Web Design Articles

What is a Content Management System?

By Adrian Stein

Back in the early days, if you needed a website, a web designer would build a whizz-bang HTML website for you, ask you for the content, and put it all together in a nice, neat bundle. Down the track, if your phone number changed, you'd need to contact the web designer again to make the change.

Editing HTML files requires a bit of technical knowledge, so it's not something most clients can do. Speaking frankly, this is a great ongoing income for a web designer, as content changes are a pretty easy task and therefore a good way to generate income.

Then came the "Content Management System", or CMS as it is more commonly referred. The idea of a CMS is that anyone with the secure login for the website will be able to log in to make basic content changes via a web interface. So for example, changing the phone number on your website should really be a very simple task that takes a minute or two, and requires very little technical knowledge.

Using a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor which is directly embedded into the website, you would also be able to create an entire page of content which includes all the most common text formatting (e.g. bold, italic, headings, etc.).

Static vs. Dynamic

The first type of website is called "static" because it is unchanging - the site consists mostly of HTML files, and to change the website, the files would need to be physically edited and re-uploaded to the server.

A content managed site, on the other hand, is known as "dynamic" because it is constantly changing. Rather than editing HTML files to make updates to the website, all the data for your site is stored in a database. Technically speaking, this is a much more efficient way of storing, referencing, and delivering information. Using more advanced web programming languages, an interface is built that allows you to make changes to the database directly via the web. Typically, the actual design for your website is still stored in files, but all of the data is stored in a database.

What's Your Poison?

There are literally thousands of different systems to choose from - from those custom-built systems lovingly hand-crafted by enslaved geeks in agencies, to commercially developed paid solutions such as Magento, Expression Engine, and Business Catalyst, to the incredibly popular open source solutions such as Wordpress, Drupal, Joomla!, and Concrete 5.

Some systems will require a monthly fee, others will be "open source", community-driven solutions which will always be free. Personally, I would steer away from any CMS developed by a single agency or web development company, as you'll always be beholden to them for upgrades. It's also important to consider what will happen if that company goes bust, or decides to triple their prices.

Paid solutions such as Business Catalyst or Magento are good, but being a packaged system, I generally find them too inflexible and difficult to customise. In Business Catalyst's case, the website is actually stored on their server, so your website is not portable and you have very little access to the files.

For this reason, I usually choose to develop using open source solutions such as Drupal or Wordpress. Despite being community-driven systems, they are very widely used and supported, and there is a fantastic community of developers worldwide. There are also no ongoing fees, so there's no financial pressure. Being open source, there's a huge scope for customisation too - so a talented developer can achieve anything! Another key point is that if (God forbid) your web developer was hit by a bus, you'd easily be able to find a replacement. Alternatively if you weren't happy with them for one reason or another, you could easily shop around!

CMS Envy

There are no two ways about it, a CMS driven website will cost more than a static website to set up. However, in the long run you'll save valuable dollars, because you won't need to come running back to your site developer every time you need to make a change.

Depending on how advanced your Content Management System is, you may also be able to create and delete pages, run a blog, manage website users, create custom content types, send HTML newsletters, and manage an ecommerce store, just to name a few. The sky's the limit when it comes to a CMS, and with technology changing send so rapidly, it's exciting to think what's around the corner!

Blackbird Solutions specialises in content managed websites, so whether it's a simple 5-page website, or a fully-blown ecommerce store, we've got the solution for you. Find out more about our content managed websites.