A Guide to Content Management Systems

Posted 15th February 2012

Some people are put off by the phrase “content management system” or “CMS”. These may be unfamiliar terms. However, these days, the majority of new websites are built using some kind of content management system. 

The basic feature of a content management system is that it allows staff to update the website in a simple and intuitive way without having to get involved in any of the code.  It provides a way to manage the content of the website.

When businesses and people first started having websites, they tended to have content that did not change often.  Nowadays, however, most businesses and people want to update the content of their website regularly. Even quite basic websites may have a news section or an event section that will need updating.  And the people or businesses will want the ability to update the content on their websites themselves, without having to know how to write code for the website or to hire someone who does.

Being able to update the website yourself means the information on to the site can be kept up to date and current news stories, features or events can be added and publicised through the site.  As the website content is continuously changing this also has the advantage of drawing people to revisit your website regularly.  

People nowadays rely on websites giving them up to date information and expect websites to be regularly updating their content. People’s interaction with the web is becoming more frequent and dynamic than before. With the use of handheld devices and social media sites, people are accessing the web more often and rely on it more to get information they need and to connect with others.

A good CMS should make the process of updating very straight forward. This can be as simple as having an “Edit” button on each page. Moreover, you are not limited to a specific computer to update the site. With some CMSs, you can update your website using any computer with an internet connection.

From a web developer’s perspective, for even the simplest websites, where the content is unlikely to change frequently, it still makes sense to build the site using a CMS. This is because it is almost as quick (and so cost effective) to build the site with one than without, and will future-proof the site.

As well as being able to update the content of your websites, content management systems can give the ability to add images or video into the content, or to attach files which can then be downloaded.  This gives people and businesses more control over their websites and the ability to do more things with it to make them more interesting, useful and appealing.  CMSs can also give the ability to create events that display automatically in calendars or pages that show events listings.  As well as managing events it becomes easier to add more features to the website, such as a forum or message board, a photo gallery and other functionality.

Most CMSs will come with a core functionality such as being able to update the content on the website.  If you want to add on a new feature to your site, such as a forum or a photo gallery, this is usually done by adding the relevant module to the site which gives this ability.  Most CMSs are module based (use add-ons to extend functionality). So you can choose the module or add-on you want for your feature, make some changes in the settings to suit your needs and it is ready.

Some CMSs also have built-in membership systems that enable the creation of membership websites and automatically handle the registration process.  This has made the making of membership websites or community websites much easier, or websites where it is necessary to have a private area that only members can access.  It is also straightforward to allow people to add their own comments or content to the website in a manageable way.

The advantages of having a CMS are many:

  • Any part of the website can be updated; new content can be added and old content removed. 
  • It is straightforward and quick to add on new services to the website, such as a forum, a photo gallery and members areas. 
  • You can add e-commerce to your site, where users can buy items, download files or pay for events.
  • It makes it easier to manage events or news items that can be displayed headlines which people can then click through to the whole story.
  • CMSs can handle membership websites, keeping lists and details of people registered.
  • For larger sites that have many sections and pages, having a CMS makes it much easier to manage the content. It is possible to list all the pages for each section. 

What makes a CMS different from a normal website

The main difference between a content management system and a fixed website, is that a fixed website is made up of a series of individual pages which are each separate files.  A content management system on the other hand, stores all of the website content in a database.  The CMS simply fetches the content for a page from the database and so doesn't need to have separate files for each page.  It has one main page through which it presents the relevant content for the menu link you have chosen.

What content management systems are there?

There are many different CMSs to choose from, including bespoke CMSs built to suit a particular need such as education. I am going to cover only the three most popular CMSs currently in use: Wordpress, Drupal and Joomla. They are all freely available to download and start using as they are all open source systems. You can see how popular each of them is at http://trends.builtwith.com/cms.  


WordPress is the most used of all the CMSs.  This is because out of the three, it is the simplest to set up and is the most user-friendly CMS to administer.  It has a straightforward wizard to follow for installing and the whole process can take about five minutes.

The initial purpose of WordPress and its core functionality is to enable people to create blog websites. But it has many more features than just blogging and can be used as a comprehensive content management system in its own right.  It enables people to create websites and then be able to update them easily.

Its best features are the intuitive way it allows people to handle images and videos in the website.  It also has a wide variety of designs that can be used with it, or it is quite easy to create a custom design for a website.  Many of the WordPress designs, called themes, are available for download for free.  If you need to add on extra functionality, such as creating the ability to enter events or a calendar, there are many add-ons available.  Many of the add-ons are also free, but there are also some which have an associated cost.


Joomla is slightly less simple to install than WordPress, however it is still quite straightforward. Joomla is similar to WordPress but its main aim is to support a complete website with fixed pages that can be edited. In many ways Joomla and Wordpress share similar features but the Joomla administrative side is a bit more complicated to use. It can work well if you have lots of pages in your site as it is good at managing many different pages. 

Joomla also has a good system for managing media such as images and documents although it is again not quite as easy to use as WordPress. 

Joomla also has a good system for handling membership for websites that is more comprehensive than WordPress. Although, WordPress can be extended by installing an extra component to handle membership. 


Drupal is probably the most powerful and flexible of the three, however, it is also the most difficult one to administer and set up. This is why it is probably the least popular of the three, but one of the most popular with website developers.  Once a website has been set up in Drupal it can take a little while to understand how the administrative pages work, but after this, it becomes quite straightforward to use. 

If you don’t know much about how websites work then Drupal is definitely the most difficult CMS to use to set up a new website. However, having said that, Drupal is extremely flexible and can be used, when you know how, to build many different types of websites. Also, with the release of Drupal 7 at the beginning of 2011, it has become more user-friendly to install. 

Drupal has a very good membership system where different members can be given custom privileges for updating content on the website. It is also possible to set up different types of content such as events or news stories that suit your data requirements. 

One of the areas where Drupal is let down however is in managing media. It is not a straightforward process for managing photos and videos. 

As a web-developer I prefer to use Drupal as it is so flexible and powerful and can be adapted to almost any kind of website requirement. Also, once you are used to using it, it can take very little time to set up new websites. 

General CMS Features

WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and many other CMSs all have some similar features. They have their basic functions but you can then customize the design of the site by applying different themes. The themes are the design for the site. It is possible to change individual themes to get the exact look and feel that you want. 

It is also possible to extend the functionality by adding on new features which can be downloaded and applied. In WordPress these are called “Add-ons”, in Joomla they are “Components” or “Modules”, and in Drupal they are called “Modules”. Sometimes the hardest part is choosing the right module.

These are just some of the capabilities of CMSs. I hope this article has given you a basic introduction to website content management systems.