Managing Your Own Website

Content Management System (CMS) is a term used to describe software that allows people to manage website content without knowing much if anything about HTML or the inner workings of file management. There are hundreds of programs out there, called CMS solutions, ranging in price from free to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In a nutshell, what most CMS solutions do is separate the content (text and images) from the background HTML - the code that tells your browser what goes where on the page, its colors, size, etc.

As with any kind of application that seeks to "dumb down" a complex process, a CMS requires certain trade-offs:

  • Unless you know HTML and your CMS gives you access to the underlying code, you will not have much flexibility in how your content is laid out on the page. You may be able to select from an assortment of pre-coded templates, but that's about as good as it gets.
  • Controlling things like color and image size can be difficult, depending on the CMS.
  • You are stuck with how the program team designed the system. For instance, you might like the way a competitor's shopping cart flows - perhaps everything is on one page or the data is broken down on several pages. Once you select the CMS you want to use you get it all, the good with the bad. And unless you are on the very high end of the spectrum with lots of spare cash to throw around, your CMS provider is not going to do much in the way of "one off" or individual modifications.

Types of CMS

Let's focus on the small to medium-sized business end of the spectrum, as that's where the vast majority of Just Imagine's clients reside. Free CMS solutions are availabe for the true "do-it-yourselfer." For the most part,you will get what you pay for. Easy to use with little flexibility describes most of these offerings. You are stuck with "canned" templates and a very limited ability to influence the look and feel of the page.

Affordable, but not free, solutions abound. There are two basic types of solutions:

  • Software-based - you buy a CD or DVD and load it on your computer.
  • Web-based - you log into a website and do all of your work online.

As client solutions go - as opposed to vendor solutions (a designer using a CMS to build websites) - web-based is preferrable. Typically you are talking about less money up front and a modest monthly fee. Web-based solultions also give you the ability to initiate changes from any computer with access to the Internet; all you need is your password.

No matter which type of solution you choose, they're all doing the same basic thing. They're taking the material you create (text and images) and putting it in a database. Then, behind the scenes, they're matching the data with the proper display template to create a viewable page. This process occurs in a couple of different ways:

  • The data and HTML are kept separate until a visitor clicks on a link to one of your pages. At that moment a request goes out to a database and the database answers by sending HTML and data out to the visitor's web browser, where it becomes a page. This is called serving the page "on the fly."
  • The other approach creates the page when it is added or altered, thus creating what is known as a "static HTML page." This process more closely resembles what a web developer does when building a website by hand. Each page is created individually and uploaded to the host server.

How to Select a CMS Solution

Your individual needs and limitations must be considered prior to making a decision. How much can you justify spending? How much time can you devote to learning and doing? Where does your learning curve begin? What past experiences are driving the decision?

The average website owner considers a CMS when budgeting a second or third generation website. Self-management has become an issue because of a series of bad experiences paying a third party to make changes. After months, even years of frustration, the business owner or involved staff begin to wonder if there isn't a better way. Enter CMS.

If the choice is truly yours - typically you'll use whatever CMS your web developer offers - the key points to consider are:

  • Cost - will vary depending on how much functionality you require. Expect to pay more for product catalogs, shopping carts, form creators, etc.
  • Interface - how much does everything resemble what you are used to (i.e. MS Word). Do you need to know HTML code in order to make a word bold or create a new paragraph? While these HTML "tags" are not difficult to learn, you still need to consider the learning curve, especially if multiple people in your operation will be using the CMS.
  • Growth - is there room for you and your website to grow. What if you want to learn some simple HTML to give you more control of layout? Can the CMS accommodate you or it does it lock you out of the HTML completely? What if you want to add functionality? Or what if your site merely does what it's supposed to do, grow and evolve over time? What are the limitations of the CMS.
  • Search engine-friendliness - "on the fly" CMS solutions can create problems for search engines because the pages don't actually exist until a visitor clicks on a link somewhere. Search engines are trying to rectify this problem but as of now, all else being equal, a solution that creates "static HTML pages" would be our choice.

Conclusions

If you are like most website owners, you will seek out a web development firm that shows you work you like or is recommended by someone you trust. If that developer offers a CMS to its clients, that's what you'll have. If not, you might be moved to seek a developer who does offer such a solution.

At the very least, if you feel the need to manage your own content, do some CMS research (here's a place to start). Choosing a system that you can live with for a while is important, because it's not something you want to change with any frequency. You can also feel free to correspond with us about your options. That's why you need Just Imagine.

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