Content management systems promise to take the drudgery out of site maintenance.

By Angus Kidman - Full extract of Article appearing in July 2004 issue of PC Authority.


When your business website only consists of a handful of pages and 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 the 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 (CMS’s) 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 no 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 corporate’s and with installation costs starting in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.


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 the subtle changes: if you suddenly want to add a 'Contact us' link to ever 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 CMS’s also feature a WYSIWYG inter surface 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 fine-grained 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 the 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.


Planning, Planning, Planning


All these benefits don't come without some pain. In order to effectively use a CMS, you will need to have a clearly planned architecture for your site, and a willingness to define in quite fine detail what data structures will be used. Virtually no CMS can be used 'out of the box' without careful planning before installation. This planning phase is also critical for identifying functions that you don't need; for instance, if only office staff will be making site updates, then paying for a remote access module is a waste of time.


Migrating an existing site into a CMS will inevitably involve some fairly tedious cutting and pasting. Using a CMS doesn't eliminate the need to thoroughly test your site for dead links and other problems, especially in the initial stages of deployment. And while there's no doubt that redesigning a site based on a CMS is much simpler than doing so with a site with no management process, redesigns are always a tricky business which should only be undertaken in stages and after careful and thorough planning.


The level of planning required sometimes leads IT managers to conclude that it would be simpler to build their own CMS, rather than purchasing an existing product. While this may be true for some specialised applications, with so many tried and tested base CMS systems already available, it seems a poor investment of stretched IT resources to reinvent the wheel in this way.


The vast majority of CMS packages use a web interface for both simple and advanced tasks, with the software itself running on either its own dedicated box or as part of your web server system. Indeed, just as many businesses choose to outsource hosting to a third party, you can also purchase CMS software as an online service.


One obvious advantage of this web-centric approach is that you don't need to deploy specialised client software to give your staff access to the CMS, and it also removes any restrictions on the platform required by end users. Despite this, some CMS systems do still have their own dedicated front end clients. Others make use of existing packages, such as office suites or email software.


One advantage of the highly competitive CMS marketplace is that it's relatively easy to experiment with different CMS packages and find one that suits your particular needs. Open source packages are obviously available for anyone at no charge, but the majority of commercial CMS vendors also offer trial-ware versions of their software.


In term of cost, though, you must factor in the time and effort it will take to set up the CMS for your particular needs. As such, even a 'free' open source CMS will end up costing you, especially if you choose to being in a third party to get everything established. This is particularly important for small businesses that might not have the required expertise in-house to set everything up from scratch. Remember that this setup phase is critical to the overall success of the CMS and your site, so be sure to dedicate sufficient resources to get it right the first time.


Future Directions


Like most areas of the market, CMS software is undergoing a period of consolidation. 'Content management vendors must share a smaller pot of money' says Gartner analyst Anne-Marie Roussel. 'As a result, the content management market has been consolidating. There have been many mergers and acquisitions since 2002'.


A major factor in this area has been an increasing focus on managing all kinds of documents - not just web pages - within large businesses. Ensuring accurate record keeping has become a major priority, especially in the wake of corporate collapses such as HIH. Many commercial CMS providers also have products which assist in broad-based document management, and have been snapped up by larger players who see huge potential revenue stream in that area. Two recent examples are the purchase of Green Pasture by IBM and EMC's buyout of Documentum. A study by Meta found that improving web content management is the single biggets factor in introducing general document management systems to businesses.


However, the economic pressures which have resulted in reduced choice in many other areas of the software industry haven't yet fully impacted the CMS market. In part, this is because so many open source and freeware solutions are available.


Competition for large enterprise software contracts is likely to get tougher, but for small and medium enterprises, there are still lots of viable choices.