The evolution of content management systems
When I was in college (in the '90s), one of my operations classes talked about the magical potential of mass customization. The underlying principle of the class was the operational efficiency that customization brings to the production system. In the same way that customization streamlines the production process, a tailor-made content management system (CMS) can dramatically reduce the design and development costs incurred by even small changes to a company's site.
In an ideal world, organizations would have maximum customization capabilities without the risk of degrading the integrity of their site. However, typically as efficiency is maximized, its customization capability is inversely impacted. In reality, such a perfect system does not exist, and either integrity or customization must, to some extent, be sacrificed. Instead of arbitrarily compromising either trait, companies should consider the appropriate CMS philosophy that best suits their content management needs.
Software-as-a-service (SaaS) CMS
One of the biggest strengths of a SaaS CMS is the strength of infrastructure building blocks that are provided to the end user. Instead of requiring employees who aren't technologically savvy to alter the fundamental basis of the CMS, installing, configuring, and hosting the SaaS are managed through a SaaS firm or their hosting provider partner.
These systems also usually have a ton of tools and features for users to build and configure their site -- without requiring an in-depth understanding of the CMS. This makes it easy for non-technical users to get a site up and running quickly. It also makes it much easier for non-technical users to administer and manage the site.
- Design constraints: Frequently, there are creative and/or usability constraints within the system. Obviously this has significant implications for ultimate control of the CMS, but some firms will sacrifice design and ease of use for efficiency. However, if conversion and usability are negatively impacted, efficiency accrued on the front end of the project is lost by ineffective marketing efforts post-launch.
- Cost: It is often expensive and might include recurring fees.
- SEO friendliness: Many don't have SEO-friendly features and output random nonsensical URLs.
- Lack of control: With SaaS platforms, the source code isn't available. Hence, customizing the application is either very difficult or impossible. Lack of access to the source code can also prevent integration among online efforts, particularly when using multiple CMSs for different purposes.
- Bad code output: Many of these systems output non-W3C-compliant code. This impacts cross-browser compatibility as well as search engine crawlability.
- Lack of ownership: Often, you don't own your code or even your content. Migration is affected: It can be painful and/or virtually impossible.
Popular SaaS content management systems: A movement away from SaaS CMS platforms has emerged as a recent trend, however some have continued to enjoy success. Microsoft's SharePoint defied critics by remaining popular -- a particularly noteworthy feat given that many would argue it's not really a content management system. However, the fact is that its user management is powered by active directory appeals to many corporations. The line between hosting platforms and content management systems is likely to continue to blur, given SharePoint's success.
Another emerging (or reemerging) SaaS CMS is CM4all. The most recent version is vastly improved and has attempted to increase its market share by partnering with hosting companies. Unlike SharePoint, the CM4all target audience is truly the small office/home office communities, allowing them to quickly and affordably launch a web presence.
Free/open source CMS
Over the past few years, free, open source CMS platforms generated the most buzz and adoption by a wide margin. Given that they are free, offered with extremely easy installation options, and are open source, it is easy to see why they have become increasingly popular with many people.
As an added bonus, once the sites are built, both tech-savvy and tech-less users can handle the administration and management.
Another advantage some of the most popular open source CMS platforms have is the ability to install themes. Assuming you can find a customizable theme appropriate for your organization, design costs and your project timeline can be dramatically reduced
Offering developers access to the source code enables code customization to meet their needs, and has seeded the theme/plug-in community, making adapting open source CMS far easier than its comparable SaaS counterpart. Moreover, "open source" means more than simply exposing the code. It is also a philosophy, and the open source connotation draws developers and users for reasons beyond functions or features.
- Technical know-how requirements: Free/open source CMS platforms typically require a high level of technical acumen to customize, build, and modify plug-ins.
- Limited customization: Despite the fact that the source code is exposed, the systems were built with a typical audience and/or functionality in mind. Even though customization is possible (with plug-ins and/or editing the code), sometimes it's easier to build exactly what you need, particularly for complex sites. El Caminos are cool and all, but most people either need a truck or a car.
- Plug-in quality: There are thousands of plug-ins available for popular open source CMS systems, but they are not always of high quality; and since they are usually developed by individuals, there might not be any support available. You often have to download several similar plug-ins to find one that works well, or does close to what you want it to do. Even then, it might not be an exact match for your needs.
- Blog-origin: This applies mostly to WordPress, but many organizations try to morph WordPress (which is a blog platform, technically) into a website CMS. This can done, and works well for simple sites. But as sites get more complex, WordPress can be an awkward solution.
- Lack of support: Most open source CMSs rely on online forums and knowledge bases to provide support. Since the software is free, there is rarely someone knowledgeable you can contact to get useful support and assistance for your site. You're left to the mercy of forum posters and their willingness to help from the goodness of their hearts.
Popular, free/open source content management systems
WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are the big stars of open source CMS platforms. Typically a user will purchase a hosting plan that supports the platform they want to use, but these are the three most frequently offered. Specialists have emerged to host particular platforms: Companies such as ANHosting (Drupal hosting) and Media Temple have earned their reputation by providing the best hosting available for their chosen platforms.
Internal, custom-built systems
Custom-built CMS systems are perfect for firms with highly complex needs and substantial resources available to design, maintain, and update the CMS. Obviously, the biggest strength of a custom CMS is that it's built specifically for an organization's unique business requirements, and from the onset design, it is intended to accommodate the specific needs of the company commissioning the CMS.
In my experience, the vast majority of organizations don't have a need for a truly custom-built content management system. For the small segment for which a custom-built CMS is appropriate, the inherent and unique requirements of the company support the cost of building and maintaining a personal system. Reasons include intellectual property drivers (a new and unique web application), security concerns, and/or integration or back-end requirements that make the cost and benefit of integrating a third-party system impossible.
- Lack of CMS expertise: Many firms love the idea of internally creating a CMS, but they overestimate the past experience of those who have been building or integrating CMS platforms for years while underestimating the complexity of CMS development. Similar to e-commerce, there are some best practices and modules such as user management, publishing capabilities, and file management that have been perfected. Rebuilding these from the ground up can be a monumental task.
- Scalability: Often, CMSs built internally fail to accommodate future changes. They tend to be built for the moment -- based on existing requirements. CMS platforms built by third-party organizations cultivate future versions, which are often already in the planning stages and have version control, third-party modules, upgrade paths, and more available. Additionally, if a small internal team builds the CMS, and that team disbands over a few years after the initial CMS completion, the company is left with a CMS that no one understands. Trying to make upgrades or enhancements two years down the road could present a huge burden for a new team, particularly if the original builders are no longer involved.
- Usability: Not all internally built CMS applications have this issue, but it's been my experience that the vast majority do. IT departments generally focus on functionality and technology. I've seen more than my share of internally built CMSs that no one can use but the IT department, a blatant contradiction of the purpose of a custom CMS.
Being completely transparent, our firm (Nebo Agency) has a CMS that falls in this category. That being said, it's probably not possible to be completely unbiased. However, I will try my best to give a neutral assessment of customized frameworks.
As a simple explanation, customized frameworks usually have the benefits of an open source CMS combined with the benefits of a custom CMS. This means there is a library of code and functionality that has been developed, tested, vetted, and is support by an agency or development firm, but is customized for an organization's specific needs.
However, when using a customized framework, features can be turned on or off, or made available based on an organization's unique requirements. Moreover, upgrade paths, organizational support, and usability are typically a given.
- Lack of development community support: Unlike its open source counterparts, an agency or development firm typically offers these solutions. Hence, there typically isn't a community to support the platform with third-party modules or applications.
- Open source issues: If the code isn't delivered in open source format, some of the same SaaS CMS issues might apply. Customizing the application could be difficult and site migration might pose challenges.
- Organization strength and reputation: Customized CMS frameworks tend to be as good or bad as the agency or firm that builds them. A firm without a strong reputation in design, usability, and development probably isn't going to build an amazing CMS framework.
One-time, licensed CMS
One-time licensed CMS software is designed to allow the organization take control of security and hosting, while providing a SaaS that fits the unique needs of your company. One of the biggest benefits to one-time licensed CMSs is that it permits your IT department to run the code on their servers, with familiar security programs. If security is a major concern for your organization, a one-time licensed CMS is a viable solution.
Additionally, there is typically a one-time, up-front fee that is paid instead of recurring payments. You'll save money by sanctioning CMS management to your qualified IT department, rather than relying on the customer service of the software company. A medium-sized company with a robust and experienced IT department doesn't necessarily require a complete SaaS CMS solution.
- Support agreements: Many one-time, licensed CMS systems will only offer certain support with higher priced packages. You might receive email support, but not phone support in a package. If your IT department isn't as well versed in CMS systems, you might not be able to receive the support you need.
- Lack of customization: You'll need to be selective of the CMS software that fits your organization before committing. More often than not, the one-time licensed CMSs do not provide many a ton of customizable options like modules. There are a few exceptions, such as ExpressionEngine.
Popular, one-time, licensed content management systems
Although this CMS-type accounts for smaller niche segment of the CMS realm, it's gaining strength. ExpressionEngine is a popular one-time, licensed CMS provider with its own designers, and it offers community support as well as add-on libraries. A user can choose to purchase the software and incorporate add-ons to customize particular aspects of their CMS.
Self-proclaimed open source CMS Vivvo offers several different packages for professional websites. Offering full disclosure on source code and community support, Vivvo is an open source/SaaS hybrid solution. Moreover, it also offers a range of widgets, plug-ins, and themes to choose from.
At the end of the day, finding the perfect CMS platform for your company requires a complicated, but navigable hierarchal assessment of the features and support you require. CMS platforms are not one-size-fits-all, and buying the snazziest, most expensive option available does not guarantee you are making the right choice. Carefully considering the pros and cons of each CMS alternative, and remembering to plan for the future, is the best strategy for getting a customizable content management system that will serve your needs without leaving you scratching your head.
As a final note, I've included a quick snapshot of some CMS platforms, and the image links to an easy to use table including details and links to even more CMS solutions.
Contributors to this article include:
Kevin Howarth, director of business development
Jennifer Vickery, SEM strategist at NeboWeb
Kimm Lincoln, director of search engine marketing at NeboWeb
Emily McClendon, director of search engine optimization at NeboWeb
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