Choosing a Content Management System

What is a content management system?

From Wikipedia: A content management system (CMS) is a system providing a collection of procedures used to manage work flow in a collaborative environment. These procedures can be manual or computer-based. Read more (opens in new window)….
More websites with info about what is a CMS:

As the need for websites to become less ‘static‘ and increasingly ‘dynamic‘ – content that changes depending on a number of factors including contributed multiple user imput / content, time and current / relevant / content specific information, and the storage of the information, the content management system has evolved as a result of this and the need to provide ‘automated’ administration of dynamic content. The beauty of content management systems is that they allow from one to multiple people to contribute content and sort, collate, arrange, update, edit etc that information often without the user needing to know much more than how to use a word processor.

No customization, and its relatively easy!

It is true, to get the best from any open source CMS, you need a range of skills – but if you only want to install a system (many auto install these days via one or two click and a little data entry) and be an end-user, the process is relatively simple for the facilities you get and there are often pre-built themes on offer so you have a choice about how you might like your site to look with minimal extra work. Of course, it always helps to know someone, or have some knowledge yourself with regards to the internet, hosting, databases (most content management systems use a database to store data that is dynamically requested depending on user imput) and the CMS to get yourself out of the most basic and common problems. As with everything computer wise, also knowing how to backup all files and data including databases is essential too. This way, if something major goes wrong, you can always re-install from a previous backup (back up regularly so you don’t loose too much at any point).

Customization and support

If you do want to customize a system, then you will need various web and programming skills – or pay someone else to do it for you. Alternatively, you can use paid-for, hosted CMSs where you will get updates, upgrades and support – but obviously these will cost and some are very expensive. With open source, you are much more dependent on forums and other users to help solve problems, but there is no obligation for them to provide any level of support.

Keep in mind, with any CMS you choose to use, it may not continue to be supported or updated indefinitely. By its very nature, a CMS will grow exponentially, both in terms of the data content added to it, and the core functionality. It is good to try and consider before you set up with a particular CMS a plan regarding what you would do in the event that you can no longer use your chosen CMS, and to have an action plan as to how you would solve this problem should it ever arise so you don’t loose everything or have to start from scratch. It is likely that one system will not simply be able to import data from another system’s database at the click of a button – and more often than not, there is no option to do this. It is also likely that another system will have different functionality, some of which might be missing but that you might need. The same considerations regarding data loss also apply regarding upgrading the same system (this is why efficient and current backing up is critical so you can always ‘roll-back’ to a previous verison).

Important decision

As we’ve touched on, there are many considerations regarding CMSs – especially when you start to look at customizations and ensuring functionality you require. It is rare that a CMS will do everything you want over the full term that you will be using it. Look at how customizable the system is – by way of plugins and themes / templates for example. Explore the level of help offered and the user forums for a CMS – see if some of the questions you might like to ask have already been well answered and check that the site is active and busy. Also look at announcements and blogs – this can give you an idea of how active the core development is on a CMS.

There are many questions to ask yourself when making the decision about which CMS to use. How easy is it to use? How customizable is it? What’s the support like? How much does it cost (if anything)? Who will be using it? and so on. Take your time as any CMS you use is likely to be with you for a long time – especially if your site becomes really big as it matures.

Don’t get caught short

Don’t forget, if you want to use an open source CMS system, you may well need to have hosting space available along with a database facility – there may be a recurring cost involved for this part – so you’ll need to investigate your options of which there are again many.

Some CMSs are completely free in that they are hosted remotely – but this can have issues too, such as who owns the data, how to back up your data and restrictions such as limited amounts of data permitted – be careful not to get caught out by thinking you’re on a completely free hosted system and further down the line discovering that you don’t have enough storage space and as a result having to go on to an expensive paid-for option because its too difficult by then to move to another system. Likewise those CMSs offering completely free ‘lite’ and ‘basic’ editions, but paid-for add-ons and upgrades can end up becoming expensive when they started free. Keep in mind the chances are, you will need more than the free ‘lite’ and ‘basic’ editions at some point unless you only ever want a very simple, small site that doesn’t require expanding beyond a certain point.

Content management systems can help someone with in some cases, extremely limited knowledge set up an editable, dynamic, good looking professional website without too much expense. Note, though, there are a number of potential pitfalls, and it will take up a significant amount of time to set up and maintain – a dynamic website needs to be kept alive with regular content. You might have a steep learning curve too. Seek advice from others as part of the decision process – the best people to speak to are those already using the system.

An introduction only

This post is intended as an introduction to the concept of web content management systems (WCMS) and content management systems (CMS) and in my next post, I’ll point the reader in the direction of some CMSs to explore for themselves. It is by no means an exhaustive article on the subject. There is so much to choose from in terms of CMSs, you’ll need to do a lot of research before making any sort of decision on which system to use. Over time I hope to explore some things in more detail, but here is just intended as a launch-pad for your exploration into the world of CMS websites and getting one started up.

Well, thanks for reading this far! I don’t think I’ve even started to touch the surface of this subject, but hopefully this article has given you inspiration to look at what’s out there yourself, and begin to ask yourself some questions which might help you in your decisions regarding setting up your own website.

Related post: What are frameworks and themes?