By Larry Alton
Modern, user-friendly websites make it easy for webmasters, marketers, and entrepreneurs to edit their website layouts on the fly. With a few simple clicks they can update design elements and content alike. But website ease-of-use doesn't just happen; in their traditional state, websites exist as complex bundles of code. So what bridges that innate complexity with intuitive ease-of-use? Enter the content management system.
A good CMS makes it possible to edit sites in a more intuitive fashion; it's the integral component responsible for what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) editors and well-designed interfaces.
In his article CMS Web Builder Basics, Tim Brown explains that the average CMS consists of two main components.
- A content management application (CMA) that lets website owners make edits to content and layout in a navigable interface
- A content delivery application (CDA) that translates those edits into website code
These two applications work together seamlessly to provide the typical functionality of a CMS. "OK," I hear you cry. "That's all well and good. But what makes one CMS better than another?"
What to Look For in A CMS
You can choose from literally dozens of different CMS platforms, and all of them have their own advantages and disadvantages. Here are seven features to consider when buying a content management system.
- The range of customization: Make the level of customization one of your top considerations. How much of your website will the CMS platform let you edit—directly and easily? A CMS that lets you update the written content is a given, but will it let you add widgets? Can you change the shape and the color of the layout? How quickly and easily can you do so? What other advanced options are available?
- User-developed customization: You may also want to pick an open-source CMS platform that lets you add user-developed customizations. This is especially helpful if you have an in-house developer who can create plugins or widgets specifically for use within your own organization. If you don’t employ such a person—but still want specialized features—you can look for a CMS platform with a large community of users who develop and promote different add-ons and capabilities.
- Available technical support: If you lack technical experience—or if you don’t have a dedicated IT resource—you definitely need a platform that offers technical support. If you have trouble updating a certain component of your site, you can't afford downtime. You need technical help to get you—and your website—moving and back on track immediately. Some CMS platforms offer tech support for free, but others charge for that service. Do your homework and understand what you get and how much it will cost.
- Ease of use: Don’t discount the value of a CMS platform's subjective appeal—especially if you plan to have other people using the system. Invest the time to play around with the system's back end (Most CMS platforms offer free trial periods. Use them). Are the features intuitive? Is it easy to understand how to make changes, and to see how those changes play out? Or is it complicated? Will it require more investment in help and other resources?
- Search engine optimization (SEO) : Most modern CMS platforms offer some degree of pre-loaded SEO, automatically building your site in a way makes it possible for search engines to index your website. This is an essential feature, even if you’re not pursuing an on-going SEO campaign (and if you're not, you should be). Do your research and make sure that the CMS platform you choose provides suitable SEO optimization options.
- Permissions and access: If you plan to have multiple people accessing the CMS, you need to choose a platform that offers multiple permission levels. This feature lets you designate yourself as the head "admin," allowing you to edit anything on the website. It also lets you assign lower-level access to other team members. For example, you can assign individuals access only to certain sections of the site.
- Total cost: Many CMS platforms don’t cost anything while others are conditionally free. They give you the option of using the CMS free of charge with a handful of extra features that require payment. Depending on your needs and your budget, cost could be a major point of consideration. Those extra bells and whistles might be worth the extra money—if you’re investing heavily in your online strategy. Be sure to weigh the features carefully. You can always add them as your company needs change.
These tips should help you select a CMS platform that works for your business. Whatever else you do, don’t take this decision lightly. If you plan on being in business for a while, you will rely on this system to manage your website for years. While it's possible to transition to a different CMS, it can be a headache; especially if you have to train others on the new system. Take your time, evaluate your options carefully, and only commit when you’re confident in your decision.
Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter.
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