Editor’s Note: This article, part 1 of a 2-part series on content management systems, is excerpted from The Designer’s Web Handbook by Patrick McNeil.
Part 2 of this Content Management 101 Series explores e-commerce management systems.
A content management system (CMS) allows an individual or a team to easily manage the content of a website. Some of the core functions and purposes of a CMS include:
- Allow for multiple users to publish and manage content
- Implement workflow permissions and rules to ensure business rules are followed (like editorial reviews and such)
- Reduce repetitive tasks and automate basic features
Consider a blog built on WordPress, for example. The system allows just about anyone with a computer to write and publish content. No special technical skills are required and users need not know any HTML in order to do so successfully.
Before CMSes emerged and became a basic requirement for almost every website, content creators were at the mercy of site administrators who could code and add content. This presented obvious roadblocks to maintaining sites. Now, with many CMSes to pick from, a site’s content can be managed in a much more collaborative and efficient way.
|Confounded or confused by some of the technology that underpins the web? Patrick McNeil deciphers it all in the online design tutorial Web Technology 101, LIVE on Thursday, March 14.|
Types of Content Management Systems
When selecting a CMS, you will find that there are countless options. They range from huge enterprise systems intended to handle multiple sites receiving millions of visitors all the way down to niche systems targeted at the local small business owner.
There are many ways to break down the variety of systems available, and for this section I want to first focus on the difference between hosted and installed systems. The main difference boils down to who is in charge of maintaining the actual CMS software. Keep in mind there is no right answer here; it is simply a matter of fulfilling the needs you have in the best way possible.
Installed (or Self-Hosted) Content Systems
With an installed system, you download the files needed to run the CMS and install it to a web host on your own. So, for example, if you are building a business site on WordPress, you would do the following:
- Download the WordPress software.
- Upload it to your server.
- Run an install routine to set up the system.
It’s a fairly easy process, and you can typically have most any modern CMS up and running in no time. Let’s focus on some of the key implications of running your own installed CMS:
- You are responsible for updates and maintenance.
- You are responsible for fixing any problems—like a hacker breaking in and messing things up.
- You must perform backups and recoveries as needed.
- You have the flexibility to add or do anything to the system you want.
- You can move the system to any web hosting service you choose.
- You have many free open-source systems to choose from.
- Your CMS can typically run on inexpensive web hosting.
- Running your own installed CMS has many upsides to it, like less expensive hosting and oftentimes free software. So, for good reason, countless sites are running on exactly such a setup.
Hosted Content Systems
A hosted platform is one that a content management system developer (such as WordPress) provides to its customers. In such an environment, designers who build websites on these systems don’t have to download or install any software. Typically you create an account and your site is automatically initiated and ready to go. Of course, you still have to design it and create the content, but the work of setting up the actual CMS software is already done for you.
Some things to keep in mind as you consider hosted systems: The software provider handles updates and maintenance of the actual software (not the website itself). The host is responsible for patching holes and preventing hacking. You are prevented from adding functionality or changing the way the system works. Many hosted systems are pre-loaded with extensive functionality. Hosted systems carry higher monthly fees.
Hosted platforms are a great alternative to downloading and installing your own CMS. Certainly most systems like this cost more per month, but they also require far less work to maintain and keep running. This, combined with what is oftentimes a very extensive feature set, makes hosted platforms an option worth considering.
CMS Platforms: Blogs and Static Sites
Content management systems come in all shapes and sizes. There are countless systems out there, some targeted at specific site types, some for small sites and still others made to run multimillion-dollar businesses. We’ll look at a few of the most prominent system types available, so you can be sure to choose a CMS option that matches your needs.
CMS for Blogs
Blogs come with a specific set of needs and there are many platforms intended to cater to them. Fundamentally these systems are intended to handle content that comes in a flow. While most will support static content, the real idea is to allow users to easily generate new blog posts that add to the flow of content. This makes things like content scheduling, tagging, RSS feeds and other fundamental blog features a core element.
The reality is that most blogging engines are equally equipped to handle content far beyond blogging. However, if you need a blog, then you’ll want to select a platform built for blogging.
Some key blogging platforms to consider (this is just a representative list of the big players; other platforms are available):
CMS for Static Content
One of the most common site elements is standard or static content. Let’s say for example you’re building a content site to be the online home for a food product. The content will likely be fairly static. But, this isn’t to say that the site owners won’t want to add new items from time to time. So, the content should be manageable via a CMS to ensure design integrity and ease of maintenance.
As you research a CMS to present this type of content, some of the most important features will include things like:
- Multi-user collaboration
- Editorial workflow features
- Content versions for backups
Here are some of the top contenders for managing standard content:
More resources for web designers
- Your WordPress Problems Solved—online design tutorial with Jesse Friedman
- Designing for WordPress: What You Need to Know—on-demand design tutorial by Jesse Friedman
- Getting Started in Web Design Collection—2 books plus 7 hours of expert instruction on breaking into web design
Don’t miss Patrick McNeil at HOW Design Live as he demystifies Web Hosting for Designers and helps conference attendees create their own career roadmap from Print designer to Interactive designer. Visit HOW Design Live for more information.