10 criteria for selecting a CMS

Paul Boag

Choosing a content management system can be tricky. Without a clearly defined set of requirements you will be seduced by fancy functionality that you will never use. What then should you look for in a CMS?

I have written about content management systems before. I have highlighted the hidden costs of a CMS, explained the differentiators behind the feature list and even provided advice for CMS users. However, I have never asked what features you should be looking for in a content management systems. That is what I want to address here.

Illustration of a sales man selling a CMS the client does not need.

When I left home for University my mother taught me a valuable lesson. If you want to save money, never go grocery shopping when you are hungry and always write a list. If you don’t you will be tempted to buy things you do not need.

The same principle is true when it comes to selecting a content management system. Without a clearly defined set of requirements you will be seduced by fancy functionality that you will never use. Before you know it you will be buying an enterprise level system for tens of thousands of dollars when a free blogging tool would have done.

How then do you establish your list of requirements? Although your circumstances will vary there are ten areas that are particularly important.

1. Core functionality

When most people think of content management, they are thinking of the creation, deletion, editing and organizing of pages. They assume all content management systems do this and so take the functionality for granted. However that is not necessarily the case. There is also no guarantee that it is done in an intuitive fashion.

Not all blogging platforms for example allow the owner to manage and organize pages into a tree hierarchy. Instead the individual ‘posts’ are automatically organized by criteria such as date or category. In some situations this is perfectly adequate. In fact this limitation in functionality keeps the interface simple and easy to understand. However, in other circumstances the absence of this functionality can be frustrating.

Blogger Homepage

Consider carefully the basic functionality you need. Even if you do not require the ability to structure and organize pages now, you may in the future. Be wary of any system that does not allow you to complete these core activities.

Also ask yourself how easy it is to complete these tasks. There are literally thousands of content management systems on the market, the majority of which offer the core functionality. However they vary hugely in usability. Alway look to test a system for usability before making a purchase.

The editor is one core feature worth particular attention.

2. The editor

The majority of content management systems have a WYSIWYG editor. Strangely this editor is often ill considered, despite the fact that it is the most used feature within the system.

The editor is the interface through which content is added and amended. Traditionally, it has also allowed the content provider to apply basic formatting such as the selection of fonts and colour. However more recently there has been a move away from this type of editor to something that reflects the principles of best practice.

The danger of traditional WYSIWYG editors is two fold. First, they give the content provider too much design control. They are able to customize the appearance of a page to such an extent that it could undermine the consistence of design and branding. Second, in order to achieve this level of design control the cms mixes design and content.

The new generation of editors take a different approach. The content provider uses the editor to markup headings, lists, links and other elements without dictating how they should appear.

Wordpress WYSIWYG

Ensure your list of requirements include an editor that uses this approach and does not give content providers control over appearance. At the very least look for content management systems that allow the editor to be replaced with a more appropriate solution.

The editor should also be able to handle external assets including images and downloads. That brings us on to the management of these assets.

3. Managing assets

Managing images and files are badly handled by some cms packages. Issues of accessibility and ease of use can cause frustration with badly designed systems. Images in particular can cause problems. Ensure that the content management system you select forces content provider to add alt attributes to imagery. You may also want a cms that provides basic image editing tools such as crop, resize and rotate. However, finding such a cms can be a challenge.

Also consider how the content management system deals with uploading and attaching PDFs, Word documents and other similar files. How are they then displayed to users? What descriptions can be attached to the files and is the search capable of indexing them.

Search is an important aspect of any site. Approximately half of users will start with search when looking for content. However, often the search functionality available in content management systems is inadequate.

Here are a few things to look for when assessing search functionality:

  • Freshness – How often does the search engine index your site? This is especially important if your site changes regularly.
  • Completeness – Does it index the entire content of each page? What about attached files such as PDFs, Word documents, Excel and Powerpoint?
  • Speed – Some search engines can take an age to return results. This is especially common on large sites.
  • Scope – Can you limit the scope of search to a particular section of the site or refine search results once returned?
  • Ranking – How does the search engine determine the ranking of results? Can this be customized either by the website owner or by the user?
  • Customization – Can you control how results are returned and customize the design?

The issue of customization is one that goes far beyond search.

5. Customization

I have been unfortunate enough to work with content management systems that are completely inflexible in their presentation.

Illustration demonstrating the inflexibility of some CMS

The presentation of your content should not be dictated by technology. It is simply not necessary now that we have techniques for separating design and content. Unfortunately like web designers, many content management providers have failed to adopt best practice and their systems produce horrendous code. This places unreasonable constraints on design and seriously impacts accessibility.

You need a content management system that allows flexibility in the way content is returned and presented. For example can you return news stories in reverse chronological order? Can you display events on a calendar? Is it possible to extract the latest user comments and display them on the homepage? It is flexibility that makes a cms stand out.

Talking of user comments, it is worth mentioning all forms of user interactions.

6. User interaction

If you intend to gather user feedback, your cms must provide that functionality or allow third party plugins to do so. Equally, if you want a community on your site then you will require functionality such as chat, forums, comments and ratings.

As a minimum you will require the ability to post forms and collect the responses. How easy does the cms make this process? Can you customize the fields or does that require technical expertise? What about the results? Can you specify who they are emailed to? Can they be written to a database or outputted as an excel document? Consider the type of functionality that you will require and look for a cms that supports that.

Also ask what tools exist for communicating with your customers. Can you send email newsletters? Can recipients be organized into groups who are mailed individually? What about news feeds and RSS?

Finally consider how you want users to be managed. Do you need to reset passwords or set permissions? Do you need to be able to export user information into other systems?

But it is not just user permissions that may need managing. You also have to consider permissions for those editing the site.

7. Roles and permissions

As the number of content providers increase, you will want more control over who can edit what. For example, personnel should be able to post job advertisements but not add content to the homepage. This requires a content management system that supports permissions. Although implementation can vary, permissions normally allow you to specify whether users to edit specific pages or even entire sections of the site.

Illustration showing the consequences of not having a permissions system

As the number of contributors grows still further you may require one individual to review the content being posted to ensure accuracy and consistent tone. Alternatively content might be inputed by a junior member of staff who requires the approval of somebody more senior before making that content live.

In both cases this requires a cms that supports multiple roles. This can be as simple as editors and approver, or complex allowing customized roles with different permissions.

Finally, enterprise level content management systems support entire workflows where a page update has to go through a series of checkpoints before being allowed to go live. These complex scenarios require the ability to roll back pages to a pervious version.

8. Versioning

Being able to revert to a previous version of a page allows you to quickly recover if something is posted by accident.

Some content management systems have complex versioning that allow you to rollback to a specific date. However, in most cases this is overkill. The most common use of versioning is simply to return to the last saved state.

Although this sounds like an indispensable feature, in my experience it is rarely used expect in complex workflow situations. That said, although versioning was once a enterprise level tool it is increasingly becoming available in most content management systems. This is also true of multi-site support.

9. Multiple site support

With more content management systems allowing you to run multiple websites from the same installation, I would recommend that this is a must-have feature.

Although you may not currently need to manage more than a single site, that could change. You may decide to launch a new site targeting a different audience.

Alternatively with the growth of the mobile web, you may create a separate site designed for mobile devices. Whatever the reason, having the flexibility to run multiple websites is important.

Movable Type admin system

Another feature that you may not require immediately but could need in the future, is multilingual support.

10. Multilingual support

It is easy to dismiss the need to support multiple languages. Your site may be targeted specifically at the domestic market or you may sell a language specific product. However think twice before dismissing this requirement.

Even if your product is language specific, that could change. It is important that your cms can grow with your business and changing requirements.

Also just because you are targeting the domestic market does not mean you can ignore language. We live in a multicultural society where numerous languages are spoken. Being able to accommodate these differences provides a significant edge on your competition.

That said, do think through the ramifications of this requirement. Just because you have the ability to add multiple languages doesn’t mean you have the content. Too many of my clients have insisted on multilingual support and yet have never used it. They have failed to consider where they are going to get the content translated and how they intend to pay for it.


Features are an important part of the CMS selection process, but they are not everything. It is also important to consider issues like licensing, support, accessibility, security, training and much more.

I leave you with a word of warning – Don’t let your list of requirements become a wish list. Keep your requirements to a minimum, but at the same time keep an eye on the future. Its a fine line to walk. On one hand you don’t want to pay for functionality you never use. On the other, you do not want to be stuck with a content management system that no longer meets your needs.

This has been an extract from the Website Owners Manual – now available as an ebook and for preorder in print.