If you intend to update your site on a regular basis, a Content Management System (CMS) is something you should seriously consider. Not only will it save you a whole lot of time, it can potentially allow you to manage multiple content authors.

Even if you already use a CMS, it could be very worthwhile to research the latest applications available. CMSs have come a long way since the early (and often ugly) in-house attempts by various organisations. Modern CMSs are flexible and some even allow you to update content on the move. ‘Mobile blogging’ is the latest trend and if you’re the owner of a smartphone (such as an iPhone, Android or Blackberry device), you can write posts from virtually any location you like.

From an Internet marketing perspective, a CMS could be of real benefit. Here’s why: If you intend to author regular content, you need to spend most your time concentrating on the important aspects: that’s focusing on providing good information for visitors. What you don’t need is distractions such as uploading files using FTP. Any good CMS will separate content from design, meaning structural and graphical elements needn’t be accessible to authors. This allows content producers to do what they know best without the fear of accidentally modifying important site templates or settings.

Aside from the more obvious benefits, some CMSs generate ‘clean URLs’ (necessary for good search engine visibility), include blogging facilities as standard, and allow you to organise content into categories, by date, and also other criteria. Additionally, the majority allow you to implement a search feature directly out the box. You may be surprised at how feature packed the latest systems are, and if a feature is not included, it’s a fair bet that somebody, somewhere, has created a handy plug-in just for the very purpose.

Perhaps more interestingly, modern systems give users the opportunity to leave comments on your articles. This can add an extra element of interactivity to your site and could even forge a community spirit when combined with, for example, a message board. We are seeing a gradual movement away from static content sites to user-centred, community-orientated ones. The success of sites such as Facebook, YouTube and MySpace are testament to this. This is why a modern CMS could give you serious competitive advantage over rival businesses.

So what things do you need to think about when selecting a system? Before we begin on this, I recommend you perform thorough research before choosing a CMS. Obtain the assistance of someone familiar with multiple systems, their advantages and disadvantages. It can be a real pain switching software, so it pays to do the research beforehand!

Some questions you need to be thinking about include:

  • Does it generate clean XHTML/CSS based code? – Some CMSs have trouble functioning correctly in all browsers. It is important to ensure your CMS uses clean, correct code (ideally XHTML/CSS as opposed to old-fashioned tables).
  • How easy is the system to learn and teach others? – This is especially important if the system is to be used by numerous people. You may be required to coach another person to use the CMS, and if it’s a steep learning curve, they’ll quickly lose interest.
  • How secure is the application? – Some CMS providers issue security updates regularly, but this does not always amount to the safest solution. Thorough research into security is vital (especially if you are running a ‘mission critical’ site).
  • Will I need the system to perform any specific tasks? – Establishing the necessary features in a CMS will allow you to determine how suitable it is. That may sound obvious, but remember: a system may have similar features as another, but they will excel in different areas. Some CMSs are more suitable for basic blogging, whilst others may be intended for multiple blogs with multiple authors. Then we have systems that perform best as a general CMS. Whichever you select, it must be capable of performing the tasks you require.
  • What about scalability? – If your online business grows and you need to expand the site, can the system handle this? Could the system handle large volumes of traffic?
  • Are add-ons available? – A large number of add-ons is excellent and shows a thriving development community, but not all third party add-ons are thoroughly tested, and they may cause problems. Therefore, be on the lookout for official ‘endorsed’ add-ons.
  • Is the CMS established? Are there many developers specialising in this system? – Try and select one with a proven track record. You do not want to install a system only to realise the project has been abandoned.
  • Can it be easily customised? – Some systems are easier to customise than others. Some require the use of a competent PHP coder, whilst others can be personalised fairly easily with some HTML and CSS knowledge.
  • How search engine friendly is the system? – This is crucial if you are aiming for good search engine visibility. Just some of the things you need to be on the lookout for include: unique title creation, clean URLs, clean code, and the ability to input meta data.
  • How flexible is the system? – Another consideration you must think about (and this ties in with the purpose of your site). If you decide to head in another direction at a later date, can the system function adequately in a variety of roles? Will the system suit my requirements in the future and could it be adapted to meet unforeseen needs? These are questions you should be asking yourself.
  • Will the system function on my server Operating System (i.e. UNIX, Windows, etc.) – Many modern CMSs function on various platforms, but they may be more suited to a particular OS. In many cases, unless you are using ASP or Windows applications, a UNIX-like system is recommended (such as Linux or FreeBSD).
  • Is support easy to access? Is there are large user base and community surrounding the project? – This is crucial since you will likely need some support, whether that’s during installation or customising your site. ‘Open Source’ CMSs, such as WordPress (the system this site is running), has hundreds of thousands of users, so help is readily available.
  • Are there any costs or is the system free? – Do not be deceived by this. Free CMSs can be as good as – if not better – than commercial ones. The fact is, it depends on your requirements. We use both free and commercial systems, and they each have their advantages and disadvantages. With commercial, you usually have access to superior support, but free alternatives invariably have active communities where you can ask questions and gain assistance.
  • Availability of themes – Nearly all modern CMSs have ‘themes’ (used to customise the look and feel of your site). If theming is important, it may be wise to select a system with a large variety of official, professional and also user-contributed (free) themes.
  • Is the system updated on a regular basis? – Once your system is up and running, it will require updating to ensure the latest build versions are in place for security and also functionality. Most major CMSs update their software frequently, but regular updates do not always indicate a better product. The main purpose behind establishing this is to determine how active the development team is and if they keep on top of the latest trends.

Last, but not least, test the system on a ‘test server’ beforehand. See if the end user(s) will be comfortable using it and ensure everything is to your satisfaction before taking the system live!

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