When Do You Need a Custom CMS – And When is it A Scam?

Building your own website can often become a scary endeavor, especially if even HTML and CSS are difficult languages for you to write and understand. While you can still create a basic website, there have long been CMS (Content Management System) programs available to assist in the building and scaling of your digital property.

There are easily dozens of open-source CMSs available online, but many people are talked into getting a custom CMS from a development team.

There are certainly exceptions, but many of these custom CMSs are either entirely unnecessary or outright scams that force you into constantly paying for a system that you could get for free. Let’s get into the details to see if you really need a custom job, or if a free CMS is the best fit for you.

What is a CMS?

If you’ve looked into building a website in the last decade, then you’ve heard of CMSs. Maybe you didn’t know they were called that, but you’ve likely seen WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. These three represent the most commonly used systems on the Internet, with some sources saying that about 40-50% of active websites with a CMS are built with WordPress.

What is a CMS?

A CMS does what it says: manage your content. If you had a website without any CMS, just basic HTML, then you’d have to build each page by hand. You would have to write the HTML for the basic page structure, enter the content information and ensure it has proper syntax and then link it to other pages so that the whole website is easily accessible to readers. While this isn’t necessarily difficult, it’s definitely time-consuming.

A CMS, at its very core, eliminates most of this work. The most basic CMS programs allow you to write new pages without worrying about coding, and it will add the new page to your website without forcing you to write a single line of coding. It will wrangle every page together into one cohesive entity, and it will make the management of your website easier on the back-end.

Now that’s not all a CMS can do. You can allow readers to add information, make accounts, easily add widgets or sidebar tools, enhance SEO and so much more through the use of plugins or native features. These programs are made so that you can easily manage your website and create content without wasting precious time on coding and testing each page.

Nearly every website owner should use a CMS, but they are most commonly used by bloggers and ecommerce shops. Anyone with a constantly expanding website needs a system like this to keep them from going insane.

The Custom CMS Trap

Knowing how useful CMS software is, you might be thinking that we’d tell you that you definitely need a custom CMS to ensure you get all the features that you need to boost your website to optimal efficiency. Not true, not even in the slightest.

There are instances where a custom CMS is needed. Do you think Facebook could run on WordPress? Definitely not. What about eBay or Amazon? Not a snowball’s chance. Or how about Twitter or Pinterest? Drupal would crash and burn.

However, for the vast majority of those of you out there, unless you have a major enterprise or need features that are truly exotic, a custom CMS just isn’t needed. Developers come along and promise the world, telling you that there’s no way a free, open-source program can give you everything you need, but the truth is that you’ll often get more power than your website requires. Let’s really dive in and see when custom CMSs are needed.

Website Size and Scaling

Since bloggers and ecommerce shops are the most common website owners that need CMS programs, let’s focus on them. If you’re a blogger, is a custom CMS actually needed? It depends on what you do. Are you the only writer? Are you producing a few articles at a time, or do you have hundreds of pieces being written by multiple people? Do your readers/contributors need to make an account, and do they need to be able to add and change their information at will?

If you belong to the former, where you’re the only writer and readers don’t need much customization, then an open-source CMS is perfectly fine. You’ll enjoy how easy they are to use and learn, and there are thousands of plugins that help you with SEO and functionality. It’d be a waste of time, money and energy getting a custom job.

Those in the latter may also be able to use an open-source CMS, it largely depends on how many contributors you have and how much customization your contributors need. If you pay other writers and are scaling up to hundreds or even thousands of pages a day with numerous writers, then you may need a custom CMS.

On the ecommerce side, the questions are largely the same. If you are planning to put up all your own items, set your own sales, release coupons every now and then and just run a fairly common ecommerce shop, then you’ll get all your need from Magento, Shopify and other open-source ecommerce programs.

If you want to be the next eBay or Amazon, then you will need a custom setup to give you all the power and customization you need. However, unless you’re really shooting for the stars in terms of rapid scaling (via thousands of outside users each with dozens or even hundreds of products) and need some extreme levels of customization, you’ll do just fine with a free CMS.

Pricing

If a development team contacts you about a custom CMS, they will do their best to play down the cost. They will say that it’s an investment, that the new CMS will give you so much more functionality that you’ll obviously be able to do more business and at a faster rate.

The truth is, getting nearly anything developed from scratch will cost money, lots of it. How’s your budget? Are you just starting up and have just enough to cover your hosting fees along with a little left over for advertising and scaling up? If so, then you definitely don’t want a custom CMS, cause the prices start at crazy and only go higher.

Pricing

First and foremost, you need to pay for the development costs. Depending on the company and features you ask for/package they offer, you can end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on the CMS alone. But, it doesn’t stop there.

After the CMS, you’ll then be expected to pay a licensing fee. This is typically a monthly cost, though they might charge one lump sum annually, and you may have to pay for each and every computer you plan to use the CMS with. If you’re alone, then it’s just one computer. If you have workers or collaborators, then you might need several licenses.

Then after that, you have to worry about hosting fees. Most developers have special plans with hosts that allow them to sell reseller hosting. They will claim that the only way the CMS will run “without any issue” is on their specific hosting platform. If you agree, then you also have to pay them for hosting, and yes, they usually jack up the price much higher than if you used your own hosting.

Security

This is one element that has some credence. Many developers who are pushing their custom CMS will tell you that WordPress and other open-source programs have security issues. This is both true and false simultaneously. It’s true that many hackers go after WordPress and that it isn’t considered the Fort Knox of security. However, this is largely because WordPress is used on so many websites, so someone who can get through the program will have an easier time infecting similar websites on the same system.

At the same time, the vast majority of open-source CMSs are constantly upgrading, and most of the upgrades affect the background coding that you’ll never see. They are sealing up security holes and ensuring that weaknesses and new hacking techniques are unable to penetrate their system.

A custom CMS, on the other end, doesn’t have this constant barrage of hacking. Much like the immune system, this can be a bad thing. Unlike open-source programs that have been worked on and fixed in many ways to avoid easy hacks, custom CMSs simply don’t have that exposure. This means that it might be much easier for a hacker to find a hole that should have been sealed up.

It’s truly hard to say which is safer, but the truth is that the wide sweeping statement that open-source CMSs don’t have enough security is false. They tend to get more attacks, but the programmers are busy making upgrades to avoid common bugs and viruses from penetrating them.

Security

Customization

This is a huge selling point for custom CMS developers. They will tell you that open-source programs can’t possibly have the features that you need and that the only way you can grow as a business is to use their program. It’s true that they can tailor the CMS to do whatever you want, and in some instances, you might truly need that. However, before you start spending your money on the system and licensing fees, you should really go look at the plugins offered by open-source CMSs.

There are easily thousands of plugins available for just about everything that you need. From SEO help to allowing users to make accounts to email capture forms. It does take more work if you go the open-source route since you have to install the plugins and figure out how they work, but there is so much documentation and support online that you’ll have the help you need to get it done.

So, once again, this really comes down to your intention. If you’re an enterprise trying to build the next Facebook, then there’s no way open-source is going to work for you. However, if you just need common website features and you don’t have thousands or millions of users on your website all at once, then just spend some time perusing the open-source plugins. You’ll definitely find what you need, and the vast majority of plugins are either free or very inexpensive.

Support Team

Support Team

The is another “true but not really” fact that developers will throw at you when they are selling their custom CMS. They will tell you that they have a dedicated support team to help you should an issue arise, and that open-source CMSs don’t offer that. In most cases, this is true. The developer will be there to help you (at least, they should be) and most CMSs don’t have a real support staff.

However, if you pick up a common CMS, you’ll find that there are many users online via forums and blogs who are willing to help you out. Just ask about a problem you’re having, like installing a theme or using a plugin, and typically within minutes, you’ll have at least one person trying to help you figure out the issue. It’s not a paid support staff waiting on your beck and call, but they are real people who know how to help and want to ensure that you succeed with whatever you’re trying to do.

Unless you’re using a very exotic or unpopular open-source CMS, you’ll find that you should have all the support you need.

Conclusion

Custom CMSs do have their place in the world, but for most people, it’s just a scam, a good way to make you spend lots of money on something you really don’t need. Unless you are seriously trying to make Amazon, YouTube or Facebook, you’ll find that WordPress or Drupal have everything you’d ever need. Don’t fall into an expensive custom CMS contract without first considering the open-source options. They will 99% of the time give you everything you need, and at most you might spend a little money on premium themes and plugins.

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