CMS 101: The Basics
This year, the world wide web celebrates thirty years since Tim Berners-Lee famously set out his “vague, but exciting” vision for it in a document titled, “Internet Management: A Proposal”.
The internet, as a way of sending information between computers, had long been around before Burners-Lee’s excitingly named proposal. His genius, however, was in taking this system and streamlining it so it was much, much easier to navigate and use.
Characterised by simple static sites, the result was what we know today as web version 1.0. Today, the web we use is well into a second and much maturer stage of development. It got this way largely thanks to the just as dull and modest-sounding content management system (CMS).
As the web gradually moved away from static brochure sites and toward more interactive sites with dynamic content, being able to collaborate with others, manage your own site, and update it’s content became increasingly important. In the early days, these features are more or less what a CMS offered: the ability to easily take care of the admin of users and groups on the backend; and on the front end, let them add, update, and remove content at will.
One reason this made the CMS so transformative was that users could do it all without any knowledge of HTML, CSS, or programming languages whatsoever. Of course, the functionality and appearance were very limited — think GeoCities — but the core foundations for what we know as a CMS today were very much there.
Fast-forward to 2019, and there are now thousands of CMSs across a dozen different categories, many of which are behind over half of the entire web. Luckily though, you don’t need to compare or even know ninety-nine percent of them.
This is because if you’re here, it’s pretty likely you’re only interested in web CMSs or WCMSs, which are primarily used to build websites. If we then split WCMSs down into commercial, open-source, and custom-built, and focus on the last two, then there are only really a few you need to be aware of.
That’s enough background info. Let’s now explore some the main benefits of Content Management Systems, introduce you to a few of the big players, and make sure you go away knowing exactly what makes this innovation such an essential and great part of today’s web.
CMS Control & Functionality
A big reason CMSs have gained such a strong foothold is that they level out the playing field and make what was once only possible for an expert programmer all in the day’s work of a Marketing or Human Resource intern.
What that looks like is complete control and power to directly and instantly edit and manipulate many aspects of your site. As mentioned above, a key part of this control is being able to manage who has access to your site and what they have access to. You can easily assign user roles to allow, say, an editor to temporarily go in and edit some content, or to give whole teams across international organisations just the right amount of clearance and control.
Whilst a CMS streamlines operations by removing the need for having a webmaster always on hand to make changes, improve the user experience, and add any new content to your site, it also places much greater functionality at your fingertips.
For instance, CMSs are available in various languages and are easily translatable. This is a useful feature for multilingual and international teams (and pretty much any business today), and can save infinite time and cost when it comes to collaborating and scaling.
On top of control, collaboration and scaling are what make CMSs useful. If you’re starting a website, you don’t want your growth to be limited by how much you can share, how much content you can store, and how many visitors you can receive. A good CMS will provide the flexibility to accommodate your needs no matter how quick you grow.
On one extreme you can code your own website from scratch. On the other, you can use a commercial website builder. But if you want the best of both worlds — i.e. complete control without having to know a single line of code — then the CMS is there as the ideal Goldilocks method.
As well as easy-to-use interfaces that offer many features and functions, CMSs allow you to extend their functionality with very little cost and effort. One thing that makes WordPress — the most popular CMS that powers over a third of all websites — so great is how user-friendly the system is. WP offers a huge library of free plugins for everything from SEO to eCommerce.
As the most popular open-source CMS in the world, anyone at any level can use WordPress to create a website. Despite its popularity, each one will be unique in its functionality, performance, and appearance. Making it a solid solution for everything from small blogs and personal websites to large media organisations and platforms like Sony, Bloomberg, and The New Yorker.
Content & eCommerce
If you compare building a website to building a house, a CMS would not be like starting with an empty shell or a prefab, but like having the basic structure and foundations — walls, roof, doors, plumbing — all in place and ready for moving in.
Saying that, even these basics are still very much up for negotiation. But the point is, a content management system provides everything you need but also the flexibility so you can get straight to customising and putting the space to good use.
Any good CMS will help you do all of this and more by providing you with a secure platform that is universal and constantly updated. However, if your online business is based on ecommerce rather than content, then you may want to look at starting from more of a prefab approach.
Magento is the best example of a targeted and robust prefab, otherwise known as a CMS framework. As anyone running a storefront for an ecommerce business knows, Magento is the most popular purpose-built CMS, many people and businesses love it because it offers a huge amount of functionality without sacrificing on flexibility.
Although many prefer the WooCommerce plugin for WordPress, Magento is a powerful mobile responsive platform that offers store owners much greater control over their store. For instance, Magento’s focus on ecommerce means it gives users the ease of managing orders, products, clients, inventory, payments, support, marketing, and reporting all from one simple dashboard.
It’s this level of customisation that drove big brands like Nike and Samsung to use Magento. It includes all the tools that store owners would ever need, as well as all features that consumers would ever want. But importantly, like WordPress, it’s also open source, and so there’s no end to how much they can extend it’s functionality and create individual, differentiated branded experiences.
Other than off-the-shelf systems like WordPress and Magento, you can also build a CMS from scratch. Although they require more time and experience to produce, custom CMSs offer even further flexibility, security, and ease of use.
As they are made on a per project basis, custom CMSs can be built around your established business processes and tailored to the exact needs of your customers. This makes them popular with large organisations that need specialised functions or brands that want to create something that is truly one of a kind.
Overall, there’s no end to what a CMS can help you achieve. The main part of the battle is choosing the right one that’ll work for you; and for that, and making sure you get the most out of your CMS, you need to find the right team of experts.