What is a website content management system?

When building a website it is very important to consider how the site will be maintained after launch. Although you could employ your web designer to manage the site it will generally be much more efficient and cost-effective for you as the website owner if you can log-in and make changes yourself. In order to do this the site must be built on a web content management system (CMS) which allows you to change the code of the web pages. In simple terms, a CMS stores the content data for a website and presents it publicly as a web pages and privately to the site editor in a ‘back office’. The back office is an interface that allows the editor to manage the site without involvement from a web designer or developer.

When clients ask me to build a web site, I would usually recommend that it’s built on a CMS. I do sometimes build small sites for clients that are simple HTML code uploaded direct to a web host, this is cheaper and quicker than using a CMS, however there are many advantages to a CMS that usually out-weigh these short-term initial costs.

Remember if you need to call your web designer every time you need to make a change this will cost money and probably take longer than if you or someone in your organisation makes the change. Most web designers are focussed on the initial design and delivery of websites and don’t usually offer day-to-day management services.

WordPress content management system back office

Screenshot of this post in the WordPress
content management system ‘back office’

Separating content from the design

A good CMS will employ templates that provide a consistent look and feel throughout the site whatever changes are made to the content. Effectively the content is kept separate (usually stored in a database) to the code that controls the design. A big advantage of this is that the templates can be changed easily so the site can look completely different while retaining the same content. It also means the user is unable to accidentally ‘break’ the site by deleting fixed elements (such as the header or navigation) or distort the layout by adding content that falls outside the main content area. That said, it is still wise for the user to have some understanding of design issues as it is still possible to make a mess with inappropriate size images, inconsistent text styling etc.

The basic functions you should expect from a CMS

  • Secure log-in using a standard web browser to a back office from where one or more people can manage the site
  • The option for your web designer to design and implement a template that keeps the basic design consistent across the site even when you change the content
  • Ability to open pages, change text and images
  • Ability to style text on pages, add links to other pages, other sites and documents
  • Ability to add and delete pages with any changes automatically reflected in the navigation
  • Ability to create draft pages that are visible in the back office and ready to publish at a later date but not yet live on the site
  • Ability to upload photos, documents and mange them in a library

Beyond the basic functions

Depending on the CMS there are many ways that CMS can provide other functions. Most large CMS platforms have scalable feature sets, offering hundreds of additional ‘modules’ or ‘plug-ins’ that can be added to the main system to provide functions as they are needed. Some examples of these functions could be to provide slideshows of images, a Twitter feed on the site, interactive web forms or spam filtering for comments. This kind of extensibility means that if there is a function you need for your site there is a usually ready-made solution you can add to the system, often very quickly and freely available. By using a CMS you get the benefit of off-the-shelf code that provides lots of functionality for the site rather than paying to re-invent the wheel and develop from scratch.

Which CMS should I use?

There are essentially 2 types of CMS; Open Source or Proprietary. Open Source means that the system is based on code that is developed by a large community and given away free to use. Proprietary systems are usually developed by a single company who charge for using their system. Both options have their advantages. Open Source systems will cost you nothing to download (WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are leading examples) are developed and supported by a huge community who freely give of their time to continually improve the system. The huge user and developer base means that most problems have been encountered and solved before and the system is improving fast. However although there are online forums and lots of online help, these systems do not provide active support to users and it will require some technical knowledge to set up and configure them before use.

Proprietary systems have a company dedicated to directly and actively supporting the user and will probably provide either phone or email support, together with guarantees about the security and uptime for the system. Their system will be ready to use and not require installation like an open source CMS. The down-side is that you are paying a monthly or annual fee and that even a large company will struggle to compete with the number of developers working globally to constantly improve a product like WordPress. Paid for CMS maybe the best option for niche markets and businesses where there maybe CMS providers who have particular expertise in that area and offer a CMS tailored specifically to the needs of that type of client. (eg church websites or school websites). Very large organisations such as the BBC may have their own proprietary CMS built specifically for their needs and complex requirements. There may also be a need for collaboration by thousands of users across a single organisation with complex publishing protocols which open source solutions can’t handle.

There are also many companies that use an open source CMS which they will install and support for you for a fee. Most web designers will have a few CMS that they are familiar with and they will be able to recommend which is the best choice for you.

What’s the difference between a blogging tool and a CMS?

The world’s leading CMS is WordPress but it started life as a blogging tool. Blogs are websites composed or a series of ‘post’ displayed in chronological order, usually with the most recent at the top and older posts residing in an archive. WordPress has now developed into a full-blown CMS that is designed to manage a complete website with many pages although still optimised to be centered around a blog. Blogger (now owned by Google) is probably the simplest free blogging tool and requires no installation and even provides free hosting for users. Blogger is ideal for just plain blogging and is a lot simpler that WordPress but is limited if you plan to expand your blog into a full website in the future. There are many other blogging tools such as Tumblr and ‘curation’ tools such as Storify or Scoopit but these are beyond the scope of this post.

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