New Website Setup with a CMS

Using a Content Management System (CMS) is the most straightforward way to keep your website maintained. A CMS automatically gives you a web-based interface allowing you to administer your site from the browser. If you don’t have coding skills, but still want to maintain your website yourself, this is the preferred option. However, please be advised some learning will still be essential.

You should also be aware that there are some general limitations to using a CMS vs. building a site from the ground up:

  • You can get fair performance with a CMS – ie the page load times will be reasonable – but it’s often difficult to achieve stellar performance without major surgery (often going to ground level and changing the underlying code, which to some extent defeats the point of using a CMS.)
  • It’s great to have convenient ways to create layout, add content, upload photos etc. – however, because you are restricted to the options the CMS designers decided to provide (or the plugin/module designers) you can often be prevented from getting exactly the layout or functionality you visualised. If you manage your own site you may find yourself needing to compromise and accept designs, layouts or methods of operation that are close to – but not exactly – what you want.
  • If you ever have a unique requirement, and need to create custom functionality (ie pay a developer to create new code) then you’ll need a developer who not only understands the language the CMS is written in, but also is familiar with how the CMS is put together, and is able to integrate the new code according to the code layout restrictions of the CMS.
  • There may not be a very good way to test new content prior to it “going live” because CMS systems don’t generally offer much help with release management. That’s not a problem if you are mostly going to be adding informational pages which don’t have much interactivity on board – you should be able to preview pages before publishing them, and there won’t be much difference between the preview and the live version. However, there is a risk of discovering items are not to displaying or functioning correctly some time after publication.

But for new website owners who want to manager their own site, the convenience of CMS’s usually far outweighs the negative aspects.

There are a wide variety of Content Management Systems available today, many of which are open source (i.e. you can download and use them for free, even if you are using them for commercial websites.) There are also some content management systems which you need to pay for, or you need to make regular subscription payments (software that you need to make regular payments for is sometimes called “software as a service” or SAAS).

It may be tempting to think you are going to get something better by signing up to a pay-for service, because it seems logical that such services would be able to afford a better setup and better developers. However there are good reasons why open source software is usually just as good, and very often better than proprietary code. (The main reason is that, because everyone can see it, problems tend to get identified quickly and many contributors work constantly to improve it. This contrasts with proprietary software which is carefully guarded, and only visible to a smaller group.)

In the case of Content Management Systems pay-for services usually turn out to be very expensive, when you could be getting the same value essentially for free. For this reason we would advise choosing an open source CMS. If you find yourself struggling to use this, you can always hire a developer (either part or full-time) to help you maintain it. (Another great advantage with popular open source Content Management Systems is there are a lot of developers who understand them, and so the cost to hire a developer tends to be quite low.)

This way gives you the complete control over how your site is managed, while avoiding paying for things you don’t need. If your website reaches a stage where you are no longer making many changes, or you start feeling comfortable with your CMS yourself, you can drop the developer. On the other hand if your site starts becoming popular, and you want to expand it or make changes more frequently, you can hire more instead.

Types of CMS

To give you some idea of just how much choice is available, take a look at the wikipedia page on CMS’s, which lists well over a hundred content managment systems. So it’s probably worth doing a bit of reading up to find out which is most suitable for your needs – alternatively get in touch and let us help out. However the vast majority of websites use one of only a few flavours of CMS. That is, there are a small number of CMS’s which are vastly more popular than the rest. They are not necessarily better under the hood – in fact there are a number of less popular CMS’s we think are technically superior – however, there are certain advantages you get if you choose a popular CMS:

  • There will be a wide choice of inexpensive expert developers. This was mentioned above, so we won’t labour the point.
  • You can be sure the core code is tried and tested. Popular CMS’s are in use every day across hundreds of thousands of websites, so any bugs or security issues are identified and addressed quickly. (However, note this may not be the case for the many extensions or plugins which are available).
  • There will be a much broader and more developed support community. Because so many people use the popular CMS’s, it’s usually easy to find the answers to any technical questions you may have – and generally you can get this help free of charge on one of the many support forums. Choosing a less popular CMS may leave you scratching your head when problems arise – or ending up paying more for expert help.
  • There will be a huge variety of of available themes, extensions, add-ons, modules, plugins (or whatever is the appropriate word for the particular CMS!)- again, many of which are free.
The main disadvantage to using a popular CMS over a less popular one relates to security. Because these CMS’s are so prevalent and the code can easily be inspected by anyone, they tend to be a favourite target amongst malevolent hackers. Attackers don’t usually get very far, however, as the large communities tend to catch possible exploits (ways of breaking in) quickly and resolve them. It does mean you need to make sure you keep your site fully updated to the latest version, however. In fact, if you are new to websites or would prefer not to get too technical, we would recommend choosing one of the more popular content management systems. Here’s a quick run down of the top four:

WordPress

WordPress is the undisputed winner of the CMS popularity contest. According to various sources WordPress is the CMS being used across around 20% of websites worldwide, or at least 75 million websites. WordPress was originally designed for blogging, but it now has so many themes and plugins available that it has the capability to work as pretty much any kind of site. In fact, the most popular way to create an e-commerce site is to set up WordPress with it’s most popular e-commerce plugin WooCommerce, rather than using a platform pre-designed for e-commerce. (According to the WooCommerce website WooCommerce powers 30% of online stores.

One of the main reasons for the popularity of WordPress is it’s ease of use. Generally newcomers to WordPress can get up and running quickly and get to grips with the basics in a few days. Once the site is set up, plugins can be searched for and installed off the dashboard few mouse clicks. You are notified of upgrades to WordPress automatically (remember we said always using the latest version was important for security), and you only have to click a button to accept the upgrade – which then should happen seamlessly.

Some WordPress plugins are excellent. However it is important to note that many others are not well coded, may conflict with other plugins, and are generally not designed with optimisation (ie page load speed) in mind. Some research does need to go into choosing which plugins to install, to ensure poorly designed plugins are avoided and the site performs smoothly.

In summary, for out-of-the-box functionality and ease of use, WordPress is a winner, and it’s a great CMS to get started with.

Case Study: WordPress Setup for Jobs Board

Developer Evaluation

Standard WordPress install which will be used as a website displaying job postings. [Client] is providing a premium theme from [an online distributor] which will be installed alongside WP Job Manager, Akismet, WP Super Cache.

Steps Taken

  • installed MySQL 5.0 and configured user permissions
  • installed and set up Apache 2.0
  • set up DNS entries
  • unpacked WordPress .zip file to target dir
  • Configured directory permissions
  • Ran WordPress installer from website
  • Configured WordPress settings
  • Installed theme and plugins

Time Breakdown

Statistics

  • Manpower:
    1 Developer + 1 Supervisor
  • Time to Completion:
    1 day
  • Server Downtime:
    None
  • Total Developer Hours:
    2
  • Cost per Hour:
    $45
  • Total Cost:
    $90

Result

Successful WordPress Setup

Joomla

Joomla is perhaps the second most popular open source CMS after WordPress, and again it’s popularity is mainly a reflection of its ease of use. Set up is slightly more involved, but not much – and like WordPress a wide variety of easy-to-install plugins are readily available.

The main differences between Joomla and WordPress stem from the differences in functionality the two systems were originally designed for: whereas WordPress is more blogging orientated, Joomla has it’s roots as a community portal. Joomla is arguably a better choice for sites where a substantial portion of the content is available only after user login, and any kind of membership area is a focal point – such as online forums or community networks.

In terms of practical differences, here are a few specifics:

  • Online surveys suggest users find the WordPress interface slightly easier to use
  • Joomla offers more functionality and fine control out of the box, where WordPress would require plugins
  • WordPress has a native mobile app for updating your website on the move while Joomla has only third party apps available
  • Joomla can interface with a range of database systems, while WordPress is limited to MySQL

Drupal

Drupal is slightly behind Joomla in terms of popularity – however, it is nevertheless in widespread use and has a sizeable and enthusiastic community. Drupal is generally considered to have a steeper learning curve than WordPress or Joomla; the core code is more complex, reflecting the higher level of control it provides over the layout and appearance of the website. It has greater flexibility built in, more available user types and facilitates personalised access to private content by default. Simply put, it is a more powerful CMS than WordPress or Joomla – but is harder to use as a consequence.

Drupal may be a suitable choice for those website owners who prefer this finer control and either

  • have a reasonable amount of technical ability already,
  • have plenty of patience and don’t mind taking the time to learn something new
  • plan to hire developers from the beginning

Drupal is extensible in the same way as WordPress (although “plugins” are now called “modules”) – and again, many of the modules are free. Installing new modules is usually not difficult, though it does involve more steps than with WordPress or Joomla. With Drupal being designed primarily with the intention that administrators customise the site themselves, and taking into account the smaller community, it is not surprising that there are considerably less modules available than for WordPress. However, our opinion is they are generally of a higher quality than WordPress plugins.

Keeping your site up to date with the latest version can be considerably more involved than WordPress or Joomla. See the Drupal documentation to get a better idea of what’s involved.

Drupal may be better aligned towards larger scale operations (“enterprise” level projects) – or those website owners who want the flexibility to scale to enterprise built in from the start.

Magento

Magento is perhaps the most popular e-commerce solution which is available out of the box. However, bear in mind the most worn path to achieving an e-commerce platform is not to use dedicated software at all – but rather to use WordPress as a base, then install the WooCommerce plugin. In fact most content management systems can be tuned for e-commerce site via plugins, but dedicated software is regarded as a more serious solution.

A plugin like WooCommerce is great as a straightfoward e-commerce starter, while Magento is perhaps better suited to operations setting up with a view to larger scale operations. Note we have read some advice on the internet which recommends starting with WordPress/WooCommerce and then switching when expansion becomes necessary. In practice the more developed your site is, the more difficult switching is going to be – so we advise not to do this. If you are serious about e-commerce then we would recommend going with Magento from the outset. You may have slightly more to learn, but the difference will be worth it.

One major area where Magento wins is in its versatility in dealing with information about products, allowing them to be assigned attibutes (length, colour etc) which can then be used to search over. Magento’s product-related search capabilities are generally superior, a fact which can be important for sites advertising a large number of products.

Note that WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and Magento are all written in PHP – the web’s most popular server-side programming language. If you are looking to get your hands dirty with some real actual coding, but you don’t want to use PHP (of course real coders don’t use PHP…!) then get in touch for some CMS recommendations that you might find more suitable.