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Which CMS is right for you?

Posted by: Clare Rose

There are a number of CMS platforms available, ranging from free open-source platforms, commercial systems to the option of developing a bespoke system. This free guide will help you decide what system is best for your organisation and what you need to consider when making your selection.

Selecting the best one for your business is a critical aspect of any web development project. The first step in choosing which CMS to use for your site really depends on what your site needs to do. Is it a basic content site? Is it an ecommerce site, selling your products online? Or is it a large corporate site with bespoke functionality that needs to integrate with third party systems?

Let’s start with the basics…

What is a CMS?

In the ‘bad old days’ of web development, most websites were static – this meant that every element of a web page – text, images, links, navigation, etc – was ‘hardcoded’, so the only way to update and modify your site was to either learn HTML so you could make the changes your yourself, or pay an agency every time you wanted to make a change. While this was great for development agencies, it meant that sites were often updated infrequently and were quickly out of date.

A CMS is a web application that allows website administrators to make changes to the site, usually with a relatively low technical threshold. Users don’t need to understand HTML, CSS, FTP, SQL (or any other three-letter-acronyms!); they simply select the content that they want to update, type or copy and paste in the new content and then make it live on the site, all via an easy-to-use interface.

Most systems will allow you to create new pages or edit existing ones. New pages will automatically appear within the navigation and you’ll have control over page names, headers and any images that appear within the pages. There will also be modules for maintaining different types of content, such as news stories, case studies and testimonials, so that the relevant fields are available for each type of content.

Crucially, using a CMS should require very little technical knowledge. Editing your website should be completely within your control and you shouldn’t need any HTML skills. A good CMS will let you focus on your site’s content rather than getting bogged down in the technicalities of updating it.

Do you need a CMS?

For the majority of businesses, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ for the following reasons:

Keeping your site up-to-date
Recent, topical and relevant news content creates a great first impression and shows you have your finger on the pulse.

Adapting to changes in your business, market or your service offering
Unlike a printed brochure or static website, with a CMS you can quickly react to changes in your organisation such as new product launches, new or improved services, new members of staff and competitor activity.

Keeping Google happy 
One factor in Google’s algorithm for determining the relevance of your site is how frequently it’s updated. A CMS allows you to post regular news stories, case studies and testimonials, all of which Google will see and respond to by re-indexing your site more often, contributing to your success on the results pages.

More dynamic and future-proof
By storing your content in a CMS rather than as individual ‘pages’, it can be repurposed within the site. For example, news stories can appear alongside relevant articles based on how they’ve been categorised or team profiles can link to case studies appropriate to that individual. Essentially there are no limitations to how your content can be displayed if all of the information is stored within a CMS database.

Things to consider when choosing your CMS:


Ease of use
You’ll probably be using the backend of the CMS regularly, maybe every day, so it’s critical that the administration of the site is as simple and easy to learn as possible. When meeting with potential suppliers, always request a demonstration of the site running on a live site – this will give you the best appreciation of how easy to use the system is.

Design customisation
You won’t want the design of your site to be hamstrung by the limitations of the CMS. All of the platforms we use are ‘design agnostic’, meaning that we can create a completely bespoke design that meets the needs of your business without having to worry about how the CMS will be used to maintain the content.

‘Portable’ and widely supported 
Some CMS platforms can be ‘picky’ about where they are hosted. For example, they may rely on functionality from a ‘core’ system or may require very niche modules to be installed. Similarly the underlying framework might be out-of-date or no longer supported. Our preferred CMS platforms (ExpressionEngine and WordPress) are widely supported and can be hosted practically anywhere so you’re not tied to a single supplier should you ever wish to move your server to another hosting company.

Availability of ready-made modules
The more popular a platform the more likely is it that there will be ‘off the shelf’ modules that provide some (if not all) of the functionality your site requires. If you choose a less common or fully bespoke CMS, you have the potential situation that every element of functionality you need to incorporate into your site could need to be developed from scratch, adding extra costs to the project, more testing time and a higher chance of bugs and other issues.

Futureproof platform
The CMS platform you’re considering may provide all of the functionality you need today, but what about the future? We’ve met with clients who have invested in a CMS that allowed them to edit pages, news stories and case studies, but when they want to add some more advanced functionality (such as customer login, email newsletter generation or integration with back office systems) they’ve essentially had to start from scratch with a new CMS. We spend time talking to our clients to establish what their long term aims for the site are to make sure that, as the business grows, they don’t hit a ceiling in terms of what the framework is capable of.

Some final thoughts:

Do you want to sell online?
If so, or if you have plans to do so in the future, you’re best to consider this from the outset. Our preferred ecommerce platform, and one of the most popular open source ecommerce platforms in the world, is Magento. There are thousands of developers around the world using Magento and so there are hundreds of cost-effective modules available that allow you to tailor Magento to work just right for your business. 

Read more about our ecommerce experience

Don’t let your IT department choose your CMS on their own!
Clearly your IT department should be involved in the decision, but we’ve seen incidents in the past where a CMS is selected purely on technical grounds. For example, just because your internal IT department are all using Windows and have greater familiarity with Microsoft’s product family, that doesn’t mean your website has to be based on .NET. Also, your IT department’s version of what’s easy to use may not be the same as yours! It’s going to be your responsibility to update the site so it therefore needs to be easy for you to use without having to involve someone in IT whenever an update needs to be made.

We’ve been fortunate enough to work with many clients who have excellent IT colleagues who fully understand this, but it’s something worth bearing in mind.

Make sure you have a specification in place from the start
The most important document in any web project is the technical specification. This will define precisely how the website will function covering each individual module and any required integration between the modules.

We work with clients to create a bulletproof specification. This is then used as a reference throughout the entire project by all of the designers, frontend developers and backend programmers to ensure the completed site fully meets your requirements.

It is also used to formulate a test plan, which is a carefully prepared strategy designed to expose any bugs or issues with the site’s functionality, which our development team follow towards the end of development. Not only does this ensure that a fully-functional site will be delivered, it also gives you peace of mind that you won’t be faced with problems down the line when you start updating the content and adding new pages.

Got a CMS project you’d like to discuss? Maybe you love the design of the site but have major problems updating and maintaining it. Or perhaps you’re looking for a completely new site and want to make sure the backend is as easy-to-use as the frontend.