Don't pay for a Content Management System

A Content Management System, or CMS, is pretty much essential for anyone setting up a new website today. But if your website developer is asking you to pay for a CMS, you should probably keep looking. There are simply too many excellent content management systems out there today that are available for no license fee whatsoever.

Why a Content Management System?

The old way of designing individual web pages by hand and then uploading them via FTP to a web server has had its day, and while there are still some scenarios where this may feel like the best option, bypassing the CMS route is a short-sighted decision for any website that is likely to have more than 2 years of life.

A CMS allows you to manage your own website content so you don't have to pay your website developer to add content or make changes for you. That in turn means that you are able to update your website on a regular basis, tune it to the needs of your customers, and to reflect the changing nature of the products and/or services your businesses offer.

So, that leaves you having to make a big decision in your website development project - which CMS to use?

Which CMS?

In my experience, business managers and owners don't want (or need) to know what technology their website is built with.

If you are in that boat, that's fine. I prefer to talk about the business benefits of a particular technology rather than the nuts and bolts of how that technology works. My view is that it shouldn't matter what you as the customer knows about the techology being recommended, provided it is suited to the task at hand and the website developer is proficient in its use.

Most website developers have a preferred content management system that they like to develop websites with, so unless you have done your own research, you'll end up with the CMS your website developer recommends. But be careful to probe how well they know the CMS they're recommending, and how good a fit it is for your requirements.

Which Website Developer?

The website developer you choose is likely to recommend which CMS you use. They will have skills in the CMS they recommend and will hopefully be recommending a CMS solution that meets your requirements - but don't take that for granted - it may be that the CMS they recommend suits them more than it suits you.

Some website developers will tell you that they can use any technology you choose for your website, but remember the old adage - jack of all trades, master of none. You are probably better off shortlisting web developers who can show depth in one or two CMS platforms rather than a shallow knowledge of many. Content management systems are complex beasts that are constantly evolving and improving. Unless your website developer has invested considerable time in learning the CMS they are recommending, there is a risk that they could get caught out by a lack of knowledge or skill with that CMS during your project, which will end up costing you.

At the same time, make sure the one-trick pony isn't recommending their particular CMS option simply because it's the one they always recommend regardless of its suitability for your project. Look for evidence that they've built websites that are close to your requirements and be sure your website developer is clear about how they will approach your project with the CMS they have recommended.

Content Management Systems - what are your options?

There are literally thousands of content management systems out there to choose from. Unfortunately, you'll find it difficult to even list them, never mind figure out which ones to shortlist.

However, as I've already said - there is absolutely no reason why you should pay for the CMS software itself. There are simply too many excellent CMS's out there for you to even consider paying a license fee for the CMS itself unless you have a very specific need that can only be met by licensing a commercial content management system.

Open Source Content Management Systems

In my view, the best option today is to look at one of the free open-source CMS solutions. A few years ago, these tended to be difficult to work with, and offered limited features. Today, the world has changed. Open-source CMS platforms are taking over the world, and (in some cases) offering capabilities that meet the expectations of even the largest enterprises.

By definition, open source content management sytems have no license fees associated with them. They also have another huge advantage over proprietary systems, namely that it should be possible (even easy!) to move to another website developer with skills in your chosen CMS if you don't get the service you want.

Here at Website Results, we have found Drupal to be the best and most powerful CMS around (it's open source, but can go toe-to-toe with most commercial products). Since 2007, we have developed all of our customers' websites using Drupal - from small websites of just five pages up to large websites of over 25,000 pages, to the point where we've now got it down to a fine art.

Other popular open-source content management systems include:

  • WordPress (the most popular CMS around thanks to its ease of set up, despite being somewhat limited in functionality);
  • Joomla (not so easy to set up, but more powerful than WordPress);
  • Silverstripe (growing in functionality but still not as mature as some of the alternatives. One to watch in the future).

In-House Content Management Systems

The other option is to opt for a website developer that uses an in-house system, i.e. a CMS that they have developed themself. Fortunately, most of these website developers have realised by now that they can't get away with charging a license fee, and you should be able to negotiate with them if they do try it on.

A potentially big issue with in-house systems is that they tend to be a collection of all the features that past customers have requested (and subsequently paid for). If you want something that no-one before you has asked for, you'll either have to foot the bill for developing them, or simply do without those features.

If you find yourself in that situation, it's worth taking the line that they will use that feature again in the future so perhaps they shouldn't be charging you the full cost of development. Either way, you're still likely to end up paying more than if you choose a website developer that uses an open-source content management system.

However, unlike the open-source CMS platforms, opting to go with an in-house CMS means you're stuck with that vendor for the life of your website, and migrating to another CMS platform will most likely mean starting again from scratch. Not only that, but if your website developer goes belly up, your website probably goes with them. This can be a risk with an open-source CMS, but the likelihood of it happening is remote by comparison (unless you choose one of the immature or fringe CMS platforms where the longevity of the system has yet to be established).

Evaluating your CMS shorlist

When looking at which CMS to use (or when evaluating which website developer to choose), you should consider a couple of things as part of your evaluation:

  • How easy is it to get started (or how proficient is your website developer with that CMS)?
  • How easy is it to extend that CMS in the future? What functionality can be added in as your website grows?

The second point is particularly important. It is not unreasonable to expect your initial website investment to last five years or more. Most content management systems allow you to change the design of your website without having changing the content, meaning you can get a website that looks new without all the headaches and cost of starting from scratch. You also don't lose your place in the search engine rankings, since all of the content stays in place. In fact, that's possibly one of the best reasons not to rebuild your website unless you absolutely have to.

Conclusion

So - where does that leave you? Hopefully well-armed to evaluate either a shortlist of content management system options, or a shortlist of website developers who are in turn touting one or more CMS. But if you take nothing else away from reading this article, it will be what I started with: Don't Pay for a Content Management System. There is simply no need.

You can read more about Content Management Systems in Getting a website Part 3: Which technology to use?.

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