All but the very simplest of sites should be built with a content management system (CMS). A CMS makes adding content, and keeping it updated, much easier. There are hundreds of content management systems in the market today. So how do you choose the best one for you? In this chapter, we’ll lay out the CMS landscape and give some suggestions on how to evaluate them and which ones are most appropriate for different circumstances.
Static Sites: Simple But Limited
We often hear from designers who have been building static web sites for years, and question whether they need to shift to using a content management system (CMS). They’re comfortable with their workflow, typically building sites in Dreamweaver and then pushing them up to a server via FTP.
A static site is the simplest to create and launch, and the least expensive to host. But it is a poor choice for all but the simplest sites. In the past, static sites were very common, but today they are rarely the best approach. Among their many limitations, static sites:
- Generally cannot be updated without dealing directly with the HTML code, making them hard for anyone but the coder to maintain.
- Do not support blogs or RSS feeds, cutting off one of the easiest ways to add content regularly and improve search engine optimization.
- Often require entry of the same content in multiple places, making it harder to update and often leading to inconsistencies within the site.
- Do not automatically create any pages, so every page on the site needs to be manually built.
Why You Should Use a CMS
If you’re building six-page brochure sites that are rarely updated, then perhaps you can work without a CMS. But for almost anything else, you should be using a CMS. Here’s why:
- Your clients can edit their own content. This is hugely empowering to them, and it results in sites that are updated more frequently and are therefore more useful for visitors and deliver better business results.
- You don’t have to spend time on every little content change, so you have more time for creative work. You came to web design to be creative, not to spend time updating a store’s hours or announcing their next sale, right?
- When the time comes for design changes, you can update a template or two, and the entire site is instantly updated to the new design. No more tediously making the same change to page after page.
- Your clients’ sites can have RSS feeds, commenting, and other features that aren’t possible on a static site.
Given all these compelling reasons, why isn’t everyone building sites with a CMS? Because it has added complexity to the task of building the site and, if that task is contracted out, it can add significantly to the cost.
Today, costs have fallen low enough that there is no reason not to use a CMS on virtually every project.
Choosing a CMS
Once you’ve made the decision to use a CMS, you’re then faced with the daunting task of choosing a particular CMS. There are literally hundreds of them, and each has its fans.
To begin making sense of the wide range of offerings, first consider each product’s target audience. At the low end, there are simple systems that are designed for small businesses or individuals to build their own simple sites or blogs; these include WordPress.com (the hosted version of WordPress), Intuit Sites, Google Sites, and Godaddy’s WebSite Tonight. Assuming you’re a professional designer building custom sites for business clients, you can discard all of these immediately; they lack the design flexibility and the power for your needs.
At the other extreme, there are high-end content management systems aimed at big organizations that are equally unsuitable. Systems such as SiteCore and SDL Tridion typically have five- or six-figure price tags, putting them entirely out of range for the vast majority of sites.
These systems typically have lots of features designed for big organizations, with multiple user roles, workflows for sending content from an author to an editor and then to a site manager for approval before going live, and so forth.
In this ebook, we’re assuming you’re building sites for small to midsize businesses, and these features just aren’t very useful for this class of clients. In terms of design flexibility and ease of use, these “high-end” systems are often no better, and sometimes worse, than opensource or inexpensive options.
Hosted vs. Self-Hosted
Your first big decision point is whether you are going to manage the software and its hosting yourself, or use a SaaS (software as a service) solution:
- A hosted (SaaS) CMS, such as Webvanta, LightCMS, or SquareSpace, is a self-contained solution that you manage via a web browser and is operated by a third party.
- A self-hosted CMS, such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla!, or Expression Engine, is a body of software you download from the source, and then modify, upload to a server (which you typically rent from a hosting company), and manage on your own.
If you are a developer at heart, like to be able to modify the back-end code, and have a budget of at least a few thousand dollars per site, then self-hosted solutions can be a good choice. They are used for millions of sites, including many well-known ones.
The Growth of Hosted CMS Options
The option to use a hosted CMS is relatively new, and we believe it better serves the needs of designers and site owners who want to focus on the design and content of the site, not on the technology.
If you use a self-hosted CMS, you are responsible for all the code that runs the site. This can be a nightmare when hacks occur; with a CMS such as WordPress, sites get hacked with terrifying frequency.
Even in the absence of such nightmare scenarios, using a self-hosted CMS inevitably means spending more time dealing with back-end code, software updates, security, backups, and server management. You’re exposed to much more of the full technology stack and operational issues, and it’s hard not to get buried in details.
With a hosted CMS, all that is taken care of for you.
In the past, most hosted CMS offerings were very limited in terms of design flexibility. Even today, few provide the flexibility to set up custom databases, so you can organize things like business listings and news items, and have pages automatically created for each item.
The Hosted Service Tradeoff
Life is full of tradeoffs, and the decision to use a hosted CMS is no exception. With any SaaS system, you’re giving up control over the back-end software, in return for being relieved of all responsibility for building, maintaining, and serving that software.
As long as the system meets your needs, this is generally an excellent tradeoff. You get to focus on your design and business needs, and let someone else take care of the technical details and day-to-day operations.
Picking the Right Service
Part of the bargain you’re making when you use a hosted service is that you’re going to live with whatever that service is designed to do (or that it can be extended to do), so it’s critical to pick one that meets your needs. Here’s some hosted services to consider:
- If you are building custom web sites, for which you need full control over the design and the organization of content, Webvanta is an outstanding solution (if we do say so ourselves).
- If all you need is a simple blog, WordPress.com is an excellent option.
- If you want more design flexibility but don’t have a lot of content and don’t need database capability, SquareSpace is a great product.
- If you’re building an e-commerce site, take a look at Shopify and BigCommerce.
- If you need a private social network, Ning is the leading hosted solution.
Choosing Among Self-Hosted Options
If you don’t want to use a hosted CMS, then you have two choices: open-source software and commercial software.
Open-source software is extremely popular, and it can be an excellent solution if you have the skills and desire to manage it well.
The biggest downside is that there is generally no support provided by the authors of the software. You’re typically depending on the user community for support. Fortunately, there are large user communities for the major open-source CMS systems — but it can still be frustrating trying to get questions answered and problems resolved.
Of the open-source content management systems, WordPress appears to be the most popular, at least among designers in the U.S. Joomla! has more community features, so if you are building a community-oriented site, Joomla! may be a good option.
The “big gun” of the open-source CMS world is Drupal. It is used by many big-name sites, from whitehouse.gov to major media properties. In the hands of a capable developer, Drupal is a powerful tool, and there is no doubt that it is capable of delivering highly customized, database-driven sites.
Most designers, however, tell us that Drupal is more than they can manage on their own. Unless you’re a developer who likes to work with PHP, you’re likely to want to outsource the setup and customization of Drupal, and this typically costs several thousand dollars. For a large project, it can be an excellent solution, but for a typical small to midsize business site, WordPress is more efficient.
The most popular commercial CMS among designers in Expression Engine. It gets high marks from designers who use it, though it can be more involved to set up than WordPress.
CMS Selection Summary: Things to Consider
There’s no way to make selection of the best CMS for your needs a simple task; it is just an inherently complex landscape, with many options.
Here are some factors to consider as you are evaluating CMS options:
- Ease of setting up your custom HTML and CSS so the site looks exactly how you want
- Whether the template system works around your code, or has a fixed approach to page structure that you must work around
- Availability of the features you require, either as core components or as add-ons
- Support for blogs, with RSS feeds
- Ease of use of the back-end interface, both for you (the designer) and your client (who will be maintaining the content)
- Support for custom database structures, so you can make the structure match the needs of a particular site
- Whether any PHP or other back-end programming is required to customize the system
- Ease of adding images, for use in photo galleries or combined with text, and whether images at various sizes can be generated automatically or need to be created by you and uploaded individually
- Level of support available when you have questions, find bugs, or need modifications to the software
So this is it for today’s post. Will be back soon with another tip on use of jQuery soon.