What is a “CMS” or Content Management System?
I recently saw a TV commercial put out by 1&1 internet about how you can create your website in minutes. These types of services always make me laugh. You get to select your template, type in your text, define your color scheme, upload a logo and you’re online ready to do business with your new “custom” website. Ha! Sounds easy doesn’t it. Sure… if you want to look like you bought a website and put it together in 15 minutes… that is a perfect solution. You’re never going to be MY client with that mindset. I believe that a website is an experience. It is an extension of your brand… your company… your face to the internet. If that’s the image you want, the 15 minute website, then have at it. Hope it works out for you! The majority of OUR clients want to convey an image… a statement about how they want to communicate with online users and, in many times, their first contact with a potential customer.
When we’re done creating a website, or even during the sales process, the topic of “how do we change things on our website” always comes up. In the not to distant past, the answer was… just send us the updates and we’ll update the site for you or you can get Adobe Dreamweaver and learn how to edit HTML. The other option was to have your site developed on a CMS or content management system. I hated them. All of them… and for good reasons. To me… CMS was a dirty word for a site that was uninteresting, visually dull and cookie cutter.
Until recently, most CMS systems confined your design abilities to a series of “stock” templates that were fairly rigid when it came to customizing design and user experience. This went against my core belief that form is always more important than function. You see, the websites that we create at SaucePan Creative are “custom” designed for the client and the particular branding we are trying to build. When we’re forced into a “box” with the various CMS systems, we don’t like that because it makes us have trade-offs.
Another major drawback to a CMS system was the fact that, generally, the code set was not “open” for development. By this I mean that it was, or is, proprietary to the company who produced the system. One example would be a system designed by Microsoft, a company who is notorious for building software that is proprietary to other Microsoft software and requires certified developers to maintain or modify. This is a HUGE issue with me. Most Microsoft products or other proprietary systems are far more bloated than they need to be and cumbersome for “real” developers to work with. Their efforts to make things easy for the masses do nothing more than cause inefficient systems and non-standard compliant code. The first generations of Microsoft “Front Page” (an HTML Website Editor) is an example of a piece of software that tried to make website editing “easy” and did nothing more than DESTROY well written HTML code with Microsoft junk code.
Another example of a bad CMS would be WordPress. While I have extensive experience using WordPress as a blogging platform, and customizing the look and feel to our needs, I feel that WordPress is dipping their toes into the website CMS area by the pervasive use of the WordPress platform as a Website CMS combined with a blogging platform. If you’re on a shoe string budget, WordPress can get the job done and provide the novice internet user the ability to maintain their website content rather effectively… as long as you like boxes. However, I don’t consider WordPress a platform to launch a major corporate website (I challenge you to find any fortune 500 company using WordPress as a corporate website platform.) There are many intricate “hacks” that need to take place to perform functions that are very easy to implement when dealing with true HTML and other coding languages that are more open. WordPress is built on PHP and MySQL so at least we can get in and modify the site functions, but again, these are often “hacks” or require 3rd party plug-ins to achieve basic functionality tweaks that are easy with a custom built website. I spend more time just trying to find the page that has the code I need to modify than doing the modifications themselves.
Fast forward to today… As the coding platforms and other “open source” systems have evolved, I am happy to say that there are viable options to effective CMS systems. At SaucePan Creative have begun to utilize an “enterprise” class CMS software called “Expression Engine” as the basis for all of our websites. So, we can offer a true CMS system with a custom design, standards based compliant HTML / CSS, and specific programming modifications to allow the site to just about anything it needs to do. From a developer perspective, the ability to control all aspects of the coding is essential to a long-term viable website that will last. That’s what we have with the Expression Engine system.
There is another benefit to using Expression Engine for all of our clients. We’re dealing with only 1 type of code set. We’re not having to learn the system all over again when a modification needs to be done. In addition, many of our sites have had specific customizations that are easily adapted for any of our sites that utilize the Expression Engine platform. Take, for example, we develop a specific plug-in that allows integration with a third party website like “Mail Chimp.” Say a user wants to sign up for an email newsletter with one of our sites and we develop a plugin that allows this email to be dumped directly into their Mail Chimp account. We can share this plug-in with an of our sites who want to utilize it without re-writing it. This makes us more efficient and allows all of our sites to benefit from many different industries specific needs. A win-win. This move to “standardize” our platform will help us to serve our customers with more innovative web solutions for years to come. We won’t be talking about re-working the website… we’ll just be talking about enhancing the website. While it may cost a little more to build the site initially, this can pay dividends in the long run through easy adaptations and feature modifications. Often times this is a difficult benefit to sell during the sales process… but I feel it is one of the MAJOR issues that anyone who is looking for a new web site needs to consider.
To sum this up. I no longer consider a CMS a “dirty word” as long as it is done properly with an “open” platform to allow the design and user experience to dictate what the technology has to make happen. I consider our approach like the Apple approach. The user is always the most important thing. Nice type, white space, fast loading pages with properly written code are all factors that I place heavy emphasis on rather than making a site that just so happens to fit in the “box” that the opposite approach offers.