My 12/9/07 Missoulian column
Blog software such as WordPress, Google’s Blogger and TypePad can help you establish a personal or busines presence on the Internet, and once your blog is up and running, it’s very easy to develop content: write a new post, respond to comments, add photos, do creative and administrative tasks.
But sometimes you’ll find you need more than a simple blog, either at the beginning when you’re first starting and learning the capabilities of the software, or down the road after your business grows up. Once you learn the limitations of a blog, you’ll begin to hear the term “content management.” It might then be time to move to a content management system – or CMS – for the backbone of your site.
A CMS is kind of like a blog on steroids – something that will enhance your presence and ability to work on the Web (without the liability of loosing your Olympic gold medals or your bid for the Hall of Fame). Setting up a CMS can be abstract and fairly complex, but I’ll point you to a Web site where you can try out different systems and find out what help is available.
One of the important selling points of a CMS is the ability for different users to be able to point and click and enter new content without Web programming knowledge and without straying into other parts of the site. CMSes are also generally more scalable; that is, they can handle the load if your business greatly expands and your Web site generates hundreds or thousands of pages, or if the Wall Street Journal writes about the new widget you are manufacturing and your Web site gets a million hits.
CMSes have a more complex code base and, as a result, have more design potential than blogs. Menus are easily moved around and changed, built-in search capabilities are greater and e-mail contact forms allow for more feedback. Customers can log in and sign up for newsletters, respond to polls and leave comments, and browse galleries of images. Some CMSes also can be integrated with e-commerce systems to securely market items through a virtual storefront.
With a WordPress blog, you generally won’t see the database back end; that’s taken care of for you. With a CMS, the database is essential to storing content – text and graphics – and all of the settings that determine the layout and design of the site, and you’ll have to deal with it a bit more than with a blog. A CMS needs to be installed and hosted; you won’t find a free hosting company like WordPress.com for your system.
Some of the more popular CMSes advertise a 15-minute setup, and it’s true. But more time is involved with getting the layout and functions you want. If a WordPress blog is as easy to set up and use as a toaster, then a CMS more is like learning a video game, sometimes a complex one. But the rewards are worth the effort.
Much like other software, there are two overall categories of CMSes: proprietary software systems, which means the code behind the program is not open to view and is owned by the company that produces it, and open source packages, which will I focus on here as they are available to everyone without having to buy special software.
A good place to start when considering an open-source CMS is Open Source CMS, where you can take some of the many different CMS packages for a spin. The Web site provides default installations of many CMSes, and you can play around with them for an hour at a time and change the look, feel and functions to your liking to get an idea of which one you need.
A general CMS is very capable, but depending on your organization and business, a more specialized CMS might be better. Mambo, Joomla and Drupal are very popular CMSes that are general enough to be used for different business and organizational Web sites. They are also known as “portals” as they provide much of the functionality for a business to open its doors to the Internet. You’ll also find CMS packages that are known as “groupware,” systems that cater to collaboration and contain their own suite of word processors, address books, calendars and more. There is a class of CMSes that is geared toward online education, class scheduling and class work, administration, and outreach. Document management CMSes allow organizations to share and collaborate purely on the writing side of a business, such as at a firm that writes instruction manuals.
Each open-source CMS has varying degrees of technical support. The more popular systems have extensive online forums with Q&A help available, published instruction books, and many design templates and plug-ins. Smaller systems can be limited on help and documentation, so if you are serious about delving into a CMS, find out how much help will be available first.
Content management systems are not only for businesses that need the scalability. A CMS can also be a good choice for a small Web site because content can easily administered by one person in a point-and-click manner, with much better results in terms of design and functionality than a WordPress blog.
Follow-ups: The United Kingdom’s Weekly Standard has an interesting article about Google Books and Google’s library initiatives, cultural imperialism, and copyright law.