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Choosing your Content Management System (CMS)

Photo of Michael Tremblay Michael Tremblay - March 2, 2016

There are a lot of Content Management Systems (CMS) to choose from, and picking the right one can feel a bit like finding a glass slipper that fits. I’ll limit my discussion to the big three CMS, namely WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal. These systems have a lot in common, and a few important differences. Let’s start with the obvious question. What is a Content Management System, and why do I need one?

What is a Content Management System, and why do I need one?

woman glass shoe with reflection isolated on black backgroundA CMS is a piece of software that is intended to help companies and individuals create, update, and maintain their websites. A CMS provides an easy to use interface for creating and presenting content. This usually takes the form of an administration page where the user can create content and manage features. This also means that the CMS handles the technical side of things like security, user management, data storage, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Long story short, a CMS reduces the time it takes to maintain your website and time is money.

The big three Content Management Systems are more similar than they are different

They are all open source platforms built on PHP and MySQL. Why PHP and MySQL? Because they are the most popular programming language and database respectively. Why does that matter? Because the more people using a language or database the more bugs get found and fixed, and the more tools get put in the toolbox.

All three CMS are actively being developed which keeps the bugs and hackers at bay. Active development also means that there are more plugins, modules, add-ons, themes, and/or widgets available. Having a wide selection of options makes your CMS more flexible, and reduces the expense of adding new functionality.

Lastly all three CMS are pretty secure. No program is perfectly secure or can be. After all the bad guys are out there everyday doing what bad guys do, but an active development community that plugs security holes quickly is your best defense and WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal all keep on top of it.Black toolbox with tools isolated on white

So how are the big three Content Management Systems different?

First there are architectural differences. These are structures that make up the CMS and include: template types, documentation, coding style, directory structure, and database schema. Much like security, all three of the systems in question have working and well documented architectures. Developers have been arguing and blogging about the best architecture for years, but it usually boils down to preference. Whatever a developer is familiar with is usually what he’ll recommend since this will have a large impact on development.

The second main difference, and the most important in my opinion, is the user interface (UI). If the purpose of a CMS is to provide an interface for a user to maintain the website, then logically the solution with the best UI is the best choice, assuming they are otherwise equal or nearly so. Man power is the largest expense for most businesses, and websites are no different. As a business you want to choose the CMS that will take the least amount of training, allow site updates in the most efficient manner, and provide your customers/visitors with a pleasing experience. The time spent maintaining your website, performed daily or weekly over years, will by far outweigh the time spent building the website, which is usually performed once or intermittently.

While all three of the CMS we’re discussing offer a Graphical User Interface (GUI) for site administration, WordPress has the most user-friendly and comprehensive GUI.

The four things that set the WordPress GUI apart are:

  • a full page text editor
  • easy image editing
  • good copy and paste support
  • great documentation

A full page text editor. The full page text editor will allow you to update your site’s content without having to scroll up and down in a frustratingly small box. All of the systems offer a powerful WYSIWYG text editor, and the ability to edit in html. However, both Drupal and Joomla do the editing in a small input box, while WordPress offers a much larger input area. This sounds like a minor difference until you have to work in that little box everyday. It’s kind of like a chair. Sure sitting in a folding chair works, but the longer you’re there the more you want a cushy recliner.

Easy image editing. Image editing can eat up a lot of time, and you really only want a few simple image editing functions. Seriously, if you have to do anything beyond resizing or maybe cropping the image then you’re better off doing it in a photo editing program like Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, or Gimp. The basic functions you want are part of all three CMS, but here again WordPress has the best interface. WordPress will automatically resize your images to your site’s predefined sizes so all you have to worry about is picking the right image and cropping it if needed.

Good copy and paste support. Everyone is different, and some people are more comfortable working in programs they are familiar with like Microsoft Word. So being able to copy out of a word processor and into your WYSIWYG is a function that comes up time and again. While no one has a perfect solution, WordPress tends to do the best job of handling the copied and pasted data. This is another commonly repeated task, where wasting 20-30 minutes every time you update your site just eats up man hours.

Great documentationFinally there is documentation to consider. Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself asking, “How do I”. Joomla’s documentation can feel a little sparse, and there is very little documentation for the end user. Drupal and WordPress both have excellent documentation, but the organization of the WordPress documentation is just better. Good documentation and especially good organization of the documentation makes it easier to answer that “How do I?” question, and to fix things when they go wrong.abstract 3d illustration of three arrows in target

In conclusion, I’d recommend WordPress for most websites

Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress all offer a solid CMS, but I believe ease of use should be the deciding factor, and this is where WordPress excels. Your CMS should allow you to efficiently write content, add new products, and expand your user base. Like any rule there are exceptions, and I recommend doing some research about your specific project before you make a final decision.