The web is littered with articles comparing CMSs and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each. Though helpful at the time, these articles can quickly become outdated and may, through no fault of their authors, lead you astray.
So rather than focus on particular content management systems, this article will highlight some key areas in which you, as the webmaster or decision-maker, should concentrate.
1. Ease of Use
Many would quibble with the positioning of ease of use as the first big item to take into consideration, but if you’re shopping for a CMS, odds are you’re doing so in part because less computer-savvy people are going to be adding to and editing the content of the site.
If these people have trouble with these basic tasks, your CMS will become more of a hindrance than a help.
It’s hard to talk about ease of use without mentioning the editor, as this is the part where most users of the CMS will be spending the bulk of their time. Some CMSs use editors, which allow the user to change every aspect of the appearance of each page. Though this may sound good in theory, in practice, it can cause problems.
Most sites like to maintain a standard style throughout all pages. If users are allowed to change the basic layout and appearance of each page they edit, your site can quickly end up looking like it was thrown together overnight and not carefully created with a standard style.
For sites that encourage creativity, such as community sites that allow each user to have a blog with a page layout of their choice, the ability to completely change the look of a page may be an asset, but for sites where users want to quickly write information and include bold, headlines, pictures, etc. without changing the basics, look for an editor which preserves the style and layout while allowing the user to format the content the way he or she wishes.
The other necessity of a good editor is that it easily allows for the attachment of pictures, videos, and documents to a page. Not only should it handle the most common file formats, such as .avi, .flv, .jpg, .png, .pdf, .doc, and more, it should allow the user to include a description with each file they upload.
If the user uploads an image, it should be easy for them to include an “alt” tag. These requirements are not particularly robust, so you should have little problem finding a CMS that either includes such an editor outright or allows you to replace the existing editor with one that does meet these standards.
1.2. Back End
To the average user, the back end of a CMS can be a daunting place. They’re almost expecting to have a hard time finding and modifying the setting they need, and in many cases, this turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it need not be this way.
There are several CMSs specifically designed to minimize clutter and confusion on the back end. If you’re running a blog or a small site with minimal features, do yourself and your users a favor and select one of these basic CMSs.
If you need additional functionality, such as e-commerce, be sure the CMS you pick has enough user levels so that page authors and designers will have access to only the areas they need. This will prevent them from getting lost in the wilderness of your backend and accidentally altering a vital setting.
The organization is the key to a good back end. Even if a user isn’t particularly savvy, if the setting they’re looking for is in a logical place compared to other settings of the CMS, there’s a good chance they’ll find it without much trouble.
But there are some back ends out there that, while they may offer impressive customization options, will thoroughly confuse anyone not well-versed in the system. Unless your system is used almost exclusively by advanced users, you owe it to yourself and your users to choose one with a logical back end that not only groups things in a rational manner but refers to items uniformly throughout the interface.
For example, if a page is referred to as such in one place but as a node somewhere else, your average user is going to wonder which is which and will probably ask you or your support personnel for help. There are several CMSs out there that adhere to this principle, so you should be able to find one that’s perfect for your particular needs.
Content management systems vary widely as to the number of roles they offer.
For instance, an ideal CMS would have several roles pre-defined: administrator, module editor (who has complete access to each module but can’t edit the most sensitive settings,) page editor (who can edit individual pages but can’t customize the look and feel of the site,) designer, (who can change the template but may not be able to edit the content,) and graphic artists, (who can add pictures or video to any page but can’t edit the content.)
This may be overkill for what you need, or it may not offer you fine enough control. The bottom line is that you need to ensure that the CMS you end up with gives you the ability to customize several permissions based on your particular situation. If you have a simple blog, these more complex roles may not be necessary.
2. Feature Set
Choosing a CMS based on its features is always a tricky proposition. You’re trying to plan for future growth without saddling yourself with excess baggage you’re never likely to use.
The first step in this process must be to make a list of your requirements. You’d be surprised how many webmasters and other decision-makers fail to do this. But you should look at this as you would any other project, whether you’re writing a new application or buying a new computer.
In this case, the question is: What are you going to do with this CMS? Is it primarily a blog you’d like to eventually expand into a complete web presence? Are you selling products online? If not now, is this a possibility in the future? How many users are going to contribute to this CMS, and at what level? You get the idea.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that every CMS out there will let you organize pages the way you see fit. In fact, some blogging platforms assume you want things sorted by date and don’t allow you to change this behavior. This is fine if you’re building a blog and only a blog, but if you plan to expand, you’re going to want a CMS that gives you more control.
Now for some things you might not think of. Are you going to need multilingual support? If it’s something you think would be nice, remember that you or someone is going to have to provide this content. Translators are notoriously inaccurate, so don’t expect to simply be able to run site content through one of these to create a multilingual site.
Will you conceivably be launching another website in the future, whether it’s related to your current site or not? Most CMSs offer multiple-site support, and this is something you should take advantage of in most cases. This way, when you launch your next site, you’re already familiar with the system, and you can bring other people up to speed quickly.
A search feature is a search feature, right? Sadly, no. There are some CMSs that rip through pages and display results quickly while allowing you to customize their order and appearance. Then there are some that lack both functionality and speed.
Remember, the search function is used by many people as soon as they come to your site. You don’t want them skulking away in disgust because your search engine made it too difficult for them to find what they wanted.
In short, when it comes to your search engine, you’re looking for thoroughness, speed, limiting ability, and customization. If it can search through uploaded files as well, so much the better.
There are CMSs out there that allow you to customize every last aspect of how they create and display pages, and there are those that keep all of this hidden from even the savviest programmers. Which one you go with depends largely on you or the person who will be charged with maintaining it.
Some systems put out sloppy code and don’t offer you a way to change that. This can not only damage your search engine ranking, but it can cause your site to be inaccessible to those using alternative technologies in order to access it.
Clean code is one of the keys to a solid CMS. If the CMS you like in every other way doesn’t serve pages in a manner you like, that’s ok as long as it allows you to get in there and change this behavior.
Some systems offer plugins to do this, many of which are designed to better optimize your pages for search engines. These work well, and accessibility aids will also benefit from this optimization. There are several more customization options you should look for when choosing a CMS, and many have to do with search engine optimization.
4. Search Engine Optimization
Speaking of SEO, this is another key aspect to investigate when choosing a CMS. SEO goes beyond putting out standard code; it also includes several aspects of the page layout to which a CMS may not conform:
Probably the most important SEO tweak your CMS will need is the functionality to create URLs based on the title of a page. Even better, some CMSs allow you to create a custom URL for each page on your system, which you can load with appropriate keywords.
Make sure your CMS allows you to input descriptive page titles and also lets you customize the titles of pages for each section of the site. For instance, you might want your blog to have titles like “<SITENAME> <TITLE OF BLOG ENTRY>” while your e-commerce SECTION has pages entitled: “<YOURSITE> <Product-name>.”
Customized Meta Tags:
Your CMS should at least allow you to customize the meta description and robot tags of each page to ensure the description includes helpful keywords and that pages that shouldn’t be indexed are not.
Other Custom Tags:
There are many situations when you don’t want a crawler to follow a particular link, in which case you’d use a “nofollow” tag to indicate as such. Some CMSs don’t allow for this level of customization. You also want to ensure that your CMS uses heading tags to denote headlines in page content, as these are particularly helpful when search engines index a site.
Customized Site Structure:
Ideally, a CMS will let you group the site into whatever categories best suit your content. This will allow crawlers to navigate your site in the most logical way possible and translate into higher search engine rankings.
Sometimes, you’ll have pages that become outdated or are moved to a more logical location inside your CMS. When this happens, your CMS should automatically redirect from the old page to the new one. Surprisingly, some CMSs lack this feature.
Optimizing a CMS for search engines can be a full-time job, but if your CMS supports these basic features, your site will be at least fairly well-optimized for ranking on the major search engines.
In The End
After all this, you’re probably a bit overwhelmed with the sheer variety of choices available to you when choosing a CMS. If you make that list of requirements, the process becomes a bit more manageable.
Also, whenever you get the opportunity, try out your desired functionality on other sites. Put search engines through their paces. If you have editing permissions on some sites, give their editors a thorough going over to see if they offer all the functionality you need.
Lastly, if you have the time and resources, install one or several on a test machine and see what happens. If you are managing a small to the medium-size site, you don’t need to pay for your CMS, so feel free to try each one that makes the grade as far as your requirements are concerned.
More often than not, you’ll run across one that simply feels right to you; it’s easy to use, flexible but not convoluted, has a great editor, and is easy to optimize for search engines. Choosing a CMS is a critical decision for the future of your website, so take the time to give it all due consideration.