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Content Management System: What it is, functions and everything else you need to know

CMS - Content Management System concept illustration

Big words and phrases can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to creating a website. Acronyms are confusing too.

One of those big, but crucial-to-know phrases and acronym is CMS, an acronym for Content Management System.

But what exactly is a CMS? What does it do? And how exactly do you use one?

In this guide, we explain in detail what a CMS is, types, functions and how you can use one for your website design and set up.

What is a CMS (Content Management System)?

A content management system (CMS), is a software application that is used to create, edit and manage digital and web content. Contents in a CMS is usually stored in a database and displayed in a presentation layer based on a set of templates.

In simpler language, a content management system is a software tool that helps you build a website from scratch without necessarily having to write all the HTML code from scratch yourself.

You may have seen acronyms like WCMS (web content management system) and ECMS (enterprise content management system). The lines between them are blurry, but a CMS, a WCMS, and an ECMS are just other ways to say content management system, but for different situations.

Do I need to learn coding to use a CMS?

No! You do not need to know how to code at all to use a CMS to build and manage your website or digital content.

Functions

The main function of a CMS is to enable users to create, edit, and manage content on the web or on an intranet. That’s it. However, there’s more to a CMS than just that allowing users edit and manage digital content.

Beyond creating and designing websites, you can also find and use content management systems for other functions such as document management.

Features of a content management system

There are two key features every CMS has: a WYSIWYG editor and FTP. I know, that’s a lot of letters, so let’s simplify both of those.

WYSIWYG editor

image of a WYSIWYG dashboard to explain the concept of WYSIWYG visual editor

WYSIWYG is a short acronym for “What You See is What You Get”. It is a visual page editor that lets you visualize the content you put and see the output even before you save or publish.

In simpler language, a WYSIWYG looks like your typical word processor – like Google Docs or Microsoft Word, you type something in, it takes its form and you see what it would look like when you save or publish.

FTP

FTP is a short acronym for “File Transfer Protocol”. It’s a way of transferring files between computer systems or servers. It’s how content is uploaded and downloaded from the CMS.

While a visual editor and File transfer protocol are the two key features of any content management system, there are plenty of other features that most CMSs have including:

  • Indexing: With indexing, you can search for content with specific parameters such as publish dates, keywords, authors, etc.
  • Ability to scan paper documents and convert them to HTML or PDF documents.
  • Content editing: You can still update and edit contents even after it’s been published and still keep track of all changes.
  • Change URLs and links: Your website will have SEO-friendly URLs.
  • Design templates: You can use the CMS’ templates to create content and pages.
  • With one-to-one marketing, you can customize your website and advertising to match certain characteristics of your users, according to their interests and preferences.
  • Access to discussion boards and technical help.

The beauty of a content management system is that it allows you to quickly update content without needing to change much, or any of the actual code. You simply go into the CMS, use the WYSIWYG editor to edit, add or remove what you want, and you’re done.

Difference Between A CMS and A Website Builder

The main difference between a CMS and a Website builder is: With a standard website builder, your content belongs to the web hosting provider, while a CMS gives you complete control over your content.

Additionally, website builders such as Wix tend to make it easier to customize the design of a website without needing to do any code. Some content management systems have that function, but most would require some basic knowledge of coding or HTML if you want to make huge or custom website design changes.

With a CMS, you can publish your content with any hosting provider you want. Website builders are much easier to use, but Content management systems have much more customizability.

CMS Examples: What Are the Biggest CMS’s?

The most popular CMS platforms are:

  • WordPress
  • Drupal
  • Joomla
  • Website builder software: Wix, Squarespace and Weebly.

Although many of the big and popular CMS platforms are free, understandably, they’re also the most popular because they’re downright good.

WordPress

WordPress logo

Just as Google is to search, so is WordPress to content management systems.

WordPress powers 30% of all websites, which is significantly more than the other top options. They currently own a staggering 60% market share out of all CMSs, with Joomla coming second at 6.3%. It’s really no contest.

But once you see how powerful and easy to use WordPress is, you’ll understand why they win over the hearts of businesses like TechCrunch and Vanity Fair.

When it comes to a CMS, it’s hard to beat WordPress. It’s relatively easy to use, has thousands of website themes and plugins, and can do just about anything you need it to.

Drupal

Drupal content management system

Drupal is a developer type of CMS for those who know their way around HTML, CSS, and PHP. And if you had to Google those acronyms, you may not be ready for this CMS.

But if you know what you’re doing when it comes to coding or you want to learn, Drupal can be a great choice. Its forte is power, but it also provides lots of modules, image styles, and customizable everything.

Joomla

Joomla Content management system user interface

If you do not like the sound of the previous two options, Joomla is the CMS for you. It’s the balance between WordPress’ simplicity and Drupal’s power and customization. As far as popularity goes, it’s second to WordPress but beats out Drupal.

Other CMS Options

Even though the above mentioned three CMS’s are the giants in the content management systems world, they’re not the only ones. So below are some of those other options available (some are free and others would require payments).

dotCMS

dotCMS does more than just websites — it can handle intranets, mobile apps, and literally anything that requires an internet connection. It’s tailored toward big companies that need workflows to fit their systems and who need easy integration with third-party software.

Hippo CMS

Hippo CMS (now Bloomreach) is a content management system for enterprises. It comes with analytics that measures and shows which content has the highest conversion rates and engagement to its audience and delivers personalized targeted digital experiences based on that insight. This can be a nice tool for any size company or entrepreneurs of varying success levels.

SharePoint

SharePoint offers a way to store, manage, and share info within a company.

Magnolia CMS

Magnolia CMS runs on Java and it’s an open-source CMS. Its main purpose is to help businesses manage content across multiple channels, languages, and websites with ease. If you need fast speeds and easy integration, this CMS might be a good option.

Documentum

Documentum (now owned by OpenText), is an enterprise content management platform with tools that help businesses easily store and quickly retrieve content. Users respect if for how much control you have with it.

How To Choose A CMS

Okay, so that’s a lot of info. There are a ton of CMSs, so how in the world can you choose just the right one?

For 60% of people using a CMS, the answer is WordPress.

how to choose CMS - WordPress vs Joomla vs Drupal

Out of all of the choices, consider choosing one of the top three most popular CMS options: WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. That way, you’ll have a CMS that’s tried and true, with huge support communities waiting in the wings if you need help.

Still not sure? Here’s how you can narrow your options.

Figure out the purpose of your website

Ask yourself what you need your website to do. Is it a blog, an ecommerce site, or something else?

If you’re just blogging or making a typical business website, WordPress is probably your best bet. But if you need a full-on website with all the bells and whistles, you may want to look into Joomla or Drupal (professional web developer may be required).

How big is your operation?

Do you need a portfolio for yourself? Are you running a one-man business that you hope to scale? Are you part of an enterprise? How big is your company?

The answers to these questions can impact which CMS you decide to go with.

For example, if you’re a multi-million-dollar enterprise with multiple administrators, a free WordPress website built by you is not going to do you much good, unless you know what you’re doing.

WordPress can handle massive loads, and major brands all around the world use it, but you’ll need to be sure you build your site appropriately.

The CMS needs to fit, so what’s your size?

Are you willing to pay?

As earlier mentioned, some CMSs are free and some require a bit of investment (money and time). So, what are you willing to pay for this website?

Keep in mind, if you use a free CMS or website builder, you’ll probably end up paying for other things that a paid CMS includes, like hosting and technical support.

Plus, you may need to hire a web developer to help you customize your site, regardless of which CMS you choose.

CMS digital content management

Who will be managing the CMS content?

This is an important one. If you’ll be managing it, then it really depends on your expertise with coding and web developing. But if you’ll be hiring someone, you can try one of the more complicated CMS’s (like Drupal) because you know an expert will be dealing with it.

Conclusion

Hopefully by now, you have a better idea of what a CMS is, what it can do, who it’s for, and how to pick the right one for you or your business.

A CMS essentially makes tedious tasks, like manually updating content on a site, much easier. See, that wasn’t too complicated.

References and Resources