How to Choose the Right Content Management System
Choosing a content management system (CMS) can be a complex and daunting task. The wide variety of open-source and commercial offerings, and the intricacies of each, can make understanding the ins and outs and the eventual decision far more painstaking than it needs to be.
In our experience with web design and development, having the right team to manage your CMS is often more important than having the perfect platform. Most platforms end up delivering similar features and are capable of producing an engaging and maintainable website. The main differences between the platforms will lie in usability of the backend, one or two specific/niche functions, the level of support on offer and the extensibility of the platform. The key to the decision process is having a clear understanding of what your needs are and what your customer would really engage with, and then working back from there.
There’s quite a bit of detail in this article, and it’s worth reading but if you need the advice in the nutshell, here it is:
Generally, our advice is to start with either an open source platform such as WordPress, Drupal or Joomla, or SaaS platform such as Squarespace or Wix. Once you have a sizeable presence with hundreds of thousands of visitors a month, build upon your open source platform or move to a commercial platform such as Sitecore. A commercial platform will yield the best results if you have a content manager, a data analyst and a reliable set of developers to capitalise on those advanced features.
Keep reading to understand the details and thinking behind this advice, or feel free to reach out for a phone or in-person walk-through.
The ‘what to consider in a CMS’ checklist
Below is a checklist of some of the key decision points we advise our clients to consider:
What are the main features of the website and how do they drive action?
- Here’s what the progression of a website might look like:
- Starting out – your first website is designed to convey information about the brand story, location and drive people to give you a call. Most CMS platforms are built for this, so you are fine with an open-source (e.g. WordPress) or SaaS (e.g. Squarespace) platform (more on that in the next section), and don’t need anything too fancy or expensive.
- Gaining traction – your organisation is growing, so you’d like to add a logged-in users section with some restricted content and functionality to really start building user engagement. You might have to move from your SaaS platform to open source, or you can keep modifying your open-source platform. It’s probably still a little early to look at a commercial platform.
- Building for scale – you’re now hitting some serious traffic (many hundreds of thousands of visitors per month) and need some very specialised features (e.g. user personalisation component, omnichannel integration), support and performance. At this point, you can either move to a higher redundancy/up-time environment for your open source CMS or look to move to a commercial CMS platform.
- Here’s what the progression of a website might look like:
How much budget do I have to invest?
This becomes a pretty simple question when narrowing which CMS you can choose – if you’re in the starting out and gaining traction phases, you want to be spending more of your budget on driving people to the website and improving it than on licensing fees.
Hosting and support also are considerations in terms of cost, as there tend to be much higher server requirements for the commercial products, and higher costs for more specialised support.
Who is going to edit and maintain the content of the website?
Usability and accessibility are huge considerations when choosing a CMS. The person or team maintaining the site will often be overwhelmed with work and will need to get things done quickly when security issues come up or changes are needed.
This varies a lot between platforms. Many of the open-source platforms have extensions that greatly improve the usability and functionality of the core CMS component, which makes them a really good option for a balance between power and usability. SaaS platforms tend to be really good for ‘standard’ content, with many commercial platforms having a slightly less user-friendly backend in favour of more editing-power and advanced content filtering.
Who is going to be able to monitor and analyse the data gleaned from the website?
A major benefit of commercial products is the ability to target on the website and sometimes across channels accurate consumer promotions and information. If you have no one to analyse this data and manage it on a regular basis, you’re not going to get the benefit you’re paying for in your licensing fees.
What support will I need from the vendor/partner?
With most websites, at some point, you are going to need some technical support/advice. SaaS offers the best solution as generally you don’t have to worry about platform issues, you only need support for the actual template and customisation. With open-source, you have a whole range of options, although they can be of varying quality and it can be challenging to find the right partner. With commercial platforms, you can generally find good support from the vendor or an expert in that platform, although you are likely to pay a lot more for it.
A really important note on small commercial software vendors: You need to be careful if you are using a custom CMS developed by a small vendor. Everything starts from somewhere – for example, Sitecore would have started with a handful of clients. However because they control the CMS core and may have certain control clauses in the licensing agreement, you want to make sure you understand the contract, and what will happen if you try to move or there is an issue down the track.
When talking with a partner or vendor, be aware that they will focus on their own technology. It may be obvious, but because most firms specialise in one or two technologies, they will promote those in situations that they may not be best suited to. Make sure you have good referrals from trusted services, that you can get open and honest answers to what the upsides/downsides of the platform are, and that you are not stuck with vendor lock-in or an unmaintainable solution should that vendor disappear.
Do I need eCommerce, highly customised functionality or mobility?
If you are looking at a site with a lot of products, with an extensive workflow or business process, or something that benefits more from real-time communication, you should be looking at an eCommerce, web app or mobile app platform. Remember, a CMS is great for content, but if you are going beyond this you should be considering implementing one of the aforementioned technologies alongside or instead of the CMS.
More on open source vs SaaS vs commercial licensing
- Open source means that the code is (generally) free to review, use and modify as you see fit. This means that you can get very adaptable and flexible technology, improved and maintained by thousands upon thousands of developers around the globe. Open source systems are quite adaptable and have a much wider variety of plugins, making the platform more extensible than a commercial solution, however support and core features don’t come from a single vendor. Open source tends to be adaptable to most types of business and is versatile enough to scale with you as you grow, as long as you have a reliable partner on hand.
- Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is a licensing model where the software you use is delivered without the hassle of managing updates or the hosting environment. This is really great for getting yourself started, and suits small businesses and organisations. However many outgrow these solutions when they try to go beyond the basics of a website/eCommerce experience.
- Commercial products by contrast need to be purchased with licensing and other fees. Once you are paying for the CMS technology, you definitely need to understand the value you are getting – the main drawcard for commercial products are niche features and support SLAs. Commercial products are generally for larger businesses who can benefit from highly advanced functionality (e.g. personalisation of a logged in user experience) and have advanced analytics, IT and performance teams internally
The most popular platforms
Sometimes it can help to just look at what platforms are currently in use when you’re making your decision. Whilst choosing a more commonly used platform isn’t the be all and end all, it does give you another indication of how other companies and organisations have decided to manage their platform.
Below is a set of statistics from the website tracking tool builtwith.com, showing the top CMS technologies used in the top 1 million most-visited sites on the internet vs across all sites on the internet (as on 5 July 2020). Note that there are other sources of this data, and they use different measurement methods (e.g. w3techs.com), so it’s better to look at the general trends rather than specific positions:
|Rank||CMS||Sites in Top 1 Million||Entire Web|
|4||Google Search Appliance||23,367||697,690|
|24||Data Life Engine||3,144||44,809|
A few things of note:
- Not surprisingly, open-source platforms dominate the top three spots and the majority of the rankings. Most use cases are for a content management system that does the job and can be extended as needed, without the bulk and bells and whistles from the start. Even though the figures aren’t here, both WordPress and Drupal continue to feature quite highly in the rankings in the top 10k and top 100k sites as well.A few things of note:
- Squarespace (#7) and Blogger (#8) both feature quite highly in the rankings. Both are SaaS platforms for hosting sites, and show how important ease-of-use is for many users in getting sites up and maintaining them on a regular basis.
- The above statistics don’t necessarily mean that one platform is better than the other – rather, it reinforces the points mentioned earlier about what is most widely accessible to businesses and users online. Having a larger user base also means better community support and more plugins and extensions, giving more versatility to the platform.
Our experience with some of the most popular CMS platforms
We’ve worked with a number of these platforms, researched our own platforms and analysed our clients’ experiences with them. From this, we’ve developed our own views on which we prefer and when we believe they work.
WordPress dominates the rankings at all marks (top 10k, top 100k, top 1m and all sites), and for good reason. There’s an interesting if slightly older opinion on how WordPress overtook its competition – the short story being that WordPress has some of the easiest to use functionality right out-of-the-box, particularly for blogging. Add to that the freely usable open source license, relatively simple install process, and the now staggering amount of plugins offering almost infinite extensibility and you have the easiest-to-use yet still powerful CMS system on the internet. We’re even looking at building a Netflix-like system – heavily composed of connected plugins with minimal customisation, to achieve that.
WordPress does have some issues out-of-the-box in terms of significant scalability in its data model and ability to easily change modules across multiple parts of a site, however, these can be worked around with the right setup and know-how. There’s also the multisite component that allows you to manage multiple sites under one login.
Drupal is another open-source CMS, also based on PHP like WordPress, with a much greater focus on enterprise-level features. Out-of-the-box, Drupal has a more advanced code architecture giving it better performance, strong SEO features, and offers more robust security architecture. From experience though, Drupal is not as simple and easy to use for content teams as WordPress, although this can be improved by installing more editing plugins.
Joomla is an open-source CMS that we have worked with quite extensively. Joomla, in our experience, is a kind of a mix between WordPress and Drupal – it is reasonably easy to use, however, has quite a bit of flexibility through the module system to be able to add and remove sections of the site quickly. SEO though is one of the weaker areas of the out-of-the-box Joomla and requires additional plugins to implement correctly.
Squarespace is a SaaS platform popular with startups and small businesses. Squarespace has a really nice, easy to use backend and even offers a simple logo creator, making it a very easy option for small businesses looking to get themselves online. However, like most SaaS platforms, once you need to look beyond the core functionality (e.g. tiered subscription-based pricing) it becomes much more difficult to extend and customise.
Adobe CQ is a commercial offering from Adobe. Adobe CQ (now part of the Adobe Experience Manager product) offers tight integration with other Adobe tools e.g. Photoshop to be able to build responsive pages and target assets for each platform. Adobe is looking to roll their suite of existing design-focused tools into an online platform and Experience Manager is the next step in that direction, although it comes with a commercial cost. Experience Manager also integrates Adobe’s analytics suite for powerful user tracking.
Sitecore is a commercial CMS technology that’s been on the market for over 16 years. Sitecore has extensive omnichannel capabilities and marketing integration revolving around personalisation and customer tracking, and similar to Adobe CQ/Experience Manager is marketed as owning the customer interaction. Sitecore is based on the ASP.NET platform.
Making a Decision
It always comes down to whatever suits your situation, as a general guide based on how mature your organisation is:
- Starting out – open source (e.g. WordPress) or SaaS (e.g. Squarespace) platform.
- Gaining traction – move from SaaS platform to open source, or you can keep modifying your open-source platform.
- Building for scale – scale your open source CMS, or look to move to a commercial CMS platform.
We’re always happy to talk to people looking to understand the ins and outs of CMS technology, so if you’d like to learn more about these technologies and what choice is right for you feel free to get in touch with our team.