Choosing a Web Content Management System

Jan 13, 2010 12:14 AM  By

With a content management system (CMS), you can quickly and easily create and post new content to your Website as needed to execute your web marketing initiatives — whether it’s an update to a Web page to reflect product enhancements or a modification to a landing page to better promote an upcoming event.

But how do you choose a CMS that meets the needs of marketing without giving IT headaches? Here are the key factors to consider:

Price/performance
The price/performance trade-off that holds true for virtually all software also holds for CMSs – namely, the more features you add, the more expensive the software is likely to be.

CMS costs should be predictable. When taking cost into account, don’t neglect annual maintenance fees. These typically range from 18% to 20% of the base price. Another cost to consider is IT labor. Programmers have to write hooks to loosely connect the CMS with other applications – and that incurs charges for IT labor.

ROI
Implementing a CMS can be a significant investment. According to Forrester Research, organizations should be spending 75% of their online budgets on content and 25% on content management.

But a CMS can more than pay for itself in both improved Website performance as well as time savings for content authors, reviewers, and approvers. Ideally, the ROI from your investment in a CMS should pay back the cost of implementation in 2 years or sooner.

Technology platform
Many CMS vendors build their systems as closed proprietary platforms. As a result, they cannot be modified by the user. This means you typically can’t extend the administrative functionality of the CMS.

Look for a CMS built using industry standard platforms, popular databases, and open architectures, so you can modify the CMS inhouse if you need different functionality to meet current or future needs. Systems built on mature technology platforms are also highly robust and resilient, minimizing downtime. What’s more, the CMS should be able to use standard authentication protocols available in the platforms upon which it is built, enhancing control and security. Use of standard protocols also makes it easier to integrate the CMS with external applications or data.

Application integration
Ask the CMS vendor how easily the content management software can be integrated with new and existing applications.

By buying only software built with open architectures, you gain the ability to modify those systems inhouse. The CMS architecture should be based on open standards such as XML and Web Services, with the internal programming based on .NET, Java or other industry standard platforms.

You can achieve integration with your other Web applications with prebuilt connectors, custom wrappers or connectors, proprietary APIs, Web Services, or an open or standard development language.

Another option is to implement a CMS that is part of an integrated suite of web applications. A software suite in which web applications are deeply integrated eliminates the time and cost of writing your own connectors.

Implementation
Purchasing a CMS license is one thing. Getting it up and running is another story altogether. Does the CMS vendor’s involvement end when they sell you a license? Or do they work with their customers to install the CMS and get it up and running?

Can the CMS vendor resolve all technical issues? Talk to some of their customers to determine whether they have a track record of smooth implementations. How many different CMS products does the vendor sell and install? Look for a vendor that knows the particular CMS you are buying inside and out.

Ease of use
Without an easy to use system, you won’t get adoption of the system by your most critical stakeholder groups: Website and content administrators. Without that adoption, you’ll never see a return on your CMS investment.

To enable nontechnical personnel to create and publish new content to a Website, the CMS must be simple to use and contain a set of tools and functionalities empowering users to easily perform content authoring, approval, and posting tasks.

Users should be able to access the CMS from any desktop via a familiar browser interface and using all operating systems (e.g., Windows or Mac OS). Ideally text can be entered, formatted, and previewed in a manner similar to familiar word processing software – no HTML knowledge should be required.

Scalability
Look for a flexible infrastructure that allows you to place some CMS components, such as administration screens and databases, behind your firewall for enhanced security. Other components, in particular the Website’s templates, can be placed in front of the firewall.

A scalable CMS can be load balanced in a web farm, use external storage devices, and handle database clustering. With database clustering, you have multiple servers that act as a single server; if one fails, the system keeps running.

Workflow control
The CMS must allow employees to work together and collaborate on content creation and projects. The workflow control system must include an approval process for content submissions that includes the ability to make comments and suggestions, not just approve or deny submissions.

Infrastructure compatibility
The CMS must work with existing hardware and software while conserving IT resources. Content objects should be placed in RAM or on the local drive to cache data, ensuring that dynamic pages assemble and serve rapidly.

Keeping the content separate from the presentation templates allows content to be stored in databases for fast and easy dynamic access. Caching enables clustering of database servers, creating load-balance environments with site scalability and server failover for greater Web site availability.

Search Engine Optimization
The CMS should take into account all potential technical considerations that could affect your Website’s optimization efforts. For instance, site maps and navigation should be generated automatically as pages are published to the site.

The CMS should include built-in keyword search functionality and the ability to customize search results by logical grouping. Ideally, the system should automatically update your XML sitemap with any new content – increasing the discoverability of your content to search engines – quickly and efficiently.

The software must create 301 redirects when pages are renamed, ensuring engines are able to find the re-named page and attribute the established rank to the revised page. It should also create readable URLs that can be controlled by content administrators to embed appropriate keywords and phrases.

The CMS should give content administrators the ability to edit the title tag and meta data associated with a single piece of content. It should also offer a mechanism for generating meta tags for web pages automatically.

Administration
Although a CMS shifts the ability to update Web content from a centralized IT department to decentralized content authors throughout the enterprise, an administrator is still required to serve as a single point of control.

The system should enable administrators to create, edit, and delete users and groups; assign users to groups; assign roles to users and groups; set permissions for users and groups; create and edit templates; create links; run reports; and define levels of administration.

Flexible licensing
The CMS publisher should offer users their choice of either a Software as a Service (SaaS) licensing model or a traditional perpetual license option.

The SaaS arrangement allows users to spread their licensing costs over several years. It also eliminates the responsibilities of supporting the required back-end infrastructure. A traditional perpetual license permits users to bring the CMS application inhouse if desired.

Bob Bly (www.bly.com) is a freelance copywriter and the author of The Copywriter’s Handbook and Brett Zucker (bzucker@bridgelinesw.com) is chief technology officer of Bridgeline Software (www.bridgelinesw.com), a developer of Web application management software and interactive business technology systems.