An Overview of Content Management Systems

Anyone who has browsed through the articles featured in this news section may have noticed that they range from basic and easily digestible to jargon-rich, techie articles meant for those with a background in web languages. This article relates to the former and is intended for those with a basic understanding of the web looking to learn more about key concepts in current web design trends or potential customers doing their due diligence. Our apologies for the over abundance of analogies but we find they can be useful in making our industry less arcane.

An Explanation of Content Management Systems

Content Management Systems (or CMS for short) are becoming more and more common for web design and maintenance. Some examples you may have heard of are WordPress, Drupal and Joomla, although there are many others.

CMSs are fantastic tools that allow changes to be made to your website easily and at a fraction of the time it can take to markup and code a website from scratch. This benefits not only the owner of the website, who may know nothing about HTML and CSS, or other web technologies, but is now able to maintain their site without having to always rely on a professional web-designer for every little change. This allows the web designer to fast-track much of the design process as well. The website you are looking at now is built on the Expression Engine Content Management system even though we are capable of building our own CMS from scratch. It's often a better choice to use a thoroughly tested and secure product instead of re-inventing the wheel.

Most CMS offer an intuitive dashboard much like a desktop application to manage the site. Here are two popular dashboards.

The Expression Engine Control Panel New Post Screenshot The Word Press Dashboard Screenshot

The underlying technology behind a site built through a CMS is still markup and code (as in the old days), but the visual editor of the CMS speeds up this process and allows for quicker revisions in the future. Although there may be some extra "up front" work in setting up the CMS, the long-term benefits are substantial and allow the site to easily grow and evolve. And because this underlying code powers the website built on a content management system, the way it looks and the things it can do are endlessly customizable. For example, there is a large market of designers offering custom built themes that can be swapped out with the click of a button to completely change the appearance of your website.

Most web surfers are probably getting pretty good at picking out a "WordPress" site as they've come to subtly identify certain out-of-the box layout commonalities. Because of this, small business owners often assume that a site built on WordPress will inevitably look like a "WordPress" site and fear the site design will not be able to properly capture their unique brand qualities and look without a 'templatized' feel. This is a fair but inaccurate concern as a good designer, provided the right marketing assets and given a reasonable budget will be able to customize a website built on WordPress to an astounding degree. The client is then left with a website that accurately portrays their brand image but is also scalable and easy to update.

The job of a good web designer is to understand the client's needs and objectives and choose the right tool for the job. Site owners who are more hands-off may not need a CMS and will rely heavily on the web designer for future changes once the site is built. Others may want to retain control over changing certain aspects of their site such as the contact number, the photos featured in the gallery or frequently adding content such as blog posts or news entries.

The Work Doesn't End There

Once the web design agency has built the website and passed it off to the client it is often assumed that the relationship ends there; the client takes their website under their arm and goes, so to speak. In some cases this may be true, but what often happens is that conflicts between certain software elements of the CMS arise and the webmaster is called back in to fix the problem. Why does this happen?

One of the greatest advantages of CMS's is the fact that they're open source and thousands of developers are coming up with tweaks and add ons daily to sit on top of the core software. There are add ons to pull in videos from YouTube, or your Twitter feed; to translate your website into a variety of languages, play mp3s, etc. etc. Whatever you can think of, it probably already exists. But because developers of much different skill levels and abilities are releasing (but not always supporting) extensions, this can create compatibility conflicts.

Most CMS-powered websites are built using a combination of the following three elements: Core Software, Themes, and Plugins/Modules.

Think of the Core CMS Software as the chassis and engine of an automobile. It forms the framework for the rest of the car to sit on and powers the motion of the car. The Theme used could be looked at as the body style and paint job. It affects how the car looks to the outside viewer. The Plugins and Modules added to a site are equivalent to optional but very useful things like the car stereo, the AC or shiny alloy rims.

So far, so good. We have a complete new car with a powerful engine, a great looking body and some nice available options. But what happens when the car gets a scratch but the paint manufacturer has discontinued that color of blue, or the Bose stereo your trying to fit into the dash requires a custom made bracket; the alloy rims are too large for the body? This happens all the time in the world of Content Management Systems. And most problematic of all, these elements are constantly being updated by their developers and a lot needs to go right for everything to fall into place and work for any extended period of time.

Although Circulation Studio is proficient with various content management systems we have developed our own WordPress "child" theme and identified a core set of robust and well-supported "go-to" Plugins which together form a more stable and feature-rich foundation for our client's websites. We have also taken into account the SEO prominence of certain elements for a sound structure. We hope to release a future article discussing many common misconceptions about CMSs and SEO.

Should conflicts arise with the site's Theme or Plugins, we are well equipped to communicate with the developer or choose a suitable alternative. We offer custom-tailored and affordable, no-hassle maintenance packages to clients who want to ensure that their site can grow and evolve with web standards and new technologies.

Full Disclosure

There are some great free or low cost blogging tools out there that allow you to do some very sophisticated things with minimal computer skills or prior knowledge of coding. Google's Blogger platform and Wordpress.org offer free web-based content management systems with well-developed and supported feature sets and add ons. Anyone can signup, and within no time, upload a logo, integrate their social media accounts, create a contact form and start blogging! These are great tools and we recommend them to anyone looking to blog about their garden or sons's little league team.

So what happens when a small business owner comes to us looking for something "simple" and "quick, you know... a basic site package..." that they can manage and update themselves only to receive back a proposal suggesting they drop thousands of dollars? Understandably they're left scratching their head and we struggle through an over-the-top technical explanation of just what they're getting, and how it differs from their cousin's cooking blog with that great banner and font.

First, let's try to approach the question by way of analogy... You're a recent graduate of the Paul Mitchell Academy, have just received your cosmetology license and are looking at options to setup shop, develop a client base, get your name out there. The way you see it, your best options are either to rent a chair in an established salon (cheap, low maintenance and little responsibility) or open your own salon (expensive, and stressful but something you'd really love to do).

You start to think about the pros and cons of each scenario. Renting a station by the month is much cheaper, someone else is paying the rent and utilities; the chair itself is new and comfortable and the wash station more than adequate. They've given you a nice rolling countertop to display your cosmetology license and photos of your nephew and dog Arnold. A security guard patrols the premises at night and the shop itself is in a high-traffic part of town and receives a fair amount of walk-ins. This might work.

But you've grown tired of staring at wall art resembling the cover of Duran Duran's Rio and not having control of the radio. When you tell people where you work they think back to the horrible haircut Sebastian gave them the year before. You want to repaint the entire place, tear down a wall and no longer be known as Jane Graduate who cuts hair at a salon called Hair to the Throne. You are ready to take complete control of your brand and image and establish your reputation not just as a stylist in somebody else's salon but as a business owner and trendsetter.

As you might guess, the latter scenario represents building your own website out from scratch professionally. While CMS's such as Blogger are great, inexpensive ways to get started and probably quite adequate for many small enterprises, there are just too many restrictions and limitations to be a viable solution for business owners who really want to take control of their brand and future online presence. Much of these limitations come from the fact that the sites are hosted by Google and WordPress' servers (the hair cutting station is "in their salon", so to speak) so understandably, for security reasons, they can't just have people totally repainting the place and knocking down walls.

The same can be said to a certain degree about out-of-the box solutions such as SquareSpace and other "build your company website in 10 minutes!" type solutions. Again, these might be fine for small businesses who don't require custom branding or don't have the appropriate budget to hire a design agency. But in our opinion, everything worthwhile takes time and foresight so whether you are hiring a design agency or set on using a low-cost, out-of-the-box solution such as the above, we recommend writing out your goals (both short and long-term) and complete online strategy which extends far beyond just getting up a site and liking how it "looks." Only then will you be able to develop a comprehensive web presence that will drive traffic to your website and engage the visitors with well placed calls to action and measurable goals.