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BACK TO BASICS: What is a CMS and Do You Need One?

BACK TO BASICS: What is a CMS and Do You Need One?

By Danielle Sahiner, June 13, 2008

A Content Management System or CMS is a software product that companies use to manage the content of their Web sites. Some content management systems are complicated and quite expensive; others can be simple and quite reasonable. "Broadly speaking, Content Management describes a process that allows people to more easily create and update content, especially on their Web sites (Web Content Management)." Does your company need a CMS? Let's explore your options.

The first step in deciding whether or not you need a CMS is to take a look at the size of your site, and how often you update it. Generally speaking, if you have a small and static site you probably don't need a CMS. However, if your site is composed of many content-rich pages and sections that change on a daily, weekly or bi-weekly basis, you might want to look into using a content management system to help you manage them.

One site that I am intimately familiar with that uses a CMS is Customs and Border Protection. CBP began using a content management system about seven years ago. I worked there at the time and we had the huge task of migrating over 7,000 pages of static content to the CMS. It was a huge undertaking and took us over a year to get the project finished. However, it was worth it. The CBP site can change on a daily basis so the task of keeping the pages up to date was made infinitely easier with the use of a CMS.

One of the first things we did before starting the content migration was to hire an information architect. She went through the whole site and conducted interviews with all the content owners to make sure that the content was up to date and necessary for the site. The next step we took was to make sure that we had a programmer on staff who was able to edit the backend (programming side) of the content management system we chose. That may not be necessary for your site but it's something to keep in mind. After that, we had to make sure that our designer and Web developers were trained on how to use the CMS. Once this was completed, we were able to start moving the content. This took a long time but was worth the effort when complete.

"A CMS is right and the features are real when your organization is using it every day. A CMS is only 20% purchased software and hardware. It is 80% the process of people using the tools to implement a content management strategy." CMS Review. Using the right content management system can help you manage your content and reach your search engine optimization goals. But you won't know if a CMS is right for you and which one to purchase until you take the time to do the research.

Which CMS Will Work For Your Site

Which CMS Will Work For Your Site

Once you've made the decision to manage your content with a CMS, it's time to look at several factors that will help you narrow down your choices to the right one for you.

You'll need to consider the number of hands you have working on your Web site. Most content management systems have a versioning system built into them. This means that a history of all the changes made to a page is kept. That way, if something is changed that shouldn't have been or there a mistake has been made, the system will allow you to "roll back" to a previous version of the page. The versioning system also keeps track of who made the changes thereby giving you a record of who is updating the pages. Keeping track of who made changes and when, can be helpful for monitoring your site and making sure that mistakes don't happen or can be corrected quickly when they do. If you do have many people working on your site, it may be a good idea to use a content management system to help you monitor who is making changes and when. If you don't have many content writers, then you may not need this functionality.

Another factor to take into account is how complicated your site layout is and how different or similar your pages are. If your site's pages all use a similar layout then a CMS can easily be implemented. If not, it can get complicated because you'll have to create many templates when setting it up. You also have to decide if the CMS will fit your needs right out of the box or if you are going to have to monkey with it to make it work the way you want. Some systems allow you to do this easily, others, not so much. If you have programmers on staff who can help you edit the software, this may be an option for you.

When comparing potential solutions, look at whether or not the CMS you're looking at will be search engine optimization-friendly. Your CMS should allow you to easily optimize your site. You have to make sure that the system has all the areas in your templates that you need in order to add Meta tags and that it is easy to modify them. This may be a problem if you use the same templates for all of your pages. You need to make sure that the pages that are used to enter the content into have Title, Description and Keyword tags in them and that the person who is entering your content into the pages adds the correct content to all those tags.

A great site to look at for additional information on content management systems is CMS Review and their Best Practices in Content Management. They have broken down what they consider to be best practices into a graphic that accurately shows the steps that should be taken in organizing your content management set up.

Content Management Best Practices

The whole practice may seem overwhelming and confusing based on the graphic, but it doesn't have to be. You just have to invest the time to accurately and effectively research the needs of your site and determine what you want it to accomplish.

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