Best CMS: A Short Guide to the Best Content Management Systems Available to You
Are you a content manager for your company? Do you run a news based or a content heavy website? Maybe you’re an avid blogger and need some help managing all those posts you need to publish next week. Content management systems are a great tool for people like you. They’ve been developed by programmers that understand the need for a system that reduces the workload and makes doing the things you love, or the things you have to do, easier to manage. To skip using anyone else’s framework, you can build your very own. Sounds complicated but with resources like this course on building CMS with PHP, you can be up and running in no time.
What is CMS?
CMS stands for content management system. It’s a buzz word in the web development industry as it helps website managers present their information to the internet audience. It’s worth mentioning that a CMS does not have to be web-based, but we’ll touch on that later. Content management systems are also used for businesses and organizations that have more large-scale needs.
A content management system is an application that provides capabilities for multiple users to manage content, data or information of a website, project, or internet application. The users can be assigned different permissions that allow them access to certain sections, or all the content of the project. This program provides a way to manage and maintain workflow in a collaborative environment from a central interface. Typically, these content management systems are web based and help run blogs, news sites and e-commerce.
When I say “manage content”, I mean creating, editing, publishing, archiving, reporting, collaborating and distributing content, data and information. Think: blog. Blogs are websites that require a lot of upkeep for them to remain current and relevant to the readers. That’s a lot of content to manage for a couple of people! You’d probably want to consider using a CMS to make life easier.
The CMS definition harbors some confusion as there are a few different types of content management systems, but not really. Let me explain. Long after the CMS platform was developed, the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) decided to release their own versions (and definitions) of the concept. They claimed the acronyms ECMS and WCMS, for enterprise content management systems and web-based content management systems, respectively. Essentially, the already existing CMS platform was a combination of all of these things. AIIM just tweaked the name and definition of a CMS to fit the need of their business. So if you ever see ECMS or WCMS just know that they are all part of the content management system. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. All you need to remember is that a content management system can function on the web, off the web, for personal use or for businesses and organizations.
Myth vs. Fact
Okay, you know what a CMS is. Now let’s debunk some popular beliefs about content management systems. First, just because you have a CMS doesn’t mean you’re going to get by without the need of a programmer, or developing some programming skills yourself. Why? Because, say you decide to start using WordPress as your CMS. Sure, WP has a great control panel that seems really user friendly and straight-forward. But what happens when you want to create a website with an integrated user log-in that resembles that of Amazon.com or Etsy.com? You’re going to have to go into the back-end and use some computer programming language to get your desired results.
Secondly, a CMS is not your ticket to success. It’s going to help you out a heck of a lot, but without a good marketing strategy and quality content or services – your website or project isn’t going to be as successful as you hope.
Alright, now that you’ve got a general idea of what’s going on; let’s get to comparing the best content management systems available!
WordPress (WP), started off in 2003 as a blogging platform. Over the course of 10 years WP has become arguably the most popular content management system in the world. So what does WP have that other content management systems don’t? Well, first, it’s really – and I mean really – easy to use. You don’t need any technical or programming skills to get a website up and running in no time. Of course, if you want to fine tune every aspect of your site you may need to dive into the backend as I mentioned before and tweak some coding, but this is by no means necessary. If you decide to use WP all you have to do is install it and then configure the options to your liking. There are hundreds of free templates to choose from to make designing a website easier than ever. One of my favorite features of this CMS is the visual editor. As you create and edit your content to publish, the visual editor lets you do so quickly by pushing a few buttons and seeing the results immediately (kind of like MS Word or Paint).
Additionally, WP has a framework that is incredibly flexible and can be customized almost infinitely. There are applications that you can install called Plug-In’s that offer even more functions to the core of WP, like rotating video slideshows, social media additions, viewer analytics and the list goes on. So instead of spending $1000 on having someone else develop your site – you can do it, for yourself (how satisfying!) and – for free. Yes, WordPress is free!
If you are ever feeling like challenging yourself, you can always visit wordpress.org which is a CMS that you can edit directly from your local hard drive and then update to the WordPress server via an FTP client. This option gives you the ultimate control of your website destiny. Just remember, for the WordPress.ORG CMS you’ll need at least a willingness to learn a little about computer programming. For WordPress.COM, just sign-up, and have your website published within an hour! Oh, and one last thing, the WordPress support community is one of the best on the web. If you have a question it’s likely already been asked or, it’ll be answered within hours of you asking. Can’t ask for better than that. Well known corporations like The New York Times and CNN use the WordPress platform.
Like WordPress, Drupal is an open source content management system used by a number of popular websites, even the White House website developed chose the Drupal platform. No biggie. There are plenty of reasons why Drupal could be a great fit for you. Unlike WordPress, Drupal gives you ultimate control over URL structure, or permalink. In WordPress this can be a frustrating aspect to fix as you have to go into the back-end. In Drupal, there is a global redirect module that will automatically 301 redirect (a permanent redirection) the internal Drupal URL to the custom URL you wish to ensure you have clean and customized URL’s.
The ease of user management is also notable. Drupal was originally designed to be a community-based website so users can have custom roles and access levels (like moderator, editor, webmaster, etc) so it’s a great site for blogs and forum based projects. Drupal is also search engine friendly, more so than top competitors like Joomla. With the Drupal CMS you can control your page titles and meta-tags. This sounds like a no brainer for a CMS, but some programs don’t make this easy.
For the programming inclined (and not-so-inclined) the Drupal content management system uses a PHP template theme engine by default. You by no needs mean to learn the PHP computer language, but if you want to, or need some pointers, Drupal has a theme developer guide to help you get started.
A really nice feature that is unique to Drupal is the content construction kit that gives user the flexibility to customize each content page as a blog, classified, news story, podcast, etc. You can create the categories and tell Drupal how you want them to be displayed. No programming knowledge required!
Ranking in the top three open source content management systems, Joomla is often compared to WordPress and Drupal as an equal but different CMS option. If you’re running a site that is really heavy on article content, Joomla offers an admin interface that can totally handle it. It seems to be the most user friendly of the three and is quite powerful. Joomla may not have the pretty looking, user intuitive feature that WordPress does, nor the developing features or customization capabilities of Drupal. It’s somewhere in-between.
Unlike Drupal, Joomla supports more than just PHP as its application server and is recommended by Apache. Joomla, like both WP and Drupal also supports MySQL so all of your database needs are met. Something else to note is Joomla is not SSL compatible which can pose problems for users trying to engage in e-commerce. Joomla gives you the same ability to clean up the URL’s as Drupal, image resizing, hosting services, advertisement management, content scheduling, contact management, and meta-data customization. For an in-depth look at building and maintaining websites with Joomla, check out the Joomla content management system tutorial.
If you’re looking to run e-commerce on your site, Joomla has extensions (plugins, add-ons) that can be activated to help with shipping, payments, inventory management, taxes and subscriptions. And, Joomla is free!
Expression Engine is not a totally open source CMS, but a combination of open source and commercial. This means a few things. One, it costs money. To get Expression Engine you’ll have to cough up around $300. This, of course, comes with a plethora of add-ons, support and customization options. The open source framework of Expression Engine means that you can add and create extensions to your own site.
Administratively, this CMS features admin logs, site membership, searchable content forums, data export, SQL and extension manager – all which are standard inclusions when you purchase Expression Engine. User management also benefits as you can create member groups, manage user profiles, require member activation all while allowing multiple administrators to work.
I mentioned that Joomla didn’t support SSL certifications which can be a huge turn off if you’re planning on accepting payments on your site. Luckily, Expression Engine is SSL compatible, uses captcha verifications, and gives the admin the option to approve content before publishing.
And lastly, the ease of use is impressive. Because of the dual-framework of Expression Engine, developers can design their website using PHP in the backend, and those who are not-so-savvy, can customize their site in the front end.
If you don’t know anything about programming, eZ Publish is probably something you should stay away from. While it’s a great content management system, it is not meant for those that can’t dig through source files to customize the code to their liking. The good thing, though, is the amount of extensions that come with eZ. If you’re looking to add some functionality to your site you can search the downloads page for an immediate download.
On the administrative side, your workflow is easily managed with features like multiple photo upload (huge time saver!), easy content management and editing, and plenty of room for customization and development. eZ also offer an array of languages to upload your site making it friendly for everyone, everywhere. The user interface is a bit cluttered and definitely has a learning curve. Buttons are oddly placed, and the overall structure of the program isn’t very user intuitive. Again, if you’re not technically inclined, you could run into a few issues trying to user this system. If you’re determined, spend time thumbing through all the support documentation eZ offers take time to navigate the admin panel.
eZ Publish has a workflow engine that stands above its peers. It’s a built-in collaboration system that gives the admin flexibility to pre-define a sequence of actions, in a specific order, after content is published. If you’re looking for more of an enterprise content management system, and you have a programmer in your pocket, this could be a great option to manage your projects efficiency.
Vivvo, has a great user interface, plugins, and respectable security. Your admin dashboard has features like traffic analytics, which is great for understanding trends. You can view comments that need to be moderated, and all your logs right there when you sign in. This is quite different than the CMS eZ Publish we just discussed. You’ll have access to a ton of other widgets that can be customized to enhance your experience.
If you’re looking for some help with say, advertising management or content scheduling you’re going to have to pay for those tools. If you’re more into banner management or an ad server that can manage images, HTML and the links then Vivvo’s got you covered. And for you Google crazed developers, Vivvo now includes Google Analytics integration. Now you can read all your stats within the content management system.
The plugin repository is a bit limited, but that being said, you can still really boost the functionality of your site with plugins like multi-site manager, subscription tool, menu builder and a video box, to name a few.
Vivvo creates search engine optimized URL’s to help you increase traffic to your site. If you’re new to content management systems you may need to take a few minutes to understand how to create content, publish content, etc. Vivvo’s there to help as there support center is loaded with documentation (to walk you through any questions you might have) and a discussion forum.
Vivvo handles multiple contributors with a variety of permission levels with ease so you can continue operating in that collaborative environment you love so much. To purchase Vivvo, expect to spend around $300.
If you’re in the market for a CMS, SquareSpace could be just what you’re looking for to create an online presence. Like Vivvo, SquareSpace has a traffic tracking feature on their dashboard that goes back 30 days. Again, this is a great tool to have at your fingertips for understanding your viewer’s patterns. On the side, SquareSpace also highlights the most common keywords used to get to your site. This will help you understand if the keywords you use for search engine optimization are working, or not.
This CMS offers something that a lot of other’s don’t – hosting. It’s a part of running a website that’s essential and often runs through a third party. Being able to have everything in one place is certainly an advantage to using SquareSpace. Unfortunately, open source coding is not an option for this CMS. Which is certainly a disadvantage for you programming geeks. You’ll only be able to add some HTML and a little CSS to your site, but you’ll have to get the widget to do so. Even though this CMS is not open source, you do have the opportunity to peruse and download extensions to add uniqueness to your site – you just don’t have the unlimited customization capabilities of SquareSpace’s competitors.
Outside threats to the security of your website are put at bay when you enable SSL throughout your entire site. The part that is kind of a drawback lies within the site administrative security features. You’re not going to be able to moderate comments from other users or set permission rights for contributors. You can’t even track login history.
Overall, if you’re looking for an easy to use, secure CMS, SquareSpace is a less expensive option than the other paid programs at $240.
Concrete5 is amongst some of the lesser known CMS available but it has some functions that can come in handy for certain users. When you’re developing your site on say, WordPress, you have to manage everything from the dashboard – adding widgets to the footer, sidebar etc. In Concrete5, organization is done through “blocks”. These blocks can be drug around zones on the page to help organize the content to their desire. Another visual editor is used for creating content pages. Instead of building in text mode, you’ll be able to see what exactly what you’re doing and how it will look to your viewers. It saves you time from adding material, publishing and then finally viewing from the front-end like you would in WP.
Concrete5 also has quite the library of add-ons, but not quite as many themes. If you’re looking for a custom template you may just have to play around in the back-end to customize your site or hire a programmer to do this for you. One advantage Concrete5 has is it was designed to be a content management system. CMS’s like WordPress were designed to be a blogging platform and the difference shows with ease of use and functionality. To learn more about this WYSIWYG content management system take the Concrete5 CMS course.
Hero is an open source PHP website CMS and development platform. It uses themes, much like WordPress does that can be installed and uninstalled with ease. Hero has a menu manager that makes it easy for the user to create menus from internal and external links. Like most other content management systems, Hero’s site admin operates from a sort of control panel that includes your dashboard and configuration.
If you’re used to adding multiple pictures to your content posts, you may have a bit more trouble doing this in Hero. There’s a way and the question has been answered in the support forum. Hint, it’s not as easy as just downloading an add-on. However, you can add flash videos and embed videos from selected providers. The Here Framework has a full API and open source library for developers and users can use SEO tools to help gain more visibility. If you’d like to edit your content solely in HTML, there is a “source” mode you can switch to.
You can also restrict access to certain member groups by adding a subscription paywall to your site. Hero is free but if you’re interested in adding an e-commerce site you can do that for $195. It seems if you’re used to using a CMS like Expression Engine, but want a little simpler approach – Hero’s your main man.
MODx is an open source content management system that supports PHP and MySQL. Instead of adding irrelevant markup to your HTML, MODx loads your “skins” from a database which makes for faster loading times. If you’re tired of trying to learn PHP or Smarty (awfully similar to PHP) for design management, MODx claims “go straight from XHTML/CSS/JS mockup right into the Content Management System.” For some, like me, this is really, really appealing.
A couple drawbacks? User roles and permission settings are a bit confusing, at best, and creating content for a blog is a little more difficult than it could be. MODx uses Ditto for news and blog content.
CushyCMS is a versatile, fast, easy and free content management system. Cushy has a WYSIWYG editor which already simplifies things. It has repeatable regions and page cloning, ad free admin space (nice), and RSS feeds for tracking. This are the free features. With CushyCMS Pro, you’ll also have unlimited sites, pages and editors, XML editing capabilities, no server requirements as Cushy is a hosted application, custom class names and custom styles. That’ll run you around $28 a month.
CushyCMS really takes the cake on simple and user friendly programs. It comes in over 20 languages, you don’t need any programming experience (maybe just a little HTML knowledge) and there is no software to download or install. To use CushyCMS you add Cushy to your existing sites and then enjoy this new usable interface for easy site management. It’s not your standard approach, or what you would normally think of when considering CMS’s but it’s an easy solution for a website manager that has minimal HTML experience.
TYPO3 is one of the oldest open source content management systems. It has recently developed into an enterprise CMS program to manage the needs of business owners and organizations. It’s a free option for businesses to develop and manage a website without any knowledge of computer programming. TYPO3 uses themes as templates for web site layout and has an extensions repository with over 4000 extensions for users to add unique functionality to their sites.
TYPO3 has an API-driven extension framework that offers unlimited flexibility. This program works with any hosting system, and has scalable architecture giving the user ultimate customization for their site. To access the admin site you’ll only need a browser so no downloading anything onto your computer. This makes working in a collaborative environment possible. To make collaborative efforts even easier, TYPO3 added an internal messaging and workflow system. From the website, “Authors benefit from the full-featured rich-text editor that offers all of the formatting options they would need in a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) tool with a familiar word processor-like interface.”
Because of the enterprise based framework, TYPO3 is database driven and can scale easily to the current and future needs of your project. One more thing, it’s totally community driven so the support is endless. Are you digging the idea of having a system that helps manage your workload? What if I told you, you could build your very own CMS, like TYPO3, but with all of the customizations you want from the get-go. This course on creating a dynamic CMS website with Dreamweaver is the tool you need to get started.
Here’s another CMS that boast user-friendliness and no programming skills required. What sets Fission apart is it’s bend towards non-profits. As a cost-free open source content management system, Fission helps non-profits stick to their presumably tight budget. There are a few tools in their repository that help organizations benefit from using this CMS, like donation add-on’s, calendar and even management system, email campaigns and digital newsletters. These tools are by no means only for non-profits though, you can certainly use them for your business or personal projects.
Fission has great WYSIWYG editing tool so you can easily create and edit your content. The gallery tool includes Lightbox integration and tags that are optimized for search engines. If you’re looking to create a news related website, Fission’s News and Press Manager is going to be the best tool ever. You can create, schedule publish and archive news article with unlimited images attached and again, SEO page titles.
Fission has a plethora of other tools like forums, showcase components, RSS Feeds, testimonial publisher, file manager and video devices to embed or link videos to your site. As far as all around functionality, Fission has what it takes to make the best version of your website possible.
Radiant CMS uses a simple admin interface which features three major parts, pages, snippets and layouts. Through these three components you’ll be able to edit pages to fit your needs. Radiant has an intuitive flexible site structure which organizes each section according to importance and by folders. You can use HTML or markdown in any part of your site, like the content pages or your sidebar. Radiant’s layouts generally contain most of the HTML for a pages design.
Radiant has a special language (similar to HTML) that they call Radius. Radius makes it easier to include content from other pages and to display content conditionally. This can cause some confusion for people who aren’t very computer language savvy, but it shouldn’t cause too many problems. Radiant is built using Ruby on Rails. This means it’s easy for developers to extend Radiant because it’s built on a widely accepted (and understood) web application development platform. Radiant also comes with 6 languages packages to help developers around the globe use this minimalist CMS.
Something to note, Radiant is licensed by MIT which means this CMS can be used for commercial and non-profitable endeavors. They also don’t want you to remove any of the distribution information from the source codes.
SilverStripe is a popular open source website CMS used by a lot of organizations and business worldwide. This content management system uses a Sapphire layout which hides syntax codes nicely so that it does not interfere with the authors work but yet, it’s easy to access if need be by programmers. SilverStripe was built using code instead of a graphical user interface which makes this program pretty easy to be manipulated by a programmer without having to use complex computer languages.
SilverStripe acts a bit more like a desktop application than it does a tradiational CMS which can be a nice touch for some. This CMS gives the user the ability to send out newsletters, manage statistics and moderate comments. If you’re ever confused about how to add a more unique experience to your website, SilverStripe has tons of support from the forums to help even the most novice of CMS users. The installation process is a breeze and you’ll get to check out the “getting started” tutorial to help you, well, get started customizing your first theme!
Refinery is a non-programmers solution to all of the content management needs. It’s an open source CMS, so you don’t have to pay to use it and you get the benefits of its community supported extensions library. Because of its sleek interface and super simplicity, refinery remains as one of the most popular CMS’s out there. As the user, you have ultimate control over the way your website looks and how it functions. As a developer, using the latest Rails version on Refinery should get you pretty pumped. For you worldwide users, Refinery is available in over 21 languages. The user interface is bright and lightweight so you won’t feel overwhelmed or crowded while you’re trying to put together your dream site.
Refinery was developed in a way to allow ‘engines’ to be seamlessly integrated into the Refinery app. A couple things that Refinery is lacking are, no post scheduling, no easy previewing an image storage implementation is ambiguous. Really though, since it’s open source, if there is anything that you want that’s not available, you can create it yourself or hire someone to do it for you.
Last, but definitely not least, DNN (formerly DotNetNuke ) is the leading open source web content management platform in the Microsoft ecosystem. This program can help you build professional looking websites for commercial purposes, community portals, and social networks. This very popular CMS has an extensive library of commercial extensions, apps and skins available in the DNN store. DNN also has an open source extensions forge.
This cloud ready DNN platform includes file management, mobile API, social API, bulk email, core security and admin features like site logs, moderating and permissions. Of course, like any CMS, this architecture is quite scalable to reach the demands of your company, personal project or other needs.
For the geeks, DNN’s core is written in C# and there are modern client side web tools like CSS 3, HTML 5 and Jquery. DNN can also serve as an e-commerce platform. There are even calendar functions that let visitors purchase tickets and register for certain events. If you’re hoping to have a variety of options for page templates, or skins, then DNN is a great choice. All you have to do is search for one you like and click a button to make it yours. DNN is also a prime tool for running on a shared hosting environment. It’s also not limited to the use of SQL, as competitors like Sharepoint may be.
You Made It
Alright, so you’ve spent the last 20-minutes reading about all the different options for managing content on your website. Did you find one that caught your attention? Hopefully. If not, there’s always the option of building your own CMS – if you’re into that kind of thing. Even if you know nothing but a little PHP, you can learn how to build your very own multilingual CMS website using PHP, MySQL and JQuery. If that idea totally freaks you out that take some time and visit the websites of your top choices from this list. Most of these options are open source so you don’t have to worry about paying to take them for a test run. The support forums should have a lot of information about installation in addition to user feedback. Make an educated choice so you know your venture is bound to be a success!
Last Updated March 2020
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