Content management systems promise to take the drudgery out of site maintenance. Angus Kidman looks under the hood.
When your business website only consists of a handful of pages and forms, managing the content doesn’t require much more than a working knowledge of Windows Explorer so you can keep track of the files used to create the site. However, as the volume of content grows, keeping track of just which pages are being accessed can become increasingly difficult.
Other problems also arise with this approach. If your site features frequently changing information such as breaking news or special product offers, updates can be delayed if there is only one person who knows how to place new content on the site. And if your entire site has been designed as a series of static HTML pages, then even minor changes to site design or information (imagine, for instance, that your business phone number changes) can require you to recode every single page. Even with automated search-and-replace systems, this is a tedious task, and is prone to data entry errors. As a result, many larger sites can suffer design inconsistencies, with different pages appearing to belong to entirely different businesses.
Content management systems (CMSs) promise to solve all these problems by providing a means of keeping your site up-to-date and consistently designed. They can also allow easy updating of content by staff with no knowledge of web maintenance, freeing up technical staff to concentrate on more critical issues.
Furthermore, using a CMS requires effective planning up front – you can’t manage content without a clear set of goals. CMS-based sites are generally (though not necessarily) more sensibly structured than sites which grow in an ad hoc manner.The net result is that your CMS-based site is more intuitive and easier to navigate for end users.
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
There are literally hundreds of CMS packages out there, ranging from simple freeware and open source packages developed by individuals, through to complex systems designed for use by global corporates and with installation costs starting in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (see below for 10 of the most prominent)
Note that price is by no means a necessary indication of quality. Many of the more popular open source CMS packages are thoroughly tested and highly flexible, while tales abound of companies who have spent thousands on complex CMS software but failed to plan properly for its implementation and thus gained relatively little benefit, or ended up with a package that doesn’t suit their particular needs. With that said, support options are more flexible for commercial packages.
No matter where they sit in the pricing spectrum, most CMS packages have the same basic structure of three elements: a database system for storing site content; a design management system for storing common page elements and design templates; and a permissions system which defines who can make what kinds of changes to content and design. In practice, all this information may be stored in a single database, but the three functions are essentially independent of each other.
When users access specific links on the site, content is automatically drawn from the data store and formatted according to the pre-existing design specifications. On high-traffic sites, this process may take place in advance so that pages load faster, while for less busy operations, such processing can be performed on the fly.
Separating content from design in this way offers several advantages. If you decide to completely change the look of your site, you can alter the design templates without needing to make modifications to all your content pages.The benefits are even more obvious with subtle changes: if you suddenly want to add a ‘Contact us’ link to every page, you only need to modify the existing templates to see that change rolled out throughout the site.
Adding new content also becomes a simpler process that doesn’t require expert skill sets from all those who manage the site. Rather than having to work with HTML pages, users can simply fill out a web-based form to create new pages or make modifications to existing content. Many CMSs also feature a WYSIWYG interface and full preview panes so you can sample and tweak the content before it goes live online.
This is where the permissions system becomes important. General staff might be allowed to add new pages to the site, but not to delete existing pages or to alter the site home page. Staff from sales might be able to change pricing information, but not product descriptions. Defining roles in this way helps maintain a balance between keeping a site up-to-date and allowing changes to be made by passing cleaners.
How structured the data for a site needs to be depends very much on the business in question. Some sites might require only a site title field and a catch-all area for general body text, though most will benefit from a slightly more structured approach than that. Others might have very finegrained structures: for instance, sites which primarily provide news could include fields for headlines, author names, topic areas, publication dates, and links for further information.
An effective CMS will capture much of this metadata automatically, rather than requiring it to be manually entered. For instance, a good CMS should automatically enter the author name and date of creation for any new content, even if that information isn’t going to be displayed as part of the final page. More comprehensive systems will also automatically classify content according to defined lists of keywords, making it easier to search for information on a given topic.
Because CMS systems build pages from a database, they also allow a degree of sophistication which simply isn’t possible with flat HTML pages. For instance, you can enter data and define a ‘go live’ date, so that the page only becomes visible after a predetermined time.A similar approach allows content to automatically be removed after a given period (useful for promoting special offers, for instance).You can also easily create a publication ‘approval process’, whereby content entered by junior members of staff has to be approved by management before it goes live.
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There are literally hundreds of CMS packages available. Here's a selection of 10 of the most prominent.
|Content Management Server||Microsoft||From US$6999||Per processor||www.microsoft.com/cmserver|
|ShadoMX||Straker Interactive||POA||Per server||www.straker.co.nz/shado|
|Universal Content Management||Stellent||POA||Per server and contributor||www.stellent.com|
|Vignette||Vignette||From US$125,000||Per server||www.vignette.com|
|Yahoo maintains a fuller list of CMSes here
A useful directory of open source CMS packages can be found at www.opensourcecms.com