Choosing a Content Management System

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Nearly all websites these days use some sort of Content Management System (CMS). A CMS is a tool (usually web-based) that helps facilitate the process of creating, posting, organizing, and managing the content of a site.
Types of content you may find managed in a CMS include news stories, blog posts, photos, videos, events, and moreor, in many cases, some combination of several different types. While its important to understand that content management is a people process, not a technological one, there are many CMS tools available that can help. Which one is right for your website?
The first question youll need to answer is simple: do you need a CMS? The answer is probably yes. Unless you have only a few pages on your site, a CMS is almost certainly going to help you be more efficient and productive. Besides providing an administrative area where you can post, search, and organize your content, most CMSes will handle templating of your content into an HTML. This ultimately saves you a lot of time, as you only need to craft the templates once, rather than writing the same HTML structure over and over for every page.
The harder question is: what CMS will fit my needs? There are four unique types of CMS products that are commonly used:

  • Lightweight, low-cost tools, generally designed for blogging
  • Semi professional tools to manage content with a limit to capacity due to programming language and architecture.
  • Enterprise-level content management systems
  • Niche products designed to manage a specific type of content or serve a particular industry

A fourth option that is getting more and more popular is to use a web application framework (such as Django or Ruby on Rails) to build a custom CMS tailored specifically to your needs. As this is a more bespoke option I will not cover this at this time.

Considering your content types

The first thing youll want to do when choosing a CMS is figure out what types of content youll be managing. Do you need blogs on your site? Do you want to showcase photos? If so, should those photos be grouped into galleries? Do you post events? And so forth. For example, if Im running a newspaper site, some of the types of content I will be managing include:

  • Articles
  • Media
  • Quick Lists
  • Teasers
  • Classified ads
  • Users

Structured vs. abstract

What do I mean by structure? Lets consider an image content. It has several attributes. Among them: name, date, time, location, etc. If our CMS allows for precisely structured data, each of the attributes will be separate fields to fill in, saved as separate rows in our database. This allows each attribute to be stored, searched, and so forth. A less-structured system may simply have a title field and a body field, where you can enter a blurb like, The London Bridge, May 22 1998, 20:00, London. If its important to be able to find, say, all photos from London, then structured content is a must for your website. If, on the other hand, you just want to show a list of images you may be able get away with more abstract, less-structured content.
Additionally, structured content systems will often provide the ability to create relationships between disparate types of contentfor example, a photo associated with an article. These sorts of relations can be very useful, and are usually not available in less-structured, more abstract systems.
At this point the differentiation between structured and abstract is a very important consideration when choosing a CMS. Structured content will always lend the most flexibility and reusability to your content. Abstract content may be simpler to maintain and may allow you to go with a less expensive content management platform.

Lightweight blogging platforms

In recent years, lightweight, low-cost (or free) blogging tools, such as WordPress and MovableType have been championed by many web designers as CMS tools that can be useful for much more than blogs. The reason this holds true is because these tools tend to have a very abstract sense of structure. Web designers and developers have been able to increase the abilities of these tools into being sort of CMS, by taking advantage of their less-structured nature and their templating capabilities.
These tools tend to be absolutely terrific at what they were originally designed for: blogging. When used in other ways, they can start to show their inadequacies. Theres no support for version control and no ability to create content types. Searching is limited to keywords and has no ability to filter more robustly. For these features, wed need a more structured system.
These lightweight, low cost blogging tools are usually quite easy to set up and use. They work great when theyre used within their means. If you find that your site is going to be managing content other than blogs, thoughbe wary. You may be able to make it work, but you may also be more well-served by a niche or custom solution.

Semi professional tools to manage content

These tools are mainly the result of great communities that push for a CMS to the midrange of sites. In this category you will likely to find the Joomla and Durpal as the more popular products and some less popular products like e107 and Jaws and even LifeRay portal that encompass some java standards.
The products here feature a lot of the more robust Enterprise feature but with an architecture that is not well scaled. This group of products is usually open source relaying on MySql as their DB and PHP as the main programming language. The main attraction of this group is the abilities that they encompass and the extensions that they offer. The community in the more popular products provides you with almost any wish you will ever have and thus enables you to accomplish your dream.
You will usually see these products in midrange organizations with a smaller amount of user base then the big organizations and with fewer requirements on the customization of the content types.
Content is not structured in these products and the main Article type covers most of the needs. Extensions usually supply you with the necessary content structure to support content like teasers and media in a more robust way.

Niche or industry-specific products

Another set of content management tools are those which handle a specific niche or industrys needs very well. If you can find one of these that suits your site, theyre often very effective and useful. They provide the benefits of a custom solution without the cost of building your own. CMS products in this category can be found for many industries, including Health Care, Education, Journalism, Law, Retail, and more. They tend to provide a much more structured-content approach than lightweight blogging tools and may be more aware of the roles of people in the organizations of their target market(s). This knowledge results in more streamlined, efficient products when used by the industries theyre designed for.
If you can find a good CMS product aimed at your industry, theyre usually a great choice for the short run. However, its not advisable to choose a CMS product aimed at a particular industry that your company for the long run since changes in the business focus will usually mean changing the CMS to a more general one.
These tools work great if you use them as intended and not-so-great if you start trying to go out of the box. Flexibility of these tools is usually not so good thus you are like a bird in a golden cage.

Enterprise content management

Enterprise-level content management tends to go above and beyond the duties of simpler systems, offering tools like content revision control, security, preservation, personalization, and access list management. While simpler systems may offer some of these features, Web Content Management systems (WCMs) tend to be far more robust. At the same time, these systems are very expensive, much more complicated to manage. The advantages of these systems are their flexibility and adaptability to the needs of the client and the current infrastructure. If you have a login directory with groups you can leverage it to be your credential system and authority system for the CMS. Some vendors of WCM like vignette offer a wide variety of supporting applications to enhance the business abilities, like Social networking and community applications to enable the application to handle UGC.
The abilities to model the content structure enables you to later on search by fields and make more sense of the content. The content modeling enables you create relationships between content thus helping you internationalize your content in a very simple structure of an article and translation articles associated to it.
WCM systems often focus on structure content, giving you the most robust solution but with a price tag. These systems will also enable you to derive content out of your legacy applications or databases and use it as if it was generated in the WCM system.
These systems will match a large organization that has the requirements of teams of content editors and many features. Media companies and banks will benefit greatly from the abilities of these tools and their ability to support hoards of people accessing their site.
The presentation layer of these products is usually a separate application, usually a portal, that enables the implementation team to create a very robust application to support many business needs like special search and integration RSS feds from other applications.

Custom solutions using web application frameworks

These adventures usually become very costly and tend to require a support team thus not really an alternative to the above. Its only a solution if your content is not the general content and your budget is big but not as big as ECM solution and its customization.

Conclusion

Choosing a tool for your site is a decision that shouldnt be made in haste. Putting the time in to identify the different types of content and the requirements from the presentation layer will help you in choosing the product thats right for your site and organization. You will also need to assess your budget and capabilities while considering the Enterprise vs. Semi professional systems.
The ideal way in proceeding from here is to draft you requirements and the candidates for solution and find out which one fits the best.
So all the best in your journey!

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