A content management system, often abbreviated as CMS, is software that helps you to create, manage, and modify content on a website without the need for specialised technical knowledge.
In the early 2000s almost all sites were built on a local computer using specialist web design software (Dreamweaver, WebPlus and FrontPage were some of the well known names then) and the finished files would be uploaded to the web server using an FTP program. One of the problems with this is that the master copy of your site resides on one person’s home computer, so everything depends on that one person.
CMS makes life easier for you in several ways:
- Site creation and editing is all done online by logging in to your web server. There is no need to buy special web design software or worry about which files to upload.
- It’s easy to pass responsibility for the site on to someone else, just by passing on the login details. Or you can share the load by having several people with logins to look after the site.
- The content and presentation are separated. What does that mean? The overall look of the site is set by the site ‘theme’. The site editor can add new test and pictures and they will be displayed in consistent manner throughout the site. If you want to change the look of the site later, you can change the theme without having to edit any of the content.
- Your site will be viewed on a variety of devices, from widescreen desktop monitors to small mobile devices. The theme takes care of adapting the presentation to suit the screen size, so you don’t have to worry about it.
There are many different CMS options out there and these are just some of them:
We use WordPress exclusively for all our sites. Drupal and Joomla tend to be used for larger and more complex sites. Weebly, Wix and Squarespace are commercial providers aimed at home users and small businesses. These last three are providing managed hosting on a proprietary platform.
Proprietary vs Open Source
WordPress is open source software. It is developed by a community of people and made freely available. There are many hosting companies which provide WordPress hosting, and it is easy to move your site from one to another. The same is true of Joomla and Drupal.
Weebly, Wix and Squarespace use proprietary site builder platforms which they developed themselves. Only Microsoft makes MS Windows, only Wix offers Wix websites. You can use their systems but you can’t see how they are built. Your content is kept in a form which works on their particular system, but it’s not easy to migrate it to another host.
Wix in particular is awkward in that once you chose a theme for your site you cannot change that theme, even staying on Wix.
Ionos offers both open source and proprietary site builder solutions.
The open source solutions can be provided as self-hosted or managed installations, depending on your web host. More on that below. The proprietary solutions all come into the managed category.
Managed Hosting vs Self Hosting
Most web hosting companies that offer simple low cost hosting will provide you with WordPress installation for free. You still have to pay the monthly hosting fees, but the software is free. This is known as self-hosting because the software is installed by you, on your own webspace, and you are entirely responsible for it. This means that you need to ensure that the WordPress software is kept up to date, along with your theme and any plugins you use. You should also keep your own site backups, although some hosting providers will do this for you.
Self hosting is the cheapest option, and it gives the the ultimate in flexibility as you can do anything you like, as long as it’s legal. But with great power comes great responsibility. Hackers look for weaknesses in the system to exploit, so they can break into your site and take control. Those weaknesses may be in the theme, the plugins or in WordPress itself, so it is important that you use a reliable source for your software and that you keep it updated.
Managed hosting is more restrictive. The hosting company takes responsibility for the software, ensuring that it is kept up to date. They will also offer a more restricted range of themes and plugins – ones known to be safe and well coded. Anyone with a little technical knowledge can produce a theme and offer it to the world, and there are a great many poorly written themes out there with basic security flaws. So that restriction is for your own safety. With proprietary site builders, everything is built by them so no-one else can take responsibility anyway.
As you would expect, managed hosting comes at a price since they are taking more of the load off you.
One I should mention is wordpress.com, which provides reasonably priced managed hosting for the software developed over at wordpress.org. The two are linked and profits from wordpress.com help to fund the development of WordPress.
As a general rule you get what you pay for with web hosting. The cheapest hosting will provide slow page load speeds and very limited technical support. Better quality hosting will provide you with a faster website, and responsive and helpful technical support.
Page load speed is important as people soon get frustrated when it takes an age to load the next page. Many will just give up and look elsewhere.
Yes it does exist! A number of these companies allow you to create a website for free, but there are limitations. Very often you don’t get to use your own domain name. There may be limitations on the number of pages you can use. And usually there will be advertising for the hosting company on your site which you can’t get rid of. Technical support will normally be available by asking on a community forum and you won’t get direct access by phone or email to a technician.