What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

If you’re new to the web, working in a digital role, or modernizing your online business, you’ve probably heard a lot of acronyms and jargon.

Content Management Systems (or CMS) are often talked about and have become a standard aspect of most websites.

I’ve been working in the digital space since the early days of content curation – even before it became standard practice – so I’m excited to share details based on where we currently stand.

In this article, I’ll unravel what a CMS is, why it’s important, how they work, the different types of content management systems, and how to consider the best option for you.

What is a CMS?

A content management system is a feature that allows administrative users to update, maintain, create and manage their own content without having to go into code or have developers do it for them.

Typically, to access CMS functionality, admin users will have a private login page or area to authenticate and navigate to a separate menu or portal with options to edit specific content.

There are many types of CMS platforms and approaches. I’ll introduce some of the best systems for your consideration later.

No matter how customized or standardized, or how limited or powerful, the system, the ability to manage your website and control content without coding is powerful and critical to how you manage your web presence.

Why is a CMS important?

A content management system is a powerful thing that saves time, money, and effort when adding and updating text, images, videos, pages, and important page elements and structure to your website.

You must be able to edit everything you need in your website.

Even in corporate environments or industries that require compliance reviews, approvals, and other steps before specific content goes live, a CMS can be helpful for these built-in steps.

How does a CMS work?

At the highest level, a CMS works by giving you the ability to influence live content on your website through edit boxes, upload options, and other behind-the-scenes features.

When you edit text, you will do so in an editor box that typically has functionality similar to programs such as Microsoft Word. Some systems have more controls and options than others.

Whether you’re editing text, uploading images, or creating pages, you can do it through user-friendly controls in the admin that make edits in the site database and allow you to publish them to the live site.

This replaces having web developers edit directly in the code.

In some cases, if you don’t have the controls you want or need, you can let the developer or the platform itself add them.

In other cases, you may run into the limitations of your CMS and may need to look at other options to land on an overall platform suitable for your website.

WordPress screenshot, October 2022WordPress Page Editor Example

How many types of content management systems are there?

Types of content management systems include:

  • content site.
  • Focus on blogging.
  • E-commerce and shopping carts.
  • non-profit.
  • Focus on specific industries and specific functions (eg, donations, ticketing, customer portals, etc.).
  • Online learning and development.
  • Open source.
  • ownership.
  • Customization and functionality.

Depending on the type of content you want your website to display, the level of security you need, the degree to which your website needs to be integrated with backend systems to enable or customer access (e.g. online banking), or what you want you to manage, you can choose Find the right technology and CMS platform.

In addition, there are CMSs based on open source technologies or platforms (WordPress, Drupal, etc.), CMSs based on closed platforms or SaaS-based products (Shopify, Wix, Squarespace, etc.), and building your own custom CMS.

Popular Content Management Systems

About 796 million websites are using content management systems.

The top 10 CMSs by global market share include:

Note that about two-thirds of websites use a CMS.

This alone should validate the importance of CMS to many businesses and organizations around the world.

Content Management System Features

There are a number of specific content management features that make a CMS so valuable, including:

  • Create pages.
  • Manage navigation.
  • Edit text.
  • Upload and manage images.
  • Upload and manage video content.
  • Manage product information.
  • Contact form.
  • Blog content.
  • Style and theme management.
  • Analysis and reporting tools.
  • Dashboard.
  • Search engine optimization and marketing tools.
  • integrated.
  • Content staging.
  • Approval Process.
  • private content.
  • Third-party security and support.

there are more.

Depending on the top priority of your content management needs and the custom nature of those needs, you may prioritize certain factors over others.

Should you build a CMS from scratch or use a popular system?

Over two decades ago, your options were limited, and you might have considered a custom CMS as the best (or only) option.

The explosion of options and adoption of content management systems has shifted CMS planning decisions from “what if” to “what type.”

In many cases, an open source CMS is best for content sites, shopping sites, and sites that don’t require a special level of customization.

Even open source CMSs offer many options to customize through plugins or custom code to create the desired features, functionality, and integrations.

However, if you have a very unique product, service, or web-based application, you may be best suited to create a custom CMS.

Reasons may include a lack of necessary open source technologies, unique integration requirements, unique customer or user capabilities, or the need to restrict access and close systems for security reasons.

CMS Challenges Companies Face

All types of CMS (almost any interface to a website or network connection) require specific oversight and actions to maintain a secure website.

Code and database risks may exist if custom code and CMS are not updated and maintained to stay ahead of any known vulnerabilities.

An open source CMS can have similar risks as outdated CMS cores, plugins, and versions, and not properly monitored to ensure versions are up-to-date and patched immediately when possible.

Beyond security, there are potential challenges with too many plugins, extensions or add-ons to manage properly. For example, changing a setting in one plugin may break something elsewhere on the site.

Properly QAing and managing the plug-in and third-party aspects of a CMS can be challenging.

Also, scaling on a CMS is sometimes difficult. Often, building new features requires removing old plugins and code and rebuilding – or risking conflicts and not working exactly as you want.

Best Content Management System

It’s hard for me to objectively tell you what the best CMS is.

As I mentioned before, the goal, and my desire for you, is to find the best for your online presence and content needs.

The most popular CMS in the world is WordPress. It happens to be my favorite and the main technique my team uses to build the site, so you can take note of that if you disagree or think I’m biased.

We found that WordPress is powerful enough to do almost anything we need.

However, it is user friendly, allows all the SEO optimization we need in it, and can be integrated with a wide range of other technologies. It has a higher ceiling than platforms like Squarespace, Wix, and more basic content management systems.

However, there is also a place for lightweight systems – just as there is a place for more enterprise and heavier systems.

While WordPress is great for ecommerce with WooCommerce, there are reasons for some companies to use another ecommerce CMS like Magento, or a lighter/easier platform like Shopify.

Again, the “best” CMS is subjective. You need to determine the right approach for you and your digital presence needs based on features, functionality, scalability, ease of use, and cost.

Ultimately, you need to weigh specific factors relevant to your situation:

  • How supported/updated is the CMS (for open source or how you will handle customization).
  • The number of plugins or extensions available and/or you need to manage.
  • Hosted vs Self Hosted.
  • Short-term and ongoing costs for licenses, hosting, management, and overall ongoing maintenance.
  • Your ultimate goal and the return on investment that a website can provide.
  • Opportunities and limitations for SEO, marketing, customization, and scaling of specific systems.
  • Other unique aspects related to your business or organization.

Best Marketing CMS

On the marketing side – if you’re doing any kind of digital marketing, you need to make sure that the CMS you choose can support your campaign.

Questions to ask include: How easy is it to create a landing page with this CMS? Integrate conversion and event tracking? Perform analytics? Do technical and on-page SEO?

If any of these things are important to you, then be careful and choose a platform that doesn’t limit you.

For example, I often encounter clients frustrated with the limitations of simpler content management systems, and they end up having to reinvest in new sites and platforms (eg, migrating from Squarespace to WordPress).

This happens when you don’t think ahead or ask the right questions ahead of time before you fully build your website on a particular platform.

in conclusion

It’s important to understand how content management systems work, why they are important to your business, and how to choose the right system for your business needs.

Changing platforms after building a website and content can be time-consuming and expensive.

I recommend that you go through a thorough process to determine which is right for you, considering both the short and long term so that you can make the best investments and decisions for your business.

More resources:


Featured Image: Zoomik/Shutterstock

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