If you’re thinking about updating your current website or are commissioning a brand new one, one of the most important things for you to consider is whether or not you need it to contain a CMS.
What is a “CMS”?
CMS stands for “Content Management System”. Though it has not been endorsed with a solid definition, the term CMS is usually used in the web development industry to describe a user-friendly interface (generally within a website or web application) that supports the creation, maintenance and publishing of content.
In other words, CMS’ enable non-technically trained website owners and administrators to upload, edit and manage the information on their websites. Hard coding is replaced with user-friendly point-and-click components that enable users to easily:
- Create, edit, publish and delete web pages
- Create, edit, publish and delete articles/blog posts
- Add and edit inventory items and their descriptions, prices, specifications and supporting images
- Enter, edit and view packing slips and invoices
- Manage site structure and navigation and the appearance of published pages
- View reports and site statistics
Where did CMS’ come from?
Website owners have been taking charge of their online content using CMS’ since the late 1990s. Before then, even the slightest website updates, such as minor textual amendments, would require the assistance of a web developer.
This was largely due to the fact that most web development software was proprietary; owned and licensed for use by the individual or company that developed it. Although many proprietary systems come complete with their own, custom-built CMS’, the bespoke source coding (the element of the software that most computer users won’t ever see) is usually kept securely under wraps, which means there are almost always restrictions to their use.
Since then, CMS’ have evolved considerably, and now the most popular and widely-recognised systems on the market are open-source. This means the source code is accessible and modifiable by anyone; it is constantly being updated, monitored and improved by a community of developers around the world. A prime example of open source CMS software is WordPress, which now hosts over 26% of websites on the internet.
Arguably the main reason for the wide-spread take-up of CMS software was the need for website owners to make their own immediate changes to their website content, without incurring charges by having to pass the work to a web developer. It’s also likely that website owners were influenced by Google’s constant algorithm updates; more so than ever before, website owners are having to regularly update and refresh their content in order to keep up with Google’s best practice guidelines.
How do CMS’ work?
CMS’ typically consist of two elements; the content management application (CMA) and the content delivery application (CDA).
The CMA element is the front-facing portion of the software. It provides website owners or administrators with a user-friendly “what you see is what you get” (AKA “WYSIWIG”) text editor, and eliminates the need for any real programming knowledge. This enables the user (who may not have any experience of HTML) to add, edit or remove content on the website.
As soon as the user clicks “publish”, the CDA element gets to work, performing all of the necessary tasks to establish those changes on the live website. Though the technical features and abilities of each CMS software solution will vary, the main focus on nontechnical usability is fundamentally the same.
And although CMS’ were initially introduced with non-technical professionals in mind, many experienced programmers are now opting to use CMS’ over hard coding for web-build projects. The reason for this is that CMS’ typically foster speedier website development; in some cases, the project turnaround can be reduced to just a number of days.
This is largely down to the use of “templates” (also often referred to as “skins” or “themes”); a series of files that contain the website’s basic style and layout, and eliminate the need for each individual page to be hand coded. Usually any additional bespoke coding can be plugged in with little difficulty.
The Pros and Cons
Like with most things in this world, there are Pros and Cons to employing a CMS. Once installed, you essentially have a working website that can be easily maintained and updated, all through a centralised user-friendly interface. Some of the biggest advantages are:
- Content editing is usually kept separate from design and functionality, so non-technically trained users can add, edit and remove content without disrupting the website’s coding
- Each user can be assigned selective access permissions. For example, some users may be granted universal access, while others may only be permitted to add and edit their own content
- Alterations can be made in an instant, most of the time without needing the help of an expert
- Most CMS platforms are SEO friendly or offer SEO plugins that enable you to edit page metadata and create Google-friendly URLs
- Depending on the level of customisation you require, your new CMS based website could be up and running in next to no time
It’s not all a bed of roses though, and it’s a common misconception that a powerful CMS is all you need in order to produce a successful website (great quality content, beautiful design and a good UX interface is what you need!). Let’s take a look at some of the drawbacks:
- Unless you have a keen eye for design, making your website look exactly how you want it without the help of a designer could prove challenging.
- Functionality is sometimes limited, and although it is usually fairly simple to integrate bespoke development work, it’s likely you’ll need the help of a programmer for this. For the average website owner this won’t be a huge issue, but if you have special functionality requirements it’s recommended that you do a little extra research
- Some CMS solutions are better protected against malevolent attacks than others, so you may need to take extra precautions when it comes to security
- Some CMS' can be difficult to get your head around and use, so in some cases it might be easier to hire someone to take care of your website for you!
So, do you need a CMS?
In lots of circumstances, a CMS can add great value to your website. But whether or not you really need CMS integration will depend on a range of different factors. Before you make your final decision, consider how involved you want to be in the process of building and maintaining your website, how often you might need to make updates to it, and the level of functionality that you need it to have.
While many professionals recommend CMS integration, most realise that a CMS isn’t the only solution; it’s just one of the many tools from which to choose.
Will your next web project contain a CMS?