It’s a question that often comes up: which web content management system is the best? Or, just as commonly, which is better out of CMS A and CMS B?
The answer is always going to be: it depends. Disappointing, eh? But it’s worth looking at the main factors involved in making a decision, all the same.
1. What changes?
Different content management systems have different capabilities. Most enforce a level of separation of content from presentation. This makes life simpler for many applications such as blogs and forums, in which you don’t want users to interfere with page layout. (Typically page layout is defined by some sort of templating system which requires additional skill to work with, and access to it is denied to general users). The content entered by users is filtered to remove HTML elements which may corrupt page layout or compromise security. Some users may not be able to enter HTML directly at all, instead being restricted to a special template code such as BBCode or Wiki Markup.
Template-based systems have disadvantages when it comes to sites where page layout is itself subject to frequent change, such as on large e-commerce sites where fine control over placement of items on a page is often required. One solution may be to permit skilled designers to enter a less restricted subset of HTML on such pages.
Questions to ask
- Is what changes highly structured? Examples of such data include product catalog entries, bibliography records. Some CMSs are better than others at handling structured data. Strongly hierarchical data may be particularly challenging.
- What HTML filtering and translating features are available? Many CMSs nowadays come with a “wysiwyg” editor to help unskilled users enter rich text without needing to know HTML: can the editor on offer be customised for your particular needs?
2. What’s the process?
Large commercial CMSs generally provide very sophisticated tools to manage the process of authoring and publishing content, because there may be many individuals involved with different rights and responsibilities. Such tools will be completely over the top for smaller sites, where often there is only a handful of people involved in maintainance of content.
A key function that may be required is the ability to record and display revisions of content.
Questions to ask:
- Can the CMS be configured with the processes you require? A simple example of a process: author writes article, editor is notified, editor edits article, editor schedules publication.
- If you need revision handling, how good are the facilities provided?
3. What skills are needed?
In building and maintaining a CMS-based site a range of skills will be required. Some will be specific to the CMS in question, some will be much more general skills such as the ability to write HTML or CSS. It may make sense for you to choose a CMS more on the basis of the skills of your staff than the functionality it provides, if the alternative would be excessively costly.
Questions to ask:
- Is programming knowledge required to configure the site? Will maintainance of the site require programming skills?
- Is the level of HTML knowledge needed to create content appropriate for the skills of your users?
- Does the CMS require any special skills not widely available?
4. Proprietary or open source?
The trade-off between open source and proprietary solutions is generally (though not always) that the proprietary software may be easier to use because of investment in user interface design, whereas open source is cheaper to obtain support for when you need it. If you are considering a proprietary solution that does not have a wide user base you may be putting yourself at risk, since if the supplier fails it is unlikely anyone else will come along to support it.
Questions to ask:
- How many people use this CMS? (That will give you an idea of how easy it’ll be to find someone to support it.)
- Will you have access to the programming code?
- What sort of license is the CMS supplied under?
5. Yes, but what is the BEST CMS???
There’s no such thing. Drupal is great for all sorts of sites, but it certainly isn’t the right answer to every requirement. It cannot compete with Plone for sophisticated workflow definition, for example.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of web content management systems, but there are some useful resources around to help you make the decision. You can research open source CMSs based on PHP at opensourcecms.com – worth a visit just to learn the range of facilities modern CMS software can offer.
If there’s a good number of sites comparable to yours running on a particular CMS, that’s a good start. Take advice both from site owners as well as developers. Both have different, but invaluable, perspectives on the issue. Try out software as much as possible and never believe the hype!