Let’s face it, most content management systems look the same there days. They all offer very similar functionality. After all, most people want similar things. Once you have narrowed the field by price it can be hard to make the final decision.
However, functionality and price should not be the only criteria by which you make your judgement. There are a number of additional issues which need considering. In many ways these are just as important.
- The development team
- Accessibility and code quality
- Documentation and training
We should begin by looking at the subject of licensing.
Examine in detail the license attached to your choice of cms. It is not uncommon to find licenses that state you can make no change to the source code or use a alternative developer.
You may also find that licensing is per site or worse still per user. This can become very expensive if you want to setup multiple sites or have a large number of content contributors.
Ideally you want an agreement that allows unlimited use of the cms with the exception of reselling.
The development team
Look carefully at the development team behind any cms you are considering. For example is it an open source project with a community of developers or the product of a single company?
Neither approach is wrong. However you need to be confident in the long term health of the product.
Open source projects can be highly productive despite often being created by volunteers. That said, they can die off quickly if a more attractive project comes along. If you are considering an open source solution look at the age of the product. Mature products are more likely to remain supported in the long term.
With a commercial product you need to be confident in the long term viability of that company. Consider requesting a copy of their accounts to confirm their financial stability.
In both cases look for a team that are regularly releasing updates to their system. This is particularly important from a security perspective.
Security is an important issue for any content management system. If your site is hacked you could loose content and find yourself in litigation if hackers get hold of your users personal data.
Judging the security of a content management system is not easy unless you have technical expertise. If unsure, get an experts opinion. However at the very least you can do a google search on the name of the cms and ‘security issues’. If you see lots of results then you will definitely want an expert opinion.
Accessibility and code quality is another important, and yet hard to judge, issue.
Accessibility and code quality
As we established in chapter 7 it is important to build using the latest best practice. This ensures your site is accessible and provides the flexibility to adapt over time.
Judging whether a content management system uses best practice is difficult if you are not a web designer. However, talk to the cms developers about their approach to accessibility. Equipped with the knowledge from chapter 7, you should be able to get an indication of their competency.
One aspect of best practice we have yet to discuss are webpage addresses. For a long time content management systems produced addresses that were hard to read. For example:
However, more recently content management developers have realized this is hard to read and damaging to search engines placement. Therefore modern content management systems produce addresses that look more like this:
This is a huge step forward and also allows the web address to be used as a navigational tool. Users can identify where they are in the site and even edit the url to find different pages. For example if the above address is shortened to:
it will return all pages within the technology section.
Whenever possible look for systems that support friendly urls. They are a good feature to have and provide an indication of how up-to-date the practices of the developers are. If a cms supports friendly urls they probably support accessibility and standards too.
Additional information on best practice should also be made available through the documentation that supports the cms. This too is an important differentiating factor.
Documentation and training
Good documentation is a crucial component of any cms. As I have already said, content providers may not be using the system on a daily basis. They can easily forget how it works. Documentation should therefore be comprehensive and easy to use. Some content management systems also provide walkthroughs and video tutorials. These also help users understand how the system operates.
There should also be documentation for developers too. This will enable your web team to adapt the cms to better suit your needs. Without this it can be nearly impossible to work out how the cms works.
Alongside documentation, training is another useful resource. This is important for content providers who need more than a manual before they start using the system. Training provides them with hands on experience and the opportunity to ask questions.
No matter how good the cms and supporting documentation, there are occasions when you will require additional support.
You need to ask some hard questions about support. What happens if you identify a bug in the content management system? Will you be required to pay for the fix? How fast can you expect a response? Do you require 24/7 support?
You need to know your requirements and have a good understanding of what the cms provider can offer.
Beyond fixes, there are broader questions about help. If you have a problem with the system is there somebody you can turn to for advice. Do you have to pay for this support and when is this support available?
Of course not all content management systems come with support. It is unusual for anything but enterprise level systems to offer this option. If it is not available you need to look at whether the system has a vibrant community.
The community is made up of other individuals who use the cms. They share advice and experiences via forums, mailing lists and support sites. Such communities are particularly important for open source content management systems because these products rarely offer formal support and training. However, many commercial products also have excellent online communities.
A good community will be able to answer questions, offer support and even make available a range of plugins that can be used with your cms. Before investing in a cms ensure it has a vibrant community. Visit the support site and look at how many users are registered and how often they post. Examine the kind of topics people are discussing and particularly how supportive they are to new users. It is not unusual to find apparently vibrant communities that are hostile to new users asking ‘dumb questions.’
For more from the Website Owners Manual and early access to chapters as they are written go to the books website.