One CMS to Rule Them All
CMS stands for Content Management System and is software installed on your web hosting to allow for content changes. Content, in a general sense, means the writing and images on your website. As a developer, it’s nice to be able to allow businesses to manage these things on their own. No one wants to be given an hourly rate for adding in a few images or to make grammar fixes. This is the central idea behind a CMS – a friendly user interface which makes basic changes easy.
However, not every CMS platform is worthwhile. If you’re serious about your website as an extension or main branch of your business, then it’s important to know the differences. Any website hosting company that offers a “free” version and lets you attach a domain name later is probably going to cause you more headache than it’s worth. Not to say these companies don’t have their merit. For quick and temporary websites, they’re more than enough and provide hassle free options to make short term service ideal. Promotions, special events, electoral websites and the like are good examples of short term service.
The reason they’re not good for serious businesses (I won’t discuss the merits here of having someone for in-house maintenance, but look into it) is although they make editing content easy, you’re completely encapsulated in their system. You’ll never have access to the server which means for deeper SEO techniques such as redirects and cleaning up 404 errors are left at the mercy of built in functionality – if it exists. Unfortunately, many of these companies also utilize global meta tags, meaning you can’t optimize your tags for each page and already you’re taking a hit in page ranking. You’re only able to pick from prebuilt templates meaning at best you’re changing colors and the logo. Most of these sites look cookie cutter in style and it becomes hard to differentiate one from the other. You’ll not be able to do any A/B testing in content variation or call to actions. Generally, if those exist, they’re extensions or features that come at a cost and again, you’re limited to the construction of prebuilt features.
Also, at most, you own your content and nothing more. Since these enclosed systems are proprietary, you won’t be able to take the editor or CMS from their hosting and move it to new hosting if ever you want to leave. Web files are sent to the client (browser) from the server and the client parses or compiles all of the files and programming into basic html for use and viewing. In other words, every website you see has to be constructed at the time of viewing by your browser. Which means what these companies will give you is your parsed out files if ever you leave. Just basic html and you’re not even given the luxury of receiving a database and so a whole new website has to be rebuilt. In the long run it’s far more costly than having had a developer create one in the first place. A five page informational site, this may not be a very big problem, but ecommerce with a healthy listing of products? A site with deep linking or three or more years of articles? Reconstruction at this point becomes very expensive.
Let’s talk about flexibility for expansion. Not every proprietary CMS company does this, but you might be packaged for 5 to 10 pages and then have to pay for extra as your business needs grow. Your monthly bill will increase, which may be comparable to regular maintenance, but at that point it would make sense to staff someone who can make those changes for you and not be tied down by a web service. There are some companies, such as Hubspot, which actually give a fair amount of control and have taken SEO into consideration. They’re expensive and their customers tend to be very happy with them. In short, companies who pay for Hubspot in particular have made them 3rd party maintenance in order to not have to worry about it in house. If you’re happy with the service and it can be reasonably budgeted, it’s not a bad idea as it means you’ll have a whole team available for your website and they have impressive analytical tools as well. Yet, they still fall under some of the pitfalls. You won’t receive a database if ever you move your site and will only receive parsed out files. You may never need to move, but at least be aware once you’re there, you’re stuck there.
Now that we know some of the issues, what are recommendations? Despite the title of the article, there are various CMS platforms which will do the job well. I have my favored one which I’ll cover, but it doesn’t make it the best; just it has various merits.
Most hosting companies have one click installs. Meaning, even if you don’t want to pay for a developer out of the gate (I feel an article down the road written to persuade everyone about how this is a good idea) with a little bit more research, you can easily make your own basic website and not be trapped into a proprietary CMS. The three big ones are Drupal, Joomla and WordPress. Down the road if you need a developer, they’ll have much more freedom to do what you need with these platforms.
Drupal and Joomla both have user interfaces which are built more in the way a developer thinks. Things are broken up into blocks and modules which after time the average user can make sense of but it takes a little bit longer to understand how to compose a site when you’ve never been exposed to the structure. Many developers like both of these systems because of how similar they are to site structure. Basic changes are easy to make and so in house maintenance becomes much more quick to manage. Since this means you have server access, you can make any necessary changes for SEO required to get you visible on the web.
My favorite, of course, is WordPress. It’s major flaw is it has a tendency for bloat. If you need some functionality added to your site it’s often easy enough to search for a plugin, which are easy to install and get working simply. However, many don’t take the time to deactivate plugins they aren’t using and delete them, making them security risks. As they don’t get used, they don’t get updated and vulnerabilities are exploited. However, this is also a concern in Drupal and Joomla, but since it’s a little harder to configure plugins, they’re not installed without consideration to the actual necessity. The same goes for themes. You can easily pick and install thousands of themes right from your site dashboard and if they don’t get deleted if they’re not being used they become vulnerabilities.
From an end user standpoint, there’s far better documentation on how to use WordPress and the dashboard is built more in the mind of a user, not a developer. My clients have far less issues working with WordPress in my experience than the other two and even others. Most questions can be answered with a quick Google search meaning they don’t have to wait for their developer to get through their inbox and can leave the heavier lifting for when it matters. We’ve found, here at Online Image, it’s very easy to fit for SEO standards and even to use in A/B Testing.
Mostly, if you ask a company if you can move your site at any time and the answer is no, or they’ll give you parsed files, I’d recommend you reconsider.