There is no one “best” CMS platform. A quality CMS can make creating and managing a website much more straightforward. But with so many content management vendors and products available, how can you know which CMS is right for you?
Ideally, the perfect CMS meets all your requirements and fits within your budget. Unfortunately, it’s easy to choose a CMS that doesn’t quite offer everything your company needs to create a website that draws organic traffic and generates leads. That’s why it’s crucial to have a solid list of CMS evaluation criteria to compare against when researching platforms.
In this quick guide, I’ll shed light on different types of CMS platforms and how to choose a CMS platform that checks off as many boxes as possible.
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Different Types of CMSs
Before I dive into specific criteria, let’s cover the differences between CMS platforms at a fundamental level.
Hosted vs. Not Hosted
A hosted CMS is an all-in-one platform that provides the hosting and software to build your website. Hosted CMS platforms are easy to set up and won’t require you to ever touch a server, deal with upgrades, or maintain the technical parts of the website. Hosted CMS platforms are perfect for small teams who just want a simple website. If you’re short on time or want a smoother experience, a hosted CMS may be your best option.
However, a hosted platform will limit customization and functionality. You’ll only have access to the tools and templates the platform provides. If your site is simple, this may not be a big deal, but if you want to build a highly-customized site with complex functionality, you may be greatly limited on a hosted platform.
As its name implies, a non-hosted CMS does not include hosting. On a non-hosted platform, users must identify a web host; upload their site to the server; update, manage, and protect their site; and connect and maintain any databases or libraries required to make the site work. This means you’ll likely need a web developer to build and maintain the site, which will necessitate a more considerable time commitment and potentially a larger budget. If site customizability and functionality are priorities, this will be a worthwhile investment since it will give you more freedom and control over your online presence.
Open Source, Proprietary & SaaS
You’ll also want to differentiate between open-source, proprietary, or SaaS (software as a service) CMSs. Each type has its own CMS pros and cons, making them better suited for certain projects.
Open Source CMS Platforms
An open-source CMS grants public access to the underlying code of the platform, allowing anyone to modify it and create the functionality and customization they want. For example, WordPress is an open-source platform. Because of this, users and developers are constantly creating new WordPress plugins, templates, and other tools to help websites thrive. If an open-source CMS has a community dedicated to continuous improvement, you can expect new functionality and features regularly.
One of open source platforms’ most commonly cited disadvantages is their security. Because the platform’s source code is public, there’s always the worry that someone may spot and take advantage of security vulnerabilities to access site data. This can be especially troublesome if you plan to host an ecommerce site and handle sensitive customer data. In this case, a proprietary CMS with robust security protocols may be better.
Proprietary CMS Platforms
A proprietary CMS is a platform that keeps its source code private from the public. Users must generally purchase a license to use the platform. Those planning to create multiple websites may need to buy multiple licenses.
Because the code is proprietary and not public, any new features will come directly from the CMS team. Compared to open-source platforms, proprietary CMS solutions will usually be less customizable. However, depending on the platform, users may still be able to create features to improve functionality.
Proprietary CMS platforms focus on consistency, ease of use, and dependable customer support when needed.
SaaS CMS Platforms
A Software as a Service (SaaS) CMS is hosted entirely in a cloud computing environment rather than on-site. Because of this, SaaS content management is sometimes referred to as cloud content management.
With SaaS CMS solutions, there’s less worry about support, uptime, and maintenance. The CMS platform is accessible directly from a web browser, and the vendor typically handles all maintenance and upgrade tasks for software and hardware. This ease of use can also result in a lack of customizability.
9 Tips For Choosing a CMS
Content management systems provide the framework for how your website will work and grow. Whether you’re migrating to a new CMS after outgrowing your current platform or creating a new website, our top 9 CMS evaluation criteria will help you uncover the best CMS solution for you.
1. Identify Your Budget
The right CMS will meet all your needs without eating up any more of your budget than necessary. Some CMS platforms are free to use, while others may come with thousands of dollars in platform user fees. Additionally, other secondary costs like themes and plugins, ecommerce fees, and web development and support costs can add up quickly.
Knowing how much you can spend on your CMS and associated costs can help you narrow down possible CMSs and maximize your budget.
2. Understand Your Needs
Once you know your budget, it’s time to think about your website’s current and future requirements. Establish how you’ll use your CMS platform and what it must be able to do.
Some questions to ask yourself and your team members include:
- How large will your site be?
- How many people will be accessing your CMS?
- Do you require the support of an all-in-one hosted platform?
- Would you prefer an open-source, proprietary, or SaaS platform?
- What does your existing tech stack look like, and how will you integrate it with your CMS platform?
- What will scalability look like, and which features might you want in the future?
Discuss your website needs with stakeholders to identify which category of CMS will work best for your business’s website. Once you know the type of CMS you want, you can use the remaining criteria to narrow down your list and present vetted options to decision-makers.
3. Pinpoint Your Ideal Level of Customization
Don’t let a lack of customization limit your potential. Look at what different CMS platforms will let you customize and determine how hard those customizations will be to implement. Will your designers and developers be able to create custom themes and designs, or will you be stuck with CMS templates? Will you be able to add the features you want into your website?
4. Find the Ecommerce Features You Want
If your website will primarily serve as an ecommerce site for your brand, make that the main focus of your CMS search so you can find the platform with the ecommerce features that will support your business growth.
Product search, personalized product recommendations, easy inventory management, built-in analytics and other ecommerce features related to SEO, user experience, and digital marketing can significantly enhance your website.
5. Focus on Scalability
Every successful site or business will eventually scale. If you haven’t planned and chosen the right content management system, you may be disappointed when you run into CMS scalability roadblocks.
Identify a content management system that will let you scale quickly and efficiently in the future and investigate whether there will be additional costs associated with scaling. For example, you may incur more fees when increasing products on a CMS with ecommerce capabilities.
6. Research Ease of Use
Your team should be able to easily use your chosen CMS regardless of technical expertise. This criteria is critical for operations without an in-house dev team . Examine what skills someone would need to update your site and keep it working and verify that the CMS has a user friendly interface. Also explore what resources the CMS provides users (preferably in multiple languages). For example, Webflow University or online courses for WordPress help users better understand and maximize those platforms. If you have skilled developers on hand, this may not be as big of a concern.
If you have an in-house development team, check what their preferred programming language is and make sure any platform you’re considering uses it.
7. Find the Level of Customer Support That Best Suits Your Business
No matter which CMS you end up using, you can’t expect to be able to do everything by yourself all the time. Research the amount of support documentation offered online, if there are forums or message boards where users help each other, how quick and easy it will be to get support from the CMS’s team, and whether the platform provides live support.
8. Control Over Optimizations
Platforms that provide greater control over metadata, URL structure, site architecture, XML sitemap creation, robots.txt file editing, and on-page optimizations will allow you to implement SEO best practices and help your web pages rank better.
While optimizing your site to reach as many customers as possible is crucial to attracting organic traffic, not every CMS offers SEO and mobile optimizations. Appraise whether or not a CMS platform offers the optimizations you want.
9. Evaluate Third-Party Integrations
Third-party integrations provide additional functionality to a CMS. You may find that while a particular CMS doesn’t have a feature you want, the use of a third-party integration makes it a workable solution.
When choosing a CMS, check which third-party plugins and integrations are available. Look for plugins and integrations for third-party landing page platforms, email, forms, CRMs, SEO, and on-site video and music integration to maximize your UX and lead-generating power.
After applying the above CMS evaluation criteria to your list of contenders, you should now hopefully have a smaller list of possible CMSs, or even one sole standout. Be prepared to share the information you’ve sussed out about each CMS you investigated to support your choice and make your case to stakeholders.
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