This section is for people who are unfamiliar with content management systems (CMS) or want to know more about them before deciding which one to use.

The guide is designed with expert users in mind but we have not forgotten the needs of new users and in response to that have put together a section which describes what a content management system and what it does.

We have also included a subsection entitled choosing a CMS which is there to help you make that decision.

Do you need a CMS?

A CMS is a good solution for many people but there are exceptions to this. It works better with dynamic websites, e.g. those which have interactive features such as photo galleries, forums etc, but is not needed for small, static websites such as those with only five pages, artistic websites or brochureware sites.

*Brochureware is a term used to refer to websites which contain promotional information about a person or company and is rarely updated. They are useful for small businesses that only require a presence on the web in the form of location and contact details but do not have any interactive features on their site, e.g. shopping cart.

If you are looking to have a website but are not sure whether you need it built with a CMS then think about what type of website it is and what you want it to do.

Find out more in the choosing a CMS section.

What is a CMS?

A content management system is as the name says: it is a system which enables content (e.g. text, images, blogs etc) to be created, edited and published on a website for general viewing.

This can be done by people with no programming experience or technical skills in general. These content authors and editors help to manage the content on the website, ensuring that it is timely, accessible and conforms to current web standards. They also ensure that it is user friendly.

A CMS also enables developers and designers to change aspects of a website, for example the layout of the pages or applying a certain look to the site by means of a series of templates. If someone wants their website to have a particular colour scheme, logo and set of images on their website then this can be done via a set of tools within the CMS.

There is also the option to extend a website by adding extra features, for example, a blog, Google Map, news display etc. These are known as ‘extensions’,‘add-ons’, ‘plug-ins’or ‘modules’and mean that the website is able to perform a greater range of functions than before.

The difference between this and a website which has been built using a web authoring tool such as Dreamweaver (HTML site) is greater interaction between the visitor and the website. Plus the content is kept separate from the design unlike an HTML site.

This content does not exist as a series of web pages: it is stored in a database as part of the CMS and only comes into being as web pages when requested by a web browser, e.g. Internet Explorer. These pages are built using bits of content from folders (e.g. images) within the site and a series of templates with the aim of presenting a consistent and visually appealing website to the visitor.

These templates enable content to be added, edited and published quickly and easily. This content is then immediately available online.

Note: when we say publish we mean making the content visible to people who visit a website.

If a change needs to be made then it is reflected across the entire website. For example, if the website is accessible to visitors in another country then there will be an alternative language option on that site.

What do we mean by content?

The term ‘content’does not just include text but refers to a range of media such as photos, videos, audio clips, blogs, forums, news feeds (e.g. RSS feeds), social media such as Facebook etc.

Advantages of a CMS

These include:

  • Being able to make changes quickly and efficiently
  • Enables greater interactivity between the visitor and the website.
  • The content can be edited by people with no technical skills or experience.
  • Ideal for websites which need to be updated on a regular basis.
  • Changes to content can be done immediately and online
  • A CMS built site can be up and running quickly compared to other options, e.g. PHP.
  • There are numerous add-ons which can extend and improve its functionality (the way it behaves).
  • Templates can be modified to achieve a certain aesthetic ‘look’ for a website.
  • Cost effective in that it enables technical staff to be engaged on other activities rather than performing low level tasks which can be done by people with no prior experience.

Which CMS should you choose?

There are numerous CMSs available which perform these functions but with a few variations between them. They all have their advantages and disadvantages so it is a case of being clear about why you might need a CMS and then, which type to use.

There are many free CMSs out there which are known as ‘open source’systems in that they are (usually) free to download and use. The alternative is a propriety system or ‘commercial CMS’ which is often preferred by businesses and organisations.

Find out more in the next section choosing a CMS.