Content Management Systems: the case against DIY

I see a large number of freelance developers and small agencies selling website designs based on bespoke, homemade, Content Management Systems (CMS).  In this post I am going to explain why buying one of these websites is, in principle, a bad investment and can have expensive repercussions on your business in the medium to long term.

This post is dedicated to owners of small companies investing considerable amounts of money on their website.  A CMS is essentially a piece of software (a set of computer programs) which runs on your web server (where you are hosting your website) and, allows you to edit your website’s content in a user-friendly way (similarly to when you are using an on-line mail systems like Hotmail, Google mail or Yahoo mail).  The CMS takes care of the whole formatting of data, pictures and everything else according to a well defined design that is usually defined by a graphic/web designer.  In short it gives you full control of your website’s content while the designer can take care of the design and its visual aspect.

In recent years the super fast diffusion of social media has been influencing the way websites should be designed and used.  Until a few years ago it was OK to have the so called web brochure, a website that would be designed with a set content and remain  untouched for several months or even years.  The new standard is to have a website based on a CMS that allows and encourages the creation of fresh content and keeps your website up-to-date with the latest news.  In the long term this way of working offers several advantages:

  • saves money because you don’t need to involve the design agency for any amendment or addition to the content (e.g. to add news, to add a new product/service page, to remove a product/service that you no longer offer, etc.)
  • keeps the website constantly up-to-date and makes it search engine friendly
  • it shows to recurring visitors that your company is active and things are moving forward

Good news is that search engines like Google love fresh content and will always prioritise a website that has continuously new and fresh content, compared to a static or very slow changing site.  The best way of implementing this is to have a website with an incorporated business blog where you can write posts (that’s how articles are called in the blogo-sphere) and release the latest news, ideas, case studies or testimonials about your products, services or staff. In short, my suggestion would be:

you should really have a website based on a CMS, with a blog, and keep it up-to-date by adding new content at least monthly

Unless you are highly computer literate, it’s likely that the web designer or agency you are using will help you or make the decisions for you about the CMS to use.  Despite the old saying “there is no such thing as a free meal” we live in a world where, thanks to the voluntary work of hundreds of developers, there are several free open source CMS systems which are suitable for most projects; names like Joomla, WordPress, Drupal, Roundcube, Zen Cart, Concrete5 and CMS made simple, are just some of the available ones.  The main advantages of using an open source CSM are:

  • you can fully focus on developing your website assuming the support of a well functioning frame work is in place
  • you are aware that existing bugs (malfunctions) will be usually addressed and solved within weeks or months when a new version will be released
  • you can rely on a broad variety of plug-ins, widgets and other accessories that perform specific functions, often exactly as you need them

As it happens in many software development activities, many CMS start as simple projects with limited functionalities and evolve over time into large and comprehensive packages; in many cases they are the co-operative result of tens or hundreds of people around the world.

On the contrary, a homemade CMS, a package internally developed by the developer/agency, will struggle to keep up with the evolution that software has nowadays, such as new standards for security, CSS, HTML, scripting, etc…  So while your company is still employing the developer/agency that developed the original CMS, you may enjoy a very personal service and fast response upon any request but if, for any reason, you decide to employ somebody else or your supplier is no longer available (e.g. moves on, runs out of business, etc…) you will find yourself with a product without any future which may have to be changed and re-implemented using another CMS system.

I believe that a website must be based be based on a CMS; free open source CMS systems are excellent for any website between one and several thousands of pages, allowing your website to grow with your business.  Using a homemade website will be difficult to sustain unless you can bet that you’ll be using your developer/agency for the years to come.

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