Recent years have seen a huge increase in the use of CMS (Content Management Systems), such as WordPress, Joomla and Drupal for web site creation. The most common of these is WordPress. I am often asked what exactly these systems are, and how they may help in your business’s online presence, so I’ve created this mini guide to help you understand what they are; the pros and cons of using them, and whether they would be suitable for your own web site needs. For the sake of simplicity, I will talk mainly about WordPress here, but keep in mind that the other platforms provide quite similar functions.
Content Management Systems are designed to enable a user to quickly generate a web site with little, or no knowledge of scripting and programming. Originally built as a blogging platform, it was soon realised that WordPress could be used to generate a functional web site—whether there was a blog on the site or not.
The big advantage to the web site owner is that they have the ability to edit the site content themselves, once they get to know how the platform works. This saves having to pay a developer to perform updates, or simple changes to the content of a site. Once the system is set up on a web host, the site owner can access an administrative section where they can create new pages and/or edit the contents of existing ones using a relatively simple interface and a WYSIWYG editor. WYSIWYG stands for “What You See Is What You Get”, and it refers to the ability to type in exactly what you wish to appear in the web page—much like in a word processor, and the platform will translate that automatically into the necessary HTML markup to display on the web page correctly.
Before we start looking into the relative pros and cons of CMS-based web sites, it is worthwhile talking about the different “classes” of web sites or web pages. I refer to sites and pages as “static” or “dynamic”. Let me explain the difference: A static web site is one which simply presents content that doesn’t change. Think of a simple informational page which may, for instance display some information about a restaurant; some pictures, the address, and a phone number. That page is a static page because it is the same every time a visitor (any visitor) looks at it.
On the other hand, web pages can deliver different content to different users, and even different content to the same user, depending on a number of circumstances. Think of Facebook. Obviously, the content you see on that site is completely different to the content that any other user will see. It is choosing what you see based on myriad variables such as your friends list, the time of day, the posts you have previously seen, your advertising preferences, and who you are! Clearly, a site such as Facebook is highly dynamic. Dynamic web sites very often store their information in databases
It is worth keeping this difference in mind when we consider the pros and cons of a CMS-based site versus a traditional (hand-coded) one.
Like all technologies, they often come with some downsides along with the benefits. Deciding on whether a CMS may be suitable for your solution will depend on your exact requirements, your comfort with technology, and how much custom functionality your site requires.
Speed of setup. Particularly with someone who has prior experience of setting up a CMS-based web site, you can be up and running with a functional web site in very short order. Most often it is a case of simply creating a “banner” image, choosing a theme, and starting to write the content.
Cost. Most of the CMS platforms are free to use.
Extensibility. Most of the larger CMS platforms are supported by the availability of a wide array of plugins to extend the functionality. Should you require, for instance, a contact form so that your customers can get in touch with you, there are a wealth of plugins which you can install in one click to give you that ability.
Speed of changes. If your CMS-based web site require a relatively simple change—such as editing the text in a page or changing the contact phone number, it is a simple matter to edit that content in the CMS platform. This also, of course, means that the changes can be made that much faster by the site owner, rather than having to wait for the developer to do it.
Design Flexibility. Because the platforms are built around themes, it is a simple matter to go into the administration section, and completely alter the look of your site by selecting a different theme. Just as with the plugins mentioned earlier, there is a wealth of different themes available; many free; many that you can buy.
Looking like a CMS-based site. While there are some very good themes out there which can dramatically alter the look of a CMS-based web site, there is a risk of it looking very much like any other CMS-based site. Particularly if you accept the default settings of something like WordPress, they can be instantly recognisable as a WordPress site. This introduces the risk of your site looking like just another “cookie cutter” site just as you’re trying to project the uniqueness and superiority of your business or service.
Extensibility. Yes, this appeared under the “pros” heading also! Let’s say you wish to enhance your site with some functionality, but that functionality isn’t currently available in any plugin. That functionality will have to be written by a developer. This is when the CMS has the potential to “get in the way”. Writing that functionality can sometimes be made harder by the fact that the developer is having to work within the parameters and constraints of the CMS platform you are using. It can happen that the job is made harder by these constraints, and it would have been quicker, easier—and therefore cheaper—to have created the site in the traditional way so that these constraints don’t exist.
Vulnerability to Hacking. That extensibility just mentioned also comes with a price. Plugins are written by independent developers, and, consequently, vary in quality. Every extra plugin is a possible vector to attack your site. When a new vulnerably is discovered, an arms race ensues between the hackers, and the people trying to keep them out. Every plugin needs to be secured against that new vulnerability, and you are at the mercy of the plugin developers as to whether they secure their plugin in a timely manner—or at all. Because Wordpress is so prevalent, it is the area where hackers concentrate their efforts.
This also means that the person maintaining the site has to be vigilant about making sure that their Wordpress installation—and all plugins—are kept up to date. At times, this overhead can outweigh the time saved in using Wordpress in the first place.
I personally have experienced blogs that I used to run on Wordpress being hacked multiple times. To the extent that—in the end—I removed them all from Wordpress. See Why I Ditched Wordpress and Switched to Hugo.
Requires some level of proficiency by the person tasked with updating the web site. While these platforms do a great job of shielding a person from the intricacies of HTML markup, database work and scripting, it remains that a level of proficiency or comfort with computers is required by the person tasked with maintaining the site. For some people, understandably, this is more than they want to worry about.
Bloat and speed. Ideally, your web site should be as quick to load and render in the visitor’s browser as possible. Not only does this provide a good experience for your site’s visitors, but it helps with search engine optimisation as well. Necessarily, there is a lot of processing that goes on behind the scenes in a CMS system to present your web site. This will mean that it cannot be as well-optimised as a site that contains only what is needed, and which delivers it in the most efficient manner.
Hopefully, having gained a little more knowledge about the options available to you, you will be better equipped to decide which route you should take.
Often, the decision comes down to how dynamic your web site needs to be. If there is a lot of specialised functionality which is particular to your business requirements, this usually points to a custom-made site. If your site is largely informational, and you wish to get “up and running” in the shortest timeframe possible, a CMS-based site may be the best option—as long as you prepared for the necessary maintenance.
Of course, you are not on your own! I am here to help with these kind of decisions, and would be glad to guide you based on your own particular needs. Feel free to contact me for a free, no pressure consultation regarding your web site. I’m here to help, and your success is my success.