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Choosing a CMS in 10 Steps

Picture this: you have a great website contract, a stunning design, and everything is ready to roll. Except for one little problem: which content management system (CMS) should be used?

There's no real right or wrong answer to this question, but it can certainly cause a lot of grief if you're battling the technology rather than being assisted by it. So here's a couple of handy pointers to help with the decision:

1. Blog or CMS?

If the website is primarily going to handle 'posts' - journal entries spread out in time - then a blog is more appropriate. If on the other hand you need to organise a quantity of more structured articles, such as sales literature or support documents, a CMS is going to be your best bet.

There's actually a fair amount of crossover between blogs and CMS systems these days, but you may as well start out with a tool that's specialised for the task at hand.

Wordpress is becoming fairly ubiquitous for blogging, with a vast range of third-party themes and plugins available.

2. Self-hosted or cloud-hosted

'CMS as a service', where the software is pre-installed and ready to use, is becoming increasingly popular. Available at a whole range of price points, from web-builder type software with pre-designed templates (such as Jimdo) right up to fully fledged business solutions.

For blogging, there are popular pre-installed choices such as and

If you are planning to write your own modules, in a language such as PHP or ASP.NET, or require bespoke database interaction, you're probably going to require a self-hosted solution. Popular solutions here include Joomla, Drupal, and Expression Engine.

Cloud-hosted CMS platforms usually benefit from being very quick and easy to set up, but it's important to check what data backup procedures are in place since you most likely won't have direct access to the hosting environment.

3. Programming Language

For cloud-hosted solutions this isn't an issue, but if you're installing it yourself the language the CMS is written in (as well as the database that persists it) is going to be an important factor - especially if the client already has a server they wish to use.

Popular choices here include PHP, ASP.NET, Java, and Ruby is spreading quickly too.

4. Built-In Features

You might find it useful at this stage to draw a spider diagram with 'Website' in the middle, and broad technical requirements on each of the spokes. Keep going out until you've exhausted every possible situation.

Which CMS seems to fit the bill most closely? The closer the match, the better.

Here's a couple of the more obvious features:

* Allow for easy management of articles, and the publication of new ones
* Upload and manage images and files
* Customisation of templates (whether in vanilla HTML or a scripting language such as PHP)
* Blogging or news-posting
* RSS feeds
* Embedding of custom HTML such as YouTube video or Google Maps
* Contact forms
* Galleries
* Website login accounts, with the ability to set user-only content
* E-commerce facilities
* Forum
* SEO tools such as meta and title tag control
* Permissions - the ability to allow only certain users to control certain articles or features
* Workflow tools - allowing a logical flow to the creation and approval of content
* Document lifecycle tools - keeping a record of all revisions made to a particular article

5. Page-centric or content-centric

Some CMSs have the 'page' as the unit of content. In others, content exists in units independent of pages, with one or more content items being displayed on a particular page.

The former method is definitely easier to grasp, and works well if the website is relatively small or the end user is not technical. The latter is more powerful, and can support 'content-reuse', where blocks of content can be reused on other pages or even websites in multi-site implementations.

6. Usability

Who is going to be using the CMS on a day-to-day basis? If they're not particularly technical then this is a crucial point, otherwise you will be inundated with support requests.

For example, not all CMS's allow for WYSIWYG editing, meaning the user is going to have to learn either basic HTML or a similar in order to format their content. Are they capable? How much training will they require, and who's going to perform that training?

Choose a CMS which is appropriate for the end-user.

7. Support and Documentation

This is a crucial one too - how much support and documentation are available to you as a developer while you build the website? You don't want to be left high and dry with important deadlines to meet.

What are the ongoing support costs from the vendor, and does this cover software upgrades?

8. Compatibility

Most CMS systems run in the browser - it's worth checking what operating system the end-user has, and what browser they have installed. Unfortunately some corporate users may not have administrative permission to install the browser you wish they had!

Does the CMS need to interface with any other business software - the most obvious being Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software? It's definitely a bonus if after filling in an online contact form, the customer's information is seamlessly imported into their CRM profile.

Thanks to XML and web services, the CMS can work as part of a larger whole rather than being a single silo of information.

9. Accessibility

It's a legal requirement in many countries that a website is accessible to users with various disabilities such as visual impairment. So be sure that your chosen CMS can publish content meeting relevant accessibility legislation.

Typically this means meeting the WCA guidelines with a double-A rating.

10. Advanced Features

Is your website going to be serving content in different languages, content that is targeted to a particular geographic region, or publishing content to multiple websites? Does the CMS support the character set of all the target languages?

This makes the CMS implementation considerably more complex, and will narrow the choices quite considerably.


There are many factors to consider when choosing a CMS, and it's not likely you'll find a perfect match, particularly for more complex projects. The key is to prioritise requirements and find a solution which offers the closest match. I hope you've found the pointers above useful in choosing a CMS for your project.


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