to working with advanced features. WordPress also has active forums where you can find fixes posted by other users for many of the problems you might encounter.
Drupal allows an individual or a community of users to publish, manage and organize a wide variety of content on a website. It’s a powerful CMS that can be used for all kinds of websites: corporate, e-commerce, social networking. Drupal’s back end is incredibly simple, with logically organized links to create and edit content and manage accounts.
One of Drupal’s nicest features is the “Book Page” content type. These pages can be grouped into collections, or books, that are automatically linked together, which can be a huge help. Drupal doesn’t have a WYSIWYG editor in the core installation, but there is a module to add the functionality.
The plug-ins available do just about anything you could imagine. The code output by Drupal is a bit more complex than that of some other CMSs, but still relatively easy to decipher.
Drupal has a huge user community, with forums on the official website and elsewhere. Extensive documentation is also available for end users and developers.
SilverStripe is a full-featured CMS that’s capable of just about everything. It’s built in PHP on the Sapphire framework, which makes it very customizable. One of its most interesting features is that designers can customize the back end for each of their clients. It also includes a WYSIWYG editor.
SilverStripe provides great support, including documentation for developers and end users, forums and an IRC channel.
Joomla is the most popular open-source CMS currently available that runs on PHP and MySQL. The back end is straightforward, and its WYSIWYG editor has a ton of formatting options—even emoticons.
Joomla is powerful, so it’s probably not suitable for simple websites because its excessive functionality would go to waste. It includes a number of features to make pages load quickly, including caching and GZIP page compression, and numerous plug-ins are available.
TYPOlight uses PHP5 and AJAX and is suitable for static pages, blogs, newsletters, calendars and more. The back end is intuitive and highly functional, and shortcuts are available for almost everything, from creating forms to adding Flash content.
It has a complete WYSIWYG editor and other tools to make publishing simple, but it might overwhelm those who aren’t tech-savvy; it’s not complicated, but there are a lot of options and possible customizations.
TYPOlight has some nice developer tools, including a built-in CSS generator and a form generator. Plenty of documentation is on the website for developers and end users: screencasts, forums and a wiki for support. And if you (or your clients) need advanced help, paid support is available from TYPOlight partners.
Consider the pros and cons before selecting a CMS, including legal, licensing, training and other issues.
A final warning: don’t let your list of CMS requirements be endless. Stick to the necessities, but keep an eye on the future. It’s a fine balance. On the one hand, you don’t want to pay for unnecessary functionality; on the other, you don’t want to be stuck with a CMS that doesn’t meet your needs in two years.
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