Friday, September 24, 2010

Do You Really Need a CMS? Think About It.

One of the first things we hear from clients when discussing a new web presence is that they need a content management system (CMS). If I were an unscrupulous website designer, I would nod my head in agreement and add the costs for such a request to my proposal, without discussion. However, I am not an unscrupulous web designer, and will open a conversation with the client about the necessity of a CMS. In many cases, a CMS is not needed and can be more detrimental to a small company than beneficial.

A CMS allows you to edit your website without involving a website designer. This probably sounds great and now you’re probably asking, “Hey, why wouldn’t I want that? I can take care of my site by myself, without having to know anything about web design!” Take a look at a list of pros and cons.

Pros of a CMS
•Can edit simple content without your website designer
•Format of content will be uniform across website, controlled by a CMS template
•Allows different people to access the CMS for content updates
•Puts the website owner in control

Cons of a CMS
•The cost of adding a CMS to a project can be considerable
•Code tends to be bloated and opens a website to multiple security holes
•Design can be constrained and restructed by the CMS framework
•Unless used regularly, users may forget how to use the CMS; learning curve can be substantial

The pros of a CMS are what everyone knows, and what everyone is told. However the cons are often shuffled under the table. You should definitely consider both the pros and cons when considering using one with your project.

How do you determine if you really need a CMS? Here are a few things to consider.

How often will the website be updated? What kinds of updates will they be?
If you are updating your website more than once or twice a month, a CMS may serve you well, depending on the types of updates you are making. However, if you are updating less than once a month, you will more likely be better off simply working with your website designer to make edits. If time is essential, it is simple enough to require a specific turnaround time for updates from your designer.

Do you have sufficient resources to commit to a CMS?
Many of my clients are small business owners, non-profit organizations, or sole proprietorships. The last thing they need is one more thing to worry about. If you are going to implement a CMS, you need to make sure you have people who will be responsible for using it regularly, or can commit to that time yourself. Additionally, consider that there is a learning curve. Do you have the time and patience to learn the CMS? Or will you be faced, down the road, with hiring a web designer to make those WordPress, Drupal or Joomla updates for you?

Do you plan on having a blog on your website?
Blogging has grown exponentially in recent years. It’s a great way to keep website content fresh. If you are planning on blogging than a CMS might be required. However, do not believe that a CMS is required to include a blog in your website; any blogging site has the capability to be included into your website as a live feed, with an active updated presence on any page of your website that you desire.

If maintenance will be done in house, do you or any of your staff know html?
Contrary to popular belief there are ways to maintain a website in house without a CMS. If you have someone who knows HTML, he/she will be able to edit the website directly. A standards based website separates content from the design so basic HTML skills are all that’s needed. More substantial design changes and updates can be handled by your web designer.

The case for not having a CMS
I recently collaborated with a top-notch IT firm on a several projects. One of their people had a saying, “All content management systems suck. Some just suck less.” While “suck” might be a bit strong, I can say from experience that adding a CMS does limit a website’s flexibility. Many CMSs have a pre built framework that has to be worked around. By their nature a CMS is also template based, which can be limiting. A CMS is also not always SEO friendly, much less so than a standard HTML or XHTML site (although moreso than a Flash design).

A website built without a CMS does not have these types of limitations. It will also have a much smaller code base and be less susceptible to security holes. When I build a website from scratch, I am familiar with every single piece of code, because I wrote it. I also know how it can be changed or manipulated to get the results that I and my client desire. The same cannot be said when relying on a CMS.

Too often, people see a CMS as some kind of magic bullet. But it really isn’t. I think there is something to be said for having an expert handling all your updates. Your website designer will ensure the quality of any edits and will also have ideas to share with you regarding making improvements to your website.

There are definitely websites and organizations that require a CMS. However, there are cases where one is simply not needed or necessary. This decision should be made in consultation with your website designer rather than you simply making it a requirement because it is something you heard about, because it is the "new" thing, or because CMS is the latest buzzword. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous website designers who will be quick to add that cost to your proposal even if it isn’t necessary.