Get an Overview of Types of Content Management Systems

Find out Which CMS is Best For You

What is a Content Management System? A Content Management System (CMS) is a software application used to create, customize, and manage information. Most CMS can be used alone or in conjunction (integrated) with other applications. They can be set up directly on a network, the Internet, or even to run "locally" on your own computer.

The most widespread use of CMS today involves the quick creation of powerful websites that do not require a high level of programming knowledge to set up, customize, and maintain.

CMS can be broken down into two main types: Proprietary CMS and Open Source CMS.

Proprietary CMS

Many companies sell licenses to use their own proprietary CMS. "Proprietary" generally means someone owns the rights to the CMS application and you need permission or a license to use it. Even with a license, in most cases, license holders may still be prohibited from duplicating the CMS or making alterations to the application unless they purchase a more expensive "developers" license.

Some proprietary CSM can, and are designed to work outside the environment of the creator but it is important that you understand where the CMS you choose will run properly because many types of proprietary CMS will only work when the site you build with them is hosted by the CMS owner. For example, most online "build it yourself" website services use some form of proprietary CMS. If you build a website "live" through their tools the site will only work as long as you keep it with that company's CMS.

If you try to move your domain somewhere else, the website you created in their proprietary environment may no longer work or may be converted to another format.

Two of the biggest downsides of using a proprietary CMS are the cost of licenses and, because many web host companies do not support proprietary CMS, you may be limited as to where you can host your website.

This lack of "portability" is probably the major reason most small business owners choose to use Open Source CMS.

Open Source CMS

The most popular Open Source CMS run on PHP (a scripting language well-suit for web development that can be embedded into HTML): WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal (the White House website is a Drupal site.) Open source (OS) programs can be used by anyone for any purpose and do not require you to purchase a license. You may also customize OS CMS without special permission.

A few of the significant benefits when using an OS CMS:

  • They are cheaper; no license fees, no fees for upgrades, no contracts to sign and no long-term commitments. 
  • Because anyone can develop OS applications there are already countless free modules, plugins, and complimentary tools so you won't need to hire a developer. 
  • There are hundreds of thousands of free templates (or, "themes") available for OS CMS. 
  • Search engines love OS CMS and WordPress, in particular, is simple to optimize for search engines using simple plug-in tools.

Best benefit: They practically work "right out of the box."

Which CMS Is Best For You?

Unless you have money to burn, start by considering playing around with one of the three most popular Open Source applications: WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal (and play with them in that order.) Just because they are free does not mean they lack power.

Companies that use WordPress include Ford, People Magazine, Sony, CNN, eBay, Wired, and even Yahoo!

  • WordPress: Ideal for personal websites, blogs, small businesses, and those with the least technical and no desire to learn any programming skills, WordPress is a great place to start. It has the most available free themes (templates) and plugins available today. Originally developed as a blogging tool, it is now used commonly to create complicated websites. If you like to hack and code, WordPress can still indulge even the hardcore programmer in you.
  • Joomla: Olympus, Porsche, Sprint, and Vodafone are just a few major corporations that use Joomla. Unlike WordPress, Joomla was never designed as a blogging software, but works fine for blogs, too. Joomla takes a little bit more time to set up than WordPress but is overall more powerful and still easier than the mighty Drupal.
  • Drupal: The White House ditched its proprietary CMS a few years ago and now uses Drupal. Other companies using Drupal include AT&T, McDonald's, Duke and Standford Universities, Symantec, and Linux Foundation.

Of the three most popular CMS, Drupal would be considered the "big guns." Although open source and free, Drupal can be overwhelming to the beginner.

Relax, It's Only Paint

The benefits of first-time site developers using an OS CMS cannot be overstated. When nervously painting a room one color, you remind yourself you can always paint over it if you don't like it. Choosing an OS CMS allows you the same "test patch" ability. They are all "standard colors" but all can easily be converted later to "custom paints." If you are not sure what "color" CMS you want, you can test them all for free.