What is a CMS and which one should you choose?

At Both Birds we build websites in WordPress. It is the world’s most widely used CMS. It is also Open Source which means there are no licensing fees.

What is a content management system or CMS?

A content management system (CMS) controls how the text (copy), images and video are added to and then displayed on a website. A CMS makes it easy for users to add and update content on a site.

Without a CMS every page would have to be coded individually by a developer. It would make large websites virtually impossible to update and maintain.


Choosing a CMS that is right for your business

There are a number of things to look out for when choosing a CMS. It should provide the functionality you require, come at a good price and be easy to maintain and update.

If you already have a website you may already be familiar with some of the content management systems out there. Your website might be powered by a bespoke CMS your development company built, a commercial subscription service or it could be open source.


Bespoke CMS

Some web companies build their own custom CMS that they use for their clients’ sites. Because the CMS is owned by the web company, the client pays them a license fee to use it. When it has not been adapted to the specific needs of your website, a bespoke CMS can provide limited scope for updates and search engine optimisation.

A custom CMS also makes changing to another developer or agency very difficult as the website will almost always need to be transferred to a new CMS which usually requires a complete rebuild of the site.

However, for complex websites requiring a unique set of features and functions, a bespoke CMS designed or adapted to the specific needs of that site can be a good option.


Open Source CMS

On the other end of the spectrum are CMS that are free to use. These include Joomla!, Magento, Umbraco and, the most widely-used CMS in the world, WordPress.

These free CMS are Open Source, which means the source code is publicly available for anyone to use, distribute and improve on. Open Source is a collaborative project which means you benefit from the expertise of thousands of contributors across the world.

You won’t have to pay license fees to use an Open Source CMS and can easily get another company or developer to work on your site.

Most Open Source CMS will offer basic templates, sometimes called themes, that allow anyone to set up a very basic website. However, the functionality and options for adapting the design on these standard templates tend to be very limited.

You’ll get the most from an Open Source CMS by having a custom theme designed and developed that uses the CMS achieve a functionality and look and feel perfect for your purposes.


Other paid CMS

There is a third option for CMS, positioned somewhere in between bespoke models and Open Source ones. These are commercial, subscription-based services that in addition to featuring a CMS also give users some ability to customise the design of their site, usually with a user-friendly drop-and-drag system. You may have heard of Wix or Shopify, which are examples.

These “out-of-the-box” website templates are popular for their quick and cheap setup and they can work really well for cash-strapped businesses just starting out.

However, the downside is that though they provide some flexibility with design, they still provide very limited options for search engine optimisation (SEO), making it difficult to fine-tune a website for search.

Wondering why we’re harping on about customising a site for search or SEO? Read our section on SEO for more.


Why we choose WordPress for our websites

We build all our websites with WordPress. We’re big believers in the hive-mind benefits of Open Source and we’re clearly not the only ones. WordPress currently powers over 60 million websites, accounting for over a quarter of the top 10 million websites in 2017. In total, WordPress occupies an estimated 60% of the market share of all CMS.


But isn’t WordPress just a kind of blog?

Yes, and no. There are two “flavours” of WordPress: wordpress.com which is the blogging platform hosted by WordPress you may have heard about. This is what many people use to easily set up personal blogs. A wordpress.com blog is hosted by WordPress, allows you to choose a theme from the repository and you can get on with blogging.

WordPress.org on the other hand is the fully customisable CMS that lets you take full control of your code and build any kind of website with it you like.

Here’s a table comparing .com to .org created by WordPress.

The WordPress community is large and generous with its knowledge, and there is a constant effort to update and improve the CMS.

Some well-known websites that are built on the WordPress CMS include The New York Times, Forbes, Sony, TechChrunch and Mashable. Check out WordPress’ list of notable users.

Whilst WordPress is a smart choice for most websites, it certainly isn’t the only good CMS. Whichever one your development team recommends, we do recommend always enquiring about the CMS that will power your site before committing to a build.

Knowing your CMS will help you fully understand your responsibility in the future with regards to licensing or subscription fees, the technical requirements for keeping your site up to date and your options for working with other developers or agencies later down the line.

Photo credit: Samuel Zeller on Unsplash.

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