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What is a CMS? Essential Guide to Content Management Systems

What is CMS featured
Your CMS will affect how you interact with your site. Image credit: WebFactory

If you’ve had a new website developed for your business, or you’re in the middle of that process, you’re going to have to choose a CMS at some point. That’s because a CMS is a crucial part of the website design and creation process.

But what actually is a CMS, and why does it matter?

Today we’re going to cover everything that business owners need to understand about CMSs, and how to choose one. This includes the basic functionality you should expect, as well as some of the extra features you should look out for.

But first, let’s start with the absolute basics.

What is a CMS?

CMS stands for content management system. As the name implies, this is a tool which allows you to manage your digital content. This is done by adding, editing or even deleting the content published on your website.

In other words, a CMS is an interface which allows you to make changes to the content on your site. At least, this is the most basic functionality.

This might not seem particularly exciting, but let’s have a quick history lesson.

Once upon a time, there were no dedicated CMS platforms. This meant that if you wanted to add a new page to your website, you had to create it in HTML, and then upload a .txt file containing this code directly to the server which hosted your site.

If you wanted to make even minor changes to a blog article, you had to download the relevant HTML file from your server. You would then have to alter this manually, and reupload it to replace the old version.

This was an involved process. Today, most content marketers wouldn’t even know how to go about manual changes like this. Non-specialists would have very little chance of effectively managing a website.

By contrast, CMS platforms make it possible for just about anyone who can work a computer to create, manage, and profit from websites.

What Can You Do With a CMS?

All CMS programs include some type of web-based publishing, editing, format management and version control, as well as retrieval, search and indexing of your content. As we’ve said, these are the absolutely basic features of a CMS

The idea behind a CMS platform is that you can make alterations to the content of your site, without having to make any changes to it’s format or design.

With a CMS, you can create and edit content. Typically, you can add additional users, with varying levels of permissions. For instance, you may provide content writers with enough access to create new blog articles, but not change your core site settings.

Some of the most common CMS platforms include WordPress, Squarespace, and WIX.

Pros and Cons: Is a CMS Right for You?

So we’ve established that content management systems make it easy to administer your website, without really requiring any technical nous. Of course, this is a great thing for all sorts of reasons.

But is using a CMS the best way for everyone to manage their website?

What is CMS back end code
A CMS means that you don't need coding skills to edit your site. Image credit: Ilya Pavlov

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of CMS platforms.

Pros of Using a CMS

Some of the advantages of a CMS include:

  • Content editing is completely separate from the design: The content editing features are separate from the functionality and the design of the site. This means that individuals with no technical training can add, edit and format the content on their site with ease.
  • Selective access permissions: Each user can have specific permissions based on their exact role – i.e. editor, author, administrator, contributor, etc. You can choose to allow some of the users to add and edit the content they create, while providing others with universal access. This will help you maintain security because you can restrict access for certain contributors.
  • Fast updating: With a CMS in place, site updates are both fast and virtually effortless. Even if you are using the administrative interface, design components, such as headers, menus, sidebars and footers are able to be quickly and easily updated on the platform.
  • SEO: Today’s CMS options are extremely SEO-friendly. They often include a wide array of custom page titles, in addition to metadata and adjustable URLs. Some even offer additional features like SEO monitoring and analysis.

Cons of Using a CMS
While it’s important to know the advantages offered by a CMS, it’s just as important that you know the disadvantages, too:

  • Security risks: There are countless hackers out there and many spend much of their time trying to break into CMS platforms. You can avoid this by taking additional security precautions, such as using two-factor authentication.
  • Data breaches: Similarly, data breaches may be more likely on an off-the-shelf CMS platform, as these create a single target for hackers, and your data may become part of a mass-leak. For extremely sensitive industries, this means that custom options may be more appropriate.
  • Issues with design: It’s often hard to transform your site into just what you want. As a result, you may find a CMS platform difficult to use.
    Function limits: There are some different processes that a CMS won’t be able to handle without rewriting the code.

Generally these issues are manageable. At the very least, most can be overcome by engaging a web design agency to create a custom configuration of an existing CMS platform.

Most of the time, a CMS platform is the best way to manage your site. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how to choose the best one for your needs.

How to Choose a CMS Platform

Of course, the best CMS platform for you will depend on your specific needs, as well as your personal preferences, or the preferences of your staff.

However, here are some of the most important variables you should look out for when choosing a CMS solution.

Budget

This should be pretty obvious. When investing in any kind of business tool, it’s vital to decide how much you can afford to spend ahead of time. This is especially important when choosing a CMS, because there is so much variation in pricing.

For instance, you can get a CMS solution which is viable for some uses without paying any money at all. By contrast, you could easily spend into the tens of thousands for the most extreme bespoke configurations.

The key is to balance the functionality you require, with what you can afford to pay. Generally, the best way to do this is to consult with an experienced digital agency.

Integrations

Integrations are third-party tools which expand the functionality of your CMS platform. When choosing a new website management system, you should always look out for integrations with any other systems you currently use.

For example, if you run an ecommerce store, it’s best if your CMS platform integrates properly with your CRM and your stock management system. You don’t want to buy a new CMS only to find that it doesn’t work with any of your other systems.

In fact, this can be a very costly mistake, as it means you’ll either have to buy a second new CRM license, or replace any incompatible systems.

Support

Tech support is an invaluable safety net for small businesses. That is, good customer support means that you can be confident that any issues with your site will be resolved quickly, before they hurt your revenue.

When choosing any kind of digital business tool, always aim to buy from a company with a strong track record of customer service and user support.

Usability

Of course, one of the basic reasons for purchasing a CMS is that it makes your website’s backend easier to use. While actual usability is obviously a major part of this, it’s also important to account for what CMS programs your staff are already familiar with.

Especially if you run a large enterprise.

Purchasing a new CMS platform is already often a major cost. It doesn’t make sense to then spend additional money training your staff how to use it, when choosing a different platform which they know how to use may have worked out cheaper overall.

Choosing a CMS: An Important Decision for your Business

We recommend taking professional advice from an agency on the ideal CMS for your company. This will be a tool which you will use long into the future, so it makes sense to choose the right one straight off the bat.

Ease-of-use, access and integrations are all important considerations. You’ll want to take time to get this decision right now instead of having to backtrack later, as this will potentially lead to wasted money.

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