With the multitude of Content Management System (CMS) solutions that now exist on the market, it is imperative that you choose your solution very wisely. We talk to Tony Byrne, founder of CMSWatch.com and he shares his insights on the wonderful world of CMSs.
HotScripts: Tony, thanks for taking time out do to this interview. Perhaps you could start by giving our readers an overview of CMSWatch.com?
Tony: We are a vendor-neutral analyst company that evaluates content technologies (Web CMS, Enterprise Search, Portals, Records Management) on behalf of solutions buyers. Our research is based on in-depth interviews and site visits with customers and systems integrators. We also publish freely available articles on best practices as well as free research samples.
HotScripts: The definition of a content management system can be blurry to non-web- savvy users. What’s your definition of a CMS?
Tony: A CMS is a system that lets you apply management principles to content. That might seem self-evident, but most companies today — large and small — do not manage content with the same rigor that they manage data. In the specific domain of Web CMS, an automated platform should allow you to publish more efficiently, more safely and more effectively than a manual process, but as with all other technologies, effective management is first and foremost a people issue.
HotScripts: Do image galleries or blogs fall under the category of CMS?
Tony: Absolutely. And wikis too. I like lightweight tools because simple packages can provide basic value for common scenarios. The key thing is not to employ them to solve problems they weren’t meant to address. A wiki should never be a substitute for a full-blown Intranet.
HotScripts: When should a website consider porting its content to a CMS?
Tony: There are a lot of reasons, but they fall into two broad categories:
- when you start experiencing an unacceptable level of management problems: authors accidentally overwriting each others’ work; inability to maintain consistent look and feel; IT staff overburdened with basic content updates; and so on.
- when you want to provide a significantly better customer experience that revolves around: more dynamic chunking and recombination of content components; advanced segmentation or personalization; dynamic navigation; and so on.
Note that lack of HTML knowledge alone is usually not a great reason to switch. You can find WYSIWYG HTML editors and templating systems (e.g.,Dreamweaver) that are simpler than your typical CMS.
HotScripts: What are some of the key factors that need to be considered when choosing a CMS?
Tony: There are a variety of different factors, but the top three in my opinion are:
- Suitability of the vendor (or in the case of open source, the community) to your size and needs, and their understanding of and alignment with your business. So don’t overbuy or underbuy; you want to be an important customer for your vendor, but not their biggest or most complex, nor smallest. Make sure they have many other customers in your business and region — the customer and developer ecosystem around a product is increasingly important.
- Usability in the eyes of your contributors and managers. Technical people tend to underestimate this in the decision process, or assume that they know what their colleagues will find “easy to use.” In my experience, peoples’ notions of simplicity vary widely from firm to firm, and even department to department. There is no short cut for testing this heads-on with editors.
- Technical compatibility. How well does the system work in your architecture and how easy is it to modify?
HotScripts: Many CMS users mourn about the difficulty of integrating a CMS with other systems. Based on the current trends, is the flexibility and expandability of CMSs improving?
Tony: Yes, vendors are getting more experience with a variety of integration points, but the important thing to remember about all CMS tools is that they tend to provide highly coupled services, so it is usually very hard to pick them apart into distinct pieces and swap in replacement services (e.g., for workflow or personalization).
HotScripts: Website editors like FrontPage and Macromedia Contribute now include features for easier content management and publishing. Is that a threat to online-based CMSs?
Tony: I don’t think it’s a threat to server-based CMS systems, but it is definitely a good idea for customers to look at products like Contribute if all they are seeking in a CMS is to standardize look and feel and allow certain forms of routing and preview. If you need dynamic, database-driven information with formal workflow, Contribute and FrontPage won’t cut it.
HotScripts: Many web hosting companies offer automated CMS installations with their plans. Did that help the acceptance of CMSs for the novice user/programmer?
Tony: I’m not sure. On the one hand, it seems like a useful service; on the other hand, you can’t always customize these private-label systems to the degree that your contributors might wish. For very basic needs, on smaller sites, they probably work fine. The real developer work comes with more advanced customization.
HotScripts: What are the strengths and weaknesses of open source CMSs as opposed to commercial CMSs?
Tony: It’s a bit hard to generalize since there are scores of reasonably visible open source CMSs and at least 2000 commercial products around the world. If you look at those dozen or so open source projects that have a truly global footprint, they are quite powerful systems, but lack somewhat in usability out of the tarball. The community tends to focus on new functionality over ease of use. I’m not suggesting that commercial packages are therefore always simpler to understand, but they tend to invest more in usability. On the other hand, only a handful of commercial CMS products can boast the kind of strong communities that you see among the largest open source platforms.
HotScripts: Have open source CMSs matured to the point where they can be considered as alternatives to commercial solutions?
Tony: I believe so. A lot depends on your requirements, depth of internal IT talent and other considerations.
HotScripts: My last question – what’s your favorite CMS?
Tony: I don’t have one. The best CMS is the one that allows you to solve your business problems and has broad adoption among your authors. So in our evaluation reports, we don’t rate systems or offer winning quadrants, etc. Instead, we describe the inherent strengths and weaknesses of a tool and its fit for different situations. What’s best for me — or any other commentator — is unlikely to be what’s best for you.