The Benefits of a Solid Content Management System
By Mike Tekula (c) 2008
In the early days of the web most sites consisted of a handful of HTML pages. For smaller sites, it made sense for webmasters to use programs like Microsoft Front Page and Macromedia (now Adobe Dreamweaver) to edit their site templates, which usually contained the navigation, header and footer (the “shell” of the site), and individual pages.
These so-called What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWIG) editors didn’t always get the code right. Webmasters almost always had to get into the back-end and tweak the HTML source code. This took time.
Tedious site updates
Edits to a site template meant every page had to be updated and reuploaded to the web server. This took time and used resources – especially before the days of broadband.
Optimizing for search engines meant going through every page and manually making sure your H1 (header) and Title tags were well optimized.
Risk of data loss
Forgetting to download the most recent version of a site when working with multiple site editors or from multiple locations made it easy for editors to overwrite site updates – sometimes losing hundreds of hours of work with one ill-advised click of the “upload” button.
While Adobe Dreamweaver has certainly come a long way over the years (messy code is no longer a major problem) and uploading an entire site to your web server doesn’t take all day anymore thanks to broadband, the other problems and annoyances still persist when working with a straight HTML site.
Enter the Content Management System (CMS)
Content Management Systems do what they sound like – they help you manage your content. Essentially, a CMS allows you to create/edit/delete your site pages without getting into the coding side of things. For larger sites, they also make organization easier. The content is largely stored in a site database, which lives on a web server, alleviating the need to back up hundreds of HTML files (if your site is that big).
Ecommerce websites, for example, use content management systems 99% of the time.
Blogs use them too.
While they may sound expensive and complicated, there are several full-featured content management systems available for free. Among the most notable are WordPress and Drupal. Both systems are free to download/install at your web server, and both have been developed by an open source community with ease of installation and use in mind.
If you’re considering moving your site to a CMS or building a new site with one but aren’t yet sure of the benefits, here’s a quick líst:
No need to be a code junky
While the setup process can get somewhat technical and customizing templates involves coding, in the long term working with a CMS means working with less HTML/CSS and server side scripting code. That means an easier time for content editors and authors. It means you don’t need to rip your hair out figuring out which HTML tag wasn’t closed properly. It means you don’t need to know what an HTML tag is at all, in most cases. This saves you a ton of time and resources in the long term.
On-page SEO is built right in
SEO is a concern for every webmaster, and most content management systems include beneficial features in this regard. There are many available SEO plugins for WordPress, for example, that make for well-optimized title tags, URLs, links, etc. Once your CMS is producing search engine friendly pages there is little need to go back and “tweak” on-page optimization or play with file names. This allows you to focus on creating great content without worrying about your on-page SEO.
There is little risk of losing/overwriting important files
Since site content lives mostly in the database with a CMS, there isn’t much risk of someone accidentally overwriting a recently-updated page or losing important files. Most site authors and editors can work from within the CMS and don’t bother saving/uploading a file at all. This will save you many headaches. Just be sure to back up your database on a regular basis and before upgrading your CMS.
The site can be accessed/edited from any location
Most content management systems are web-based – meaning they live entirely on your web server. The only thing required to access/edit your site in this case is a username/password to log in. This means you don’t need to worry about being at your computer or carrying your site files with you when traveling. Adding/editing/deleting site pages is a simple as logging in and using the web-based back end to get it done – and site updates can be published live instantly with no need for FTP.
Simple site updates don’t require you to call/pay your web developer
This alone can save most companies thousands of dollars a year. With a content management system you no longer need to call your web developer every time you need to correct a spelling error or add an event to a calendar. You can handle updates yourself or have someone in your office – maybe even an intern – make the change directly. The point is: it’s easy. You no longer have to pay the developer’s rate for simple updates, and you don’t need to waste time communicating the changes via phone or email and settling invoices.
Development costs are cheaper for open source content management systems
If you’re looking to either migrate an existing site to a content management system or use one for a new site, you are likely to be looking at a cheaper project overall (depending on the level of customization). Most of the bells and whistles are built right into the system – so development becomes more a task of updating the look and feel of the CMS template than building from scratch. Of course, design is crucial – so if you’re looking for a polished site design you’ll still want to hire a solid designer/developer, but a simple and clean site design with moderate customization shouldn’t break the bank. There are also some very nice “out of the box” templates and themes available for most open source content management systems, such as the feature-rich and attractive Thesis theme for WordPress.
Essentially, there are few downsides to using content management systems, and the open source options available are very attractive (especially the price tag). If you’re considering either of the open source solutions mentioned in this article, WordPress or Drupal, there are a few considerations you’ll want to have in mind. Namely, keep in mind that WordPress was designed to be a blogging platform and is therefor somewhat limited in flexibility (although for most sites WordPress is a solid solution – even when you don’t need a blog). Drupal offers much more flexibility and power, but it tends to require a more extensive and costly set up phase.
Also keep in mind that not all content management systems are created equal. Some lesser-known content management systems have rampant issues in search engine visibility – such as including session IDs in all URLs – that can render your site entirely invisible to search engines or at least sub-par when it comes to on-page SEO. The more popular and widely-used systems are usually a safe bet since they’ve been around for years, and any such issues will have been well hashed out at this point.
For companies operating on something of a shoestring budget for web development, an open source content management solution is often not only an attractive solution but perhaps the only viable one to stay within a budget without sacrificing the quality of your site’s infrastructure.
And to those for whom the thought of working with HTML code causes instant panic: rest assured – with the right CMS setup, you’ll rarely need to see an HTML tag again.
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