Understanding Web Content Management Systems

Here are short (one-minute) videos with Boots Road's Spencer Critchley explaining what a web content management system is and how to choose the right one for your website or web app project, whether it's going to be small, medium or large. (Find transcripts below.)


What is a Content Management System?

If you’re planning a new website, you may have heard that it should be based on a CMS, or Content Management System. Here's what that means.

When the web started, each web page was created by writing some HTML code and saving it as a file. The page couldn’t change unless someone changed the file. And not many people knew how to do that.

A content management system, though, lets anyone create or change a web page, assuming they have permission. And it’s about as easy as filling out a form.

That’s because a CMS site isn’t just a collection of HTML files. It’s more like a program that makes pages, kind of like Microsoft Word. You can type in your text and add your images, and the CMS does the work of turning it all into a page.

So you don’t have to know anything about HTML or other technical stuff. If you can fill out a form, you can create or edit a web page.

How to Choose a CMS, Part One

You can figure out which CMS to use by making a series of choices. First of all, closed source, or open source.

Closed source means you can't get access to the underlying source code. Most software that you pay for is closed source, because that's how the software makers protect their intellectual property.

Open source means you can get access to the source code, and even change it if you want. A surprising amount of the software that runs things is open source. For example most web servers run on open source software. Open source software is also usually free.

You may want to pay for a closed source CMS if it offers features you can't easily get otherwise. For example, at the low end, the CMS may make it really easy to build a simple site yourself, like Squarespace or Wix does. Or at the high end, the CMS may have features specific to your industry that are hard to get another way.

On the other hand, a good open source CMS, for example Drupal or Wordpress, can give you greater flexibility. You won't be at the mercy of one vendor, your developers will be able to customize the site at will, and a worldwide developer community will constantly be improving the CMS. And because the underlying software is free, more of your investment can go into designing exactly the site you want.

How to Choose a CMS, Part Two

Once you've chosen between a closed source or open source CMS, the question becomes which one suits you.

You choose closed source because you're willing to pay extra and to give up some freedom in exchange for getting a specific need met. So let that need guide you. If the need is to create a simple site yourself, try out the leading options for that, like Squarespace, Wix, or Weebly, and see which one suits you best. The risk is low.

Or if your site needs to have exotic features specific to your industry, your options will probably be limited. Still, if the stakes are high, get expert, objective advice.

You choose open source for flexibility, freedom from vendor lock-in, continuous improvement by a large developer community, and possibly to save some money. The two leading open source options are Drupal and Wordpress. There's a lot to say about both, but in a nutshell, Drupal is more of an enterprise platform: it's extremely powerful, but building a Drupal site may require advanced skills. Wordpress can do a lot, too, but it's optimized more for small and medium-sized sites, and in these cases it may be easier and faster to build a Wordpress site.