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What’s a CMS, anyway?

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

When websites were “born” into existence, they looked pretty different from how they look today. Responsive web design wasn’t even a concept (probably because there were no devices to be responsive to), GIFs within web pages were all the rage, and font choices weren’t great. Oh, and we can’t forget Flash. Flash was everywhere.

For those who need a refresher, the Space Jam website is still living in 1996. You’re welcome.

Space Jam Website

In addition to the visual differences that we’re all trying desperately to forget about, the way websites were developed was quite different as well. Programming languages were various, and websites were “hardcoded,” meaning that every line of code was input by a programmer. These programmers had a specific set of skills, and those skills had to be made available for any change that a website needed -- from a single color change to a typo fix.

For those of us who run websites, that’s fortunately no longer the case. Many websites are now programmed with a CMS, otherwise known as a content management system. Wikipedia defines a content management system as “a computer application that supports the creation and modification of digital content using a simple interface to abstract away low-level details unless required, usually supporting multiple users working in a collaborative environment.”

As I briefly defined in a blog in April, a CMS is typically built of two parts, one being the content management application (CMA) and the other being the content delivery application (CDA). The CMA allows users who don’t know HTML to update their web page content. This is typically done within something called a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor that allows a user to update content as easily as they would type in Microsoft Word.

Neat, huh?

Open source vs. proprietary CMS systems

With that introduction comes the detail that you really need to think about: Which system is right for you and your business? Website CMS systems can be referred to within two buckets: “open source” vs. “proprietary” systems. My goal with this website isn’t to convince you which one is better -- they both have their advantages -- but to simply inform you of your options.

Open source CMS systems are built with source code that is freely available on the internet.

This may be the point where you’re saying, “Free? But then why did I pay someone $20,000 to build me a website based on WordPress last year?!”

When we say free, we mean the base code is free. This code can be used without paying a licensing fee, and it can be modified by anyone in the world to add capabilities. These additions are what you’re paying a developer for. I should also mention that free base code does not a website make. There are still things that need to be done to that base to set up a website and make it usable, and no one’s time is free.

Examples of open source CMS systems include WordPress, Drupal and Magento.

Proprietary CMS systems are referred to as such because the way their systems are built is a secret. A web design company may use a proprietary CMS system to build their websites with, or a company may have a proprietary internal system that they use. With these systems, there is still a base that is pulled from, but that base was built and maintained as a trade secret.

Regardless of whether you chose to utilize an open source or proprietary CMS system, nontechnical individuals will be able to update the website. Depending on the system, this may have more or less of a learning curve, but the key to CMS systems is that they are built for “the rest of us” to use. And for those who have paid attention to my previous articles, you know that since a website is never done, the easier it is to update, the better off everyone feels.


Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei


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