What is a CMS ?
A CMS or content management system is software residing on a server that distributes content as requested by browsers connected to the network. There are two main types: the corporate internal documentation CMS - an advanced fileserver, in effect - that serves content to computers on a private network; and the web CMS or WCMS. Here, we are only concerned with web CMS, as these are the basis of public webistes.
A web CMS is web server software that creates and manages a website and its content. It runs from a database, and there are no web pages of the traditional type on the server - pages are created by the application (an application = a program or software) as required.
This type of database-driven website is called a 'dynamic' site, as it has the potential to change as needed. Page content is easily edited online, and the changes go live immediately. Therefore a text detail can be changed and published within a minute or two.
The older type of website using HTML pages and similar is called a 'flat' site as it is static - once created, it cannot be changed except by developer input (a developer = a programmer or coder). Most new business websites will use dynamic technology, i.e. databases, as the capability of these sites is so far in advance of the HTML page type.
In essence a CMS, or its direct-sales equivalent, an ecommerce site, is a new form of online business technology. Everything about these new websites is entirely different from the old format, and therefore both new methods and a new way of looking at online business are called for.
A CMS site may have the following features:
- Rapid online text editing
- Rapid insertion of new images
- Extensive vistor interaction
- Easy repurposing of content
- Template-based design, for easy changes
- Content and design do not interfere with each other
- Easy addition of new features
- Unlimited webforms may be used
- Major new functions can be added economically
In fact the range of functions and features is limited only by the special capabilities of the particular CMS chosen.
Functions of a CMS
Content management systems can all publish text and images to the website, but after that, each has different strengths and capabilities. For example, a CMS might be good at publishing rich media, or have extensive ACL ( the ability to assign different privileges to different user groups), or be exceptionally capable with design and display issues. Some are better with very high page numbers, or high traffic, or with a combination of public and private areas and functions like intranet / extranet and web publishing combined. Some function best as publishing tools operated by one person or a small team; others work well as a community or multi-team facility, with many contributors.
It is necessary to precisely define the current and possible future needs of the organisation, before choosing a CMS.
Types of CMS
These website tools can be divided into types: each has a job or group of jobs it is good at. It is a very good idea to identify the tasks your CMS will need to carry out, then choose a suitable product. The wrong CMS is going to cause problems later. Here are some of the most common task outlines and therefore the task groups many CMS address:
- Brochure CMS
- Rich media CMS
- Ecommerce CMS
- Portal CMS
- SME (small and medium enterprise) CMS
- Large enterprise CMS
- Multi-language CMS
- Community CMS
- Micro CMS
- Blog-CMS crossover
This is the most common type: it is simply the equivalent of a colourr brochure for the business. It will probably feature the services, products or business of the owner company.
Rich media CMS
This is an advanced brochure CMS that has the ability to maximise visuals: it will feature more capable handling of images, video clips, streaming video, cross-site visual content and rich presentation. A feature of this type is that it must have many thousands of 3rd party plugins to work well in this area.
This type either has an integral shopping cart or plugins that work well for this purpose. It is designed to maximise the value of publishing content alongside the selling of products.
This is what used to be called an extranet CMS. It can be used in two ways: at enterprise scale, for publishing content across a network of sites; and for smaller businesses as a way to group microsites under one roof.
This is a type of web tool that allows a business to run a high-traffic site with multiple editors and content owners. It normally offers stability, security and safe content handling. A typical function such a CMS has in its core is versioning: this allows mistakes to be made and then rectified later by reverting to an earlier version (without this, edits are final and recovery from a serious mistake is not possible from within the CMS). Versioning also allows a senior content owner to identify who did what and when.
Large enterprise CMS
A large-scale CMS has large costs to match. Buyers have a budget of $50k upwards and often four times this. These applications have extensive functionality and support from the software house. They can be available open-source (or with a basic level provided open-source), but support is always part of the contract as these tools are so complex. Typically they need physical access to the server, and they use middleware as a frontend for the web.
If your business operates across borders then you probably need a central multi-language portal website. This site can stay as a single site for the business, or feed multiple per-country sites. A multi-language CMS is one that has translations for all its basic functions, so that a different language can be offered for all targeted visitors. It will also have ways of managing content in different languages.
These websites are something of a cross between a forum and a standard website. They often have a membership function. They exist around a core community that has an interest in anything from gaming to health issues.
These web tools are designed to be as easy as possible for beginner webmasters to publish content with. They have limited functionality but that is not really a problem. Their place in the web sphere is to offer the same possibilities as a small, simple HTML website did a few years ago but with the ability to allow almost anyone to install and operate it in basic form. Script installers in the hosting account backend allow a one-click install (almost), and a basic CMS of this type allows anyone who can use something like MS Word to publish materials.
Many micro-CMS started as blogs and added some CMS functionality. They became a crossover product. Some, like Wordpress, retain the ability to work very well indeed as blogs while also working as a micro-CMS. Some are still at the crossover stage. In general it is better to use a full-feature CMS for any business purpose as the micro-CMS type is far too restricting; but new users are well-served by these mini CMS types.
If you want a simple test that will tell you if the software is a full-feature CMS, a micro-CMS or a blog-CMS crossover, here it is:
"Does the CMS allow you - without any special arrangements or contortions - to create as many new menus as you like, that can have any name you like, that can have any appearance you like, that will display anywhere on the page you want them to appear, and that can appear on any page or pages you want and not appear on any other page or pages you don't want them on?"
If you answer No to any of these questions, it is not a full-feature ('real') CMS. Most likely it is a micro-CMS or blog-CMS crossover. Be sure to choose the type you need for your business, because once you have invested significant time and money in a web presence it becomes harder to upgrade - the main problem being personal attachment and staff issues, not technical issues. You would probably be surprised how many times we see beginner CMS owners invest substantial resources in completely the wrong software path, often because the general opinion out on the web is that their original choice was the right one or colleagues told them the choice was correct. Then they tell us we are wrong, when we try to point out that their chosen program cannot do what is needed. It can be hard to convince people that 'the web' may be wrong about business policy, because they trust it for information about films, shoes and suchlike. Please be warned.
CMS quality issues
There is a massive range in quality available. This has no relation to open-source (free) software versus commercial software, since some of the open-source systems have the highest quality scores and some of the commercial offerings have the lowest quality. Cost is also not really a factor, as high cost is sometimes accompanied by low quality.
It is hard to work out why quality is so poor in many cases. Here is an example: we received a call from the sales manager of a large and well-known commercial CMS company, asking if we would consider using their product. On investigation we found that the front page of their corporate website marketing the product, and of course using the product, had more than fifty code validation fails. Accessibility testing showed it had major problems both with the software and its implementation. The immediate verdict on quality aspects had to be that the product was sub-standard, the developers had no clue what they were doing, and whoever implemented it would be better employed as a roadsweeper. In essence, the main problem with these providers was that they had no concept of what quality meant and no core process to measure it or maintain it. This is a critical failing in any business; in a business that in essence provides shop windows and revenue generation channels, it is disastrous. The reply to the callback from the sales manager was short and negative.
Unless you make quality your number one priority, your web business will have a tough time ahead. Don't assume other people know anything about this, because clearly some haven't a clue.
Web hosting for CMS is slightly different from that for the older type of website. In particular, hosts need to be more capable and better organised - since the servers need to have more functionality, be more precisely managed, and be more secure. In effect, anyone could host HTML-page websites, but this does not apply to CMS hosting. The general standard needs to be much higher, if only for security reasons. This is because a CMS server needs more software on it, and all server software can be made vulnerable by less-competent hosts.
It is therefore important to choose a good standard of hosting, and the choice should be made from those who specialise in and advertise CMS hosting as a primary facility. The cheapest hosting is not a good idea, due to lower standards, and the likelihood of there being too many websites on the server.
The best quality of shared hosting for CMS has about 50 sites per server; good hosting has around 200 sites per server; and average hosting has 300 or 400 sites per server. The page load time lengthens for every 50 database-driven sites added to a server, and the difference in speed between these server levels is obvious in practice. With more sites on a server than these numbers, a website slows down more, and such hosting is better for personal websites, not business ones.
The security of a dynamic site - one that runs off a database - is directly measurable by and comparable with its history.
There is absolutely no such thing as a fully secure, new CMS (or ecommerce app or forum or blog or wiki). Developers cannot find the security holes in their applications that allow intruders to hack the site - the web finds those for them. Therefore a new CMS is best avoided because it will be exploited. A good CMS is an old CMS that is regularly updated. As a general rule, we don't even look at a website application until it has two years of history; this is because the owners of sites using it are in effect beta testers. Using a new CMS puts you out beyond the bleeding edge: fine if you have nothing to lose.
SEO for CMS
Quality optimisation for CMS websites - because this is in reality what we are talkiing about - is different from HTML site work. That is because the first stages are always technical adjustments to the server and CMS, and the knowledge required for this has little relation to that for standard website SEO.
Content management systems are far more complex than HTML page websites, and the issues are completely different - many issues, if not most, do not even exist in the world of standard websites. It simply means that specialists get the best results.