“I want to update my website myself” is a commonly-heard plea from site owners who’ve realised that the job of keeping the content of their websites up to date is too important a job to be left to web designers. In this article I’m going to explain why you should consider managing your content yourself and what you might look for in a web content management system (CMS).
Change is part of the nature of the web. Sites that are frequently updated with new content tend to get visited more often than those that don’t. If you are running a business site you may want to update your site for lots of good reasons, such as:
- To promote a new marketing initiative
- To add items of company news
- To rewrite content for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes
If, every time you want to make an update, you have to get your web designers to do it for you, that can be very expensive; and, if they are busy with other work as is often the case, you might have to wait weeks for a simple change.
Web content management systems are intended to make it possible for you, as website owner, to give you control over the update process. For a small company this will typically mean you or your staff doing the changes yourselves; in large companies the process tends to require more bureaucracy and resembles traditional publishing with authors, editors and managers each needing to be involved before a change goes live. For simplicity I’ll talk only about the former case here.
Features of a CMS
What might you expect from a web content management system?
First, practically every modern web CMS gives you a control panel (also called the dashboard, the backend or the administration area) from which you can maintain the site. This control panel is a secured part of the website which may only be used by authorised users: you should ensure before choosing a CMS that it is built securely so hackers can’t easily get in and damage your site or steal data.
Typically a CMS will allow you to maintain your site as a set of different components, so that menus, sidebars, headers and footers, for example, will be maintained separately from the central content of a page.
Index pages – ones which list other pages to make your site easier to navigate – should be generated automatically for you, so when you add new content it will appear instantly in all the appropriate lists.
If those who have to maintain your content don’t understand HTML (the language in which web pages are written), the CMS may give you editing tools which simplify the creation of web content. Indeed, most nowadays provide WYSIWYG editors which make writing web content more like using a word processor.
Most CMSs allow you to add ‘tags’ to content which act as useful topic indexes, so the visitor can, for example, readily list every article about a given subject, such as content management systems.
Other common features include a site search facility, blogging tools, management of multi-media (images, audio and video files), integrated e-commerce, email list handling and member-only areas.
Choosing a Content Management System
There are a lot of web content management systems around, of which there are four main types commonly found:
- Specialist CMSs aimed at large corporates or particular sectors. These tend to be expensive and are only worth considering if you have the demanding requirements they are aimed at.
- General purpose commercial CMSs. Sometimes overpriced for what they offer, sometimes excellent, these tend to be favoured by middle-sized organizations which dislike open source solutions.
- Home-brewed CMSs belonging to web design companies. I would avoid these on the whole because, given these companies’ main focus is not software development, the technical quality and level of support offered is often inferior. If your site is based on such a CMS, make sure you have an escrow arrangement in place so if the supplier ever stops trading you can get support from elsewhere.
- Open source CMSs. There are lots of these, some of which you can find out more about at http://www.opensourcecms.com/. Quality varies a lot, but popular choices include Drupal (my own favourite), Joomla and Plone. WordPress can also be used as a simple CMS – and for basic needs it’s an excellent choice.
My recommendation would be to select one of the widely-used open source CMSs – unless you have very good reasons otherwise – because firstly the total cost of ownership is likely to be lower over time, and, secondly you’ll always have a large number of potential suppliers of support and other services to choose from.
In conclusion, then, a content management system offers the website owner considerable benefits over a traditional static site, offering not only the ability to add new content quickly and often but also many other features to help attract and engage visitors. If you are thinking about getting a new site or upgrading your current one, think seriously about having it built with a content management system. All though upfront costs may be higher, in the long term it could save you money and benefit your business,