Content and its Discontents

Diagram of a content management systemCustomers read your collateral and visit your website, because you have something which interests them. Moreover, Google and other search engines find you because of relevant content on your site. Have paltry content or let it go stale and you’ll loose visitors, search rankings and customers. No surprises there, but curating and managing content can be awkward and time consuming. Who’s going to do it? More importantly, how do you make it easy for those on your team with something to contribute – be it Arthur in accounting, Sally in Sales, or Wally in the warehouse – when they have real jobs to do?

This may be a job for a content management system (CMS). A CMS is software for collaborative building and publishing be it of websites, internal information systems, blogs, or even physical documents such as books. It accomplishes two kinds of tasks:

1) It separates information from format, so that a contributor, who has some “content” may submit it; for example, by entering it into an online form.

2) It organizes contributors into a team, in which members have different roles such as reader, author, editor, designer, editor in chief.

The result can be surprisingly powerful. CMSs can accomplish these without programming or technical expertise from users. Their output is assembled like Lego blocks rather than programmed. Putting content originators in charge through a CMS offers the potential of much more rapid development and maintenance. IT is less involved if it is involved at all. This last is crucial for smaller businesses, which lack IT infrastructure.

Many CMSs are now available.  They range from free open source tools to proprietary enterprise systems with enterprise prices. As in other aspects of technology, open source no longer means home made or compromising on quality. They are built on scalable databases and mature programming languages like PHP.

I’ve been using a few of these open source CMSs for clients recently and on the whole, I’m impressed. This glass is half full. They do enable building a useful, content rich, collaborative site without having to be a programmer. Creating a professional website can be pretty easy, if what you do is built into the system. That said, figuring out how to make each of these CMSs do just what you want is not always obvious.

If you want your CMS to do something out of the ordinary, you’ll probably need to get some custom programming. Customization can be a strength of open source systems. Unlike proprietary technologies, open source CMSs are designed to be extended. All the underlying code is available and they depend on proven scalable Web standards. They are popular enough, so that an ecosystem of books, training, and implementation consultants has grown up around them.

Let’s consider some CMSs you can start using today.

WordPress:

Wordpress LogoWordPress has the image of a blogging system. Indeed WordPress powers millions of blogs, but the current version is much more than that. You can build a showcase, online store, portal, or corporate site (with or without a blog). Multiuser capabilities are built in. If you don’t care to host WordPress yourself, most hosting companies already support and maintain it.

This is the most straight forward of the three CMSs and easiest to launch something quickly, especially if you have to do it yourself. WordPress has a very large library of themes and “plugins.” Themes allow you to change the look and layout of a site. Plugins – essentially snap in modules of code – enable you to add functionality. For example, there are plugins to create image galleries, block SPAM, and create polls. Some industrial strength WordPress sites include Spotify, Tribune media Group, and Network Solutions.

Joomla:

Joomla.org states that it is “award winning,” “popular,” and “requires almost no technical skills to manage.” That may be a bit optimistic, but it’s certainly worth a look. Its mnemonically named modules are straight forward. It has an intuitive icon interface, which made it easy to get a simple site off the ground.

Joomla sites include Barnes and Noble’s Nook Developer , GE Transportation and Europe’s Orange Mobile.

Drupal:

Drupal’s elegant architecture was designed for content management. After a decade of development it appears robust and full featured. It’s very richness, however, makes it less clear what to do next. Even without programming, managing a Drupal site takes a learning commitment.

Examples of Drupal sites include Fastcompany, Popular Science, and Yahoo Research

Who Ya Gonna Call:

“Easy to use” is easy to say. Unless you or someone on your staff loves getting under the hood, you may encounter challenges. With a proprietary CMS you pay for and hopefully get support.

Support can be problematic with these as with other open source applications. The umbrella organizations, which oversee these CMSs are largely staffed by volunteers. They do have online documentation and forums, and you can submit questions. This is generally with no charge and no guarantee of results. If you want to be able to pick up the phone and say “fix it,” or have someone build the CMS for you, you’ll have to hire a third party such as Acquia (Drupal) or CloudAccess (Joomla) or one of numerous WordPress consultants.

Any of these tools are waiting to help you liberate your content and get it to a potentially interested audience. Why not go for it? The price, as they say, is right.

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