So you want to build a website. You essentially have two options: build it from the ground up with tedious HTML code, or look into a content management system (CMS). A CMS is a web application that allows you to create, manage, and edit your website. If you wanted to add an announcement, post an update, or edit the site in any way, a CMS allows you to do so without going into the code yourself or needing to contact the web developer to do it for you. A CMS makes your life simpler.
Consider the Following
There are hundreds of CMSs out there, so before you go choosing one blindly, you first need to consider a few things.
What is the purpose of your site? Is this a website for your business? A blog? An e-commerce site? A portfolio? This matters because each of these sites calls for different features and each CMS fulfills a different niche. Consider what your site’s needs are and search for a CMS based on these criteria because each CMS does something well, better than another CMS.
Who are you? Are you an end-user, designer, developer, or marketer? The answer to this question can also help determine the appropriate CMS for you. CMSs vary in flexibility, which correlates with usability. On one extreme, there are rigid CMSs. These do a few things very well, are easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to activate. This would be most ideal for an end-user or a novice who’s creating a website for the first time. On the other side of the spectrum, are flexible CMSs. These allow you to do a lot more on your site, but have a steep learning curve and require much more training. This software is a better fit for developers who like to mess around with coding. On this spectrum, designers and marketers fall somewhere in the middle with CMSs made with them in mind. Generally, the more a CMS can do, the more work and expertise it requires. Flexibility and power are sacrificed when usability is gained. Deciding what your role is and where you fall along this spectrum will help narrow your search for a CMS.
The Key Three
The key three in CMSs are WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. All three are written in PHP. All three are open-source. All three have large, supportive, and strong communities.
Ask a professional, and they’ll admit that PHP isn’t the most elegant of languages. However, so many people have taken to developing in PHP because it has the best applications that allow for truly dynamic websites. For the ease of use and high quality of websites, there’s a reason why the key three are all developed in PHP. (Read here to find out more about the allure of PHP.)
Open-source = free. The codes for all three CMSs are available to everyone and anyone is free to contribute to its development. There are proprietary CMSs available, but you’d have to pay a pretty penny for the licensing rights. Unless you own a high profile commercial company, there’s no need for this. Open-source projects have a lot of potential because philosophically, people are developing for development’s sake, rather than out of monetary motivation. The community is interested in seeing where the technology can grow – new themes, plugins, and modules are always being contributed. This can perhaps explain why sites created on these three CMSs are so much more dynamic.
When choosing a CMS, it’s a good idea to go with what’s popular. The most popular CMSs have the most users and thereby the largest communities. With more people comes more support and dialogue about the CMS in the form of tutorials, forums, blogs, camps, and cons. This makes your life simpler when launching and maintaining your site.
Other than these three factors that the key three have in common, there’s a lot that separates them.
WordPress started out as a blogging platform and still excels as such. If all you want is a blog, look no further and use WordPress. If you are a novice and trying out this website thing for the first time, WordPress would be an ideal starting point also. It’s extremely user-friendly; managing comments, emails, and posts is easy and intuitive. It’s also the easiest of any CMS to install. Many webhosts now have a one-click set up if you want to host a WordPress site. Additionally, the WordPress community has created hundreds of beautiful themes, templates, and plugins readily available for you to download and use.
Remember however, with this great usability comes a rigid platform. WordPress does have its limits, being the least flexible of the three CMSs. But don’t discredit it too much. Developers have been expanding its capabilities by adding more features and plugins. You can now use your WordPress as a static site and there are plugins available that allow you to do more (such as some newly available e-commerce plugins). Another potential drawback is that updating to new versions of WordPress can sometimes cause your site to crash. So before you go updating, a good rule of thumb is to always back up your files.
Moving to the other side of the spectrum, we have Drupal. Drupal is geared for developers. It’s the most flexible and powerful of the key three CMSs. There are many more possibilities; sites can be more dynamic and interactive when created with Drupal. The flexibility and power offered by this CMS has been duly noted as many more enterprise class and high profile users are now designing their sites with Drupal (The White House, FedEx, Popular Science, MTV UK, Nike, Ford, Discover Channel, Adobe).
The major drawback of Drupal is that a site can only go as far as your skills. Because of its flexibility in options and modules, the software has a steep learning curve and is just not as usable. There are also criticisms of Drupal’s lackluster themes. Perhaps it’s because Drupal primarily attracts developers (rather than designers). If you want a nicer, more aesthetically pleasing theme, you’d either have to hire a designer or do it yourself, whereas both WordPress and Joomla have good themes ready on hand.
If you’ve hit a ceiling with WordPress and your site just isn’t doing enough to meet your needs, but you’re not quite ready to take on the complexities of Drupal, consider Joomla. On this figurative spectrum, Joomla sits somewhere in the middle. It’s sometimes referred to as “the designer’s CMS.” Joomla is more flexible than WordPress and is more user-friendly than Drupal. Joomla also has many beautiful themes available and can create dynamic and elegant sites.
Joomla seems to be a polarizing CMS – people either love or hate it. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t do all that seasoned developers want it to do (in which case they should just use Drupal) and it may be too tech-heavy for others (in which case they should stick to WordPress or bear the learning curve). Being middle-of-the-road will dissatisfy people on either side.
After reading about the key three CMSs, you have a good sense of your options. In common, the three are all PHP and open-source. Because they’re the most popular, they all have an equally large and supportive community. However, each of these CMSs offers something different. Noting these differences, you now have to consider what kind of site you want to create, what your skills are, and how much time and effort you want to invest into your site. Regardless of what you choose, a CMS will make your website creation experience much more pleasant than if you were coding from scratch.
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