“CMS” are software systems that can be installed with a website to let non-coding people change the content. For example, you might want to update business information on a regular basis, manage products in an online shop, publish an online magazine, change your portfolio images, show an events calendar, allow a group of users to log on and contribute, or invite comments from the public.
We have test driven many content management systems, and you can read our reviews of them below. This is a rapidly evolving area of web technology: complex and often infuriatingly poorly documented, but also exciting. First, here is a chart showing the pros and cons of our top six CMS.
The famous open source trio
As of 2012, the best-known CMS are WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. They’re all free and open source, meaning that anyone can download them and adapt them as they want.
Being open source is these systems’ strength – it means they are constantly being deployed and improved by a huge number of users around the world. Being open source is also their weakness because there is no proper quality control, no guarantees.
We’ve tested all three and found that they’re all reasonable in terms of functionality – each is written in the PHP programming language and will enable a website to be built rapidly with dynamic navigation. In terms of usability, each has a somewhat clunky interface and poor documentation.
The problem with the documentation is not the lack of it – indeed there is a vast amount of instruction written about these three systems – but the unordered nature of the instruction, being based in open forums and wiki style entries. We would not advise any of our clients to wade through the mess of open source trying to work it all out for themselves!
WordPress is currently the most popular platform, used on millions of websites around the world. WordPress is the one that designers have gone for, so there is a wealth of existing WordPress templates that look really good “out of the box”. It is the bloggers’ platform of choice – in fact, it opens up in a ready-to-blog mode and takes some fiddling with to set up as a normal-looking website. In the right hands it is highly customisable and suitable for a very wide range of uses. We use it for many of our small business clients. (See our WordPress services page andWordPress demo.)
Joomla is less showy than WordPress on the design front. It also has something of a reputation for slowness and difficulties with site layout. Then again, it should be said that many CMS slow down their websites – a browser needs to parse a vast amount more data on any site with a CMS. On the positive side, Joomla opens as a CMS rather than a blog, and there are plenty of Joomla developers around who happily use nothing but this platform.
Drupal is a modular system popular with many hard-core developers. Being modular is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand you need deploy only the modules that you really need for a site, which makes your website relatively lean and fast. On the other hand, you might need 20 modules even for a small site, and every one of those modules is likely to need updating as time goes by. With technology moving as fast as it is and the whole thing being open source, every individual update opens up the potential for incompatibilities that can break your site. You need a high level of developer support if you want to be on Drupal. (See our Drupal demo.)
There are many commercial CMS available today – hundreds in fact. None is an out-and-out winner in terms of popularity. The prices range from under £50 to upward of £100,000, which gives you an idea of how diverse this branch of technology is.
We’ve looked at a number of lightweight commercial CMS and have found some that we like. Perch is made by a UK company and costs £35 + VAT per site – not per user – with a surprising number of functions for a lightweight system. It’s not an install-and-go platform like WordPress – one builds a working website first then creates areas within the site that users can access to change content or add pages. Though simplistic, the beauty of this and similar systems is in the minimal coding because you have in your site only what you need, no more, no less. We like that. (See our Perch demo.)
Expression Engine also allows a high degree of control over design and layout. It has more functionality than Perch, hence is more costly – currently $299 to install on a commercial site. (See our Expression Engine demo.)
Squarespace has a nice user interface and is a good alternative to WordPress for light business sites and creative blogs and journals, with the cost of hosting included. It is not as customisable as WordPress though. (See our Squarespace demo.)
In the last 18 months or so Magento has become the most popular commercial e-commerce CMS. We’ve worked with the open-source core platform and spoken to people who have set up something – or tried to set up something – on the lighter hosted version, called Magento Go. On the whole, the people who make a success with Magento are those with something simple enough to fit Magento’ s templates and who invest in high-quality content. (See our Magento demo.)
Adobe’s Contribute is one of the better-known offerings on the proprietary market. Contribute is an expense on top of Dreamweaver – currently it costs £225 for a single user. If you want lots of people in your company to have access to your site then you will need a licence for every person. This pricing will be fine for some companies, not for others. If you have an existing site using Contribute that needs updating then, yes, we’ll look at doing it, but we’re unlikely to suggest building you a new one using Contribute.
Umbraco is a system worth mentioning. Its base is open source but you can pay for support and tuition on it – currently €3000 (that’s the cost for the developer not the end client). We know a couple of agencies using this system. It uses the .NET language which is less widely used than PHP.
As CMS systems get heavier – allowing for more functions and scenarios, with built-in security and complex behaviours for different types of users – so the cost and coding naturally increase. If there’s a commercial CMS that costs X but has only 50% of the functionality one wants, the rest has to be custom built. If the commercial CMS has all the functions one needs but also a hundred things that one doesn’t need in the background being parsed needlessly by the browsers then that’s a waste. Therefore one always has to weigh up the pros and cons of a heavyweight commercial system with a custom built system.
Custom built systems
Many digital agencies develop their own content management systems from scratch and adjust them to the needs of individual clients. This makes perfect sense in many ways – the developers use the programming languages they’re happiest with, there’s no quagmire of documentation to wade through, and the client gets a tailored CMS and all the backup they need to use it.
Nothing’s perfect in web developing though. A potential drawback is that a custom-built system may not be very portable. The client may find they are locked into an agency because no-one else understands their system. Likewise, the agency may find it hard to recruit developers for their unique system.
We have not found the perfect CMS yet, but the industry is rapidly changing and it may be that much better CMS solutions will emerge in the next few years. Of course, there is probably never going to be a single CMS that will work universally well for every client. Therefore, we assess each client’s individual needs and work out what’s best out of the currently available systems.
For some clients we may in fact advise against using any kind of CMS, no matter how “buzzy” it all sounds. If you don’t need to update your site very much, and it doesn’t require any “server-side” functions, then there’s little point having a CMS – it’ll slow down your site without any gain.
In conclusion, with the state of CMS offerings in 2012, we are most likely to advise clients to have either an open-source or lightweight proprietary core, such as WordPress, with customised add-ons as needed.