Choosing a CMS (Content Management System)

For a lot of Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) choosing a Content Management System (CMS) may seem like a daunting task but there is probably no real need for you to wade through pages of technical documentation of laboriously comparing the features and  technical details of countless systems.  All mainstream CMS platforms do essentially the same thing and in the hands of an experienced team all can achieve the look and the functions your business requires. (The finer details between the different platforms are the kind of things that geeks argue about over dinner. Kind of like normal people argue about who is the better football player or best movie/song.)

For the SME the reality is that the most important step is choosing between an open source and a proprietary CMS . 

For the SME the reality is that the most important step is choosing between an open source and a proprietary CMS system and how that may effect your business over the medium to longer term  especially if the complexity and size of your website is likey to grow. 

Open Source software is more often than not free to use and supported by community of geeks around the world who take responsibly for keeping the core code base up to date and bug free. They also add features over time based on feedback from people using the system.

To get to the core of the potential pitfalls of choosing the wrong side of this divide there are a couple of simple questions business owners can ask themselves and their potential web team.

Q1. What happens if I at some point want to take my website elsewhere?

If the designer is using an open source system (eg Wordpress, Joomla or Drupal)  their answer should be something along these lines,

A. We would do everything we could possibly do to keep you as a client but if you were determined that you could find better services elsewhere your new provider can easily move the site to a new server. Any web guy worth their salt should be able to pick up where we left off.

If your web designer suggests that the site cannot be moved or that no-one else could possibly work on their code then they are offering you a proprietary system and you will be locked in to something that may not suit your purposes. If/when you cease using their services you would have to rebuild with the next provider you found.  You are essentially leasing your website as a service and when that relationship ends so does your site. 

Platforms like Shopify and Squarespace are quick to build on and therefore you can get to market quickly

That is not all doom and gloom and for certain applications, propriety systems are a great answer. Platforms like Shopify and Squarespace are quick to build on and therefore you can get to market quickly. This is a big advantage if your business needs to rapidly build and test a product offering with a simple e-commerce solution (Shopify) or deploy a mini site for a short run marketing campaign (Square Space).

For a longer term commitment or a site on a larger scale site you may need something with more capacity for growth and that leads to the second useful question you should ask.

Q2. What happens if I at some point need a custom feature like a '....insert custom feature request here....' ?

If you developer/designer can't answer this question clearly they may be out of their depth or locking you into a system they have no control over. 

When it comes to customisation you simply will find it hard to  beat an open source CMS

A proprietary system owned by your local web development agency can be customised to suit your needs (after all they wrote it in the first place) but they will be doing that just for you and that will come at a price. When it comes to customisation you simply will find it hard to  beat an open source CMS. The code can be modified when it needs to be  and often it has already been done by someone else. (Or at least you can get a head start by looking at how people have built features that almost do what you want). All the main ones have high worldwide developer communities and forums online where your web team can and will find answers to nearly every possible question or strange error.

Larger scale proprietary systems like Adobe's Business Catalyst, Shopify and Square Space are simply harder to tweak to your individual needs. As mentioned before, this is not necessarily the end of the world but understanding the possible pitfalls of your choice is important. 

Useful links and examples of each platform: