Marty WeintraubIf content is king, then the content management system (CMS) is surely the throne upon which King Content sits. CMS simply refers to technical method and tools chosen for adding, editing and deleting pages, links, pictures, uploading video or anything that goes on your site. Every SEO job, from small business to enterprise, is somehow dependent on CMS functionality.

[Skip straight down to the 14 tips if you already understand CMS basics, history, FTP, WYSIWYG programs, browser based web maintenance & open source CMS solutions.]

One of the most irresponsible moves a marketer can make, is by failing to choose their content management system intentionally. This article offers a bit of background on the evolution of web content management and overview of basic types, so as to empower decision makers to question in-house developers and contractors who are building their site.

3 Minute History Of Content Management
Keep in mind that website maintenance used to be the stuff of IT fiefdoms, for the web was not born of marketers. In fact when I first started working on websites in 1992, it was pretty cool to center text on a gray background and string pages together by linking.

Content management lived in the geeky environs of pocket-protected programmers. The protocol created for uploading and synchronizing web page files between the designer and server is called FTP and is widely still used. Programs like Dreamweaver upload and download files by FTP.

In the 90s, many of us became familiar with browser based content management, by way of GeoCities. Users could create their own personal web pages, maintained from the comfort of their own browsers. No longer bound by the shackles of FTP, GeoCities was a harbinger of user generated social media power, large scale browser based CMSs and communities like MySpace, Linkedin and Facebook.

Users designed templates which were populated with content from a database, maintained by forms on web pages. This basic concept remains fundamental in modern CMSs.

Also during that era, early “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) web design tools like Adobe Pagemill, MS FrontPage, NetObjects Fusion, CyberObjects Studio, and finally DreamWeaver blasted onto the scene.

These software packages were nothing short of revolutionary, allowing designers to work in a parsed graphical layout environment, while HTML and other languages were written in the background. Dreamweaver remains one of the world’s most popular tools for designing web pages and managing content by FTP.

Custom Browser Based CMS Explosion
Starting in the mid to late 90s, lots of big companies were figuring out that they could delegate content management amongst site stakeholders. by building proprietary browser based CMS applications. The “sales department” could maintain the appropriate corner of the corporate website, their HR page, their customer service page, etc…Other turnkey commercial products appeared.

As SEO quickly changed over time, most of these systems were destined to become incredibly expensive white elephants. Consulting firms like aimClear are still involved in helping enterprise clients transition from gnarly CMS octopuses. Sadly, the needs of search engines moved much faster than the technical maneuverability of many custom CMSs. We’ve come across a number of them which were obsolete before the roll out.

The Open Source Revolution
Now, incredible browser content management systems, that (literally) would cost millions to develop, are available for free. WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and many are free-of-charge for the clever to customize and use.

Though subject to various open source licence requirements (which should be noted and heeded), these free systems are worth millions. “Free” is a bit of an overstatement: it certainly costs money to configure the “free” software. Plug in extensions are created and distributed amongst fanatical developer communities, who share valuable tools and information with others.

There are thousands of no-charge “themes” to skin popular open source CMSs with. Graphic design firms adept at working with open source software customize these themes graphically and technically. If your web designer tells you she wants to use WordPress, Joomla or Drupal, it could be a great choice to put a million dollar CMS in your company’s hands quickly and at a very low cost relative to custom systems.

Also, many of us make a meal of “mashing in” programs like WordPress into other CMSs of any variety. The concept of multiple CMSs on the same website is becoming more and more common, as modern SEOs seek inexpensive ways to revive suffocating web 1.0 sites by utilizing the extreme functionality available in free software.

Specialized Web Applications
Many sites require special programs for a wide array of purposes, ranging from e commerce to mapping the surface of Mars. These days a great many tasks, doable on a local computer, can be reflected out to web applications.

Some specialized web app’s depend on required server types and software to function (“server platform”). For instance, the hotel reservation application may have been programed by Cake PHP Framework and has to run on the LAMP stack. Sometimes web app’s have their own CMS, which can be leveraged further with a secondary system.

Take shopping carts for example. What you’re really looking at is an inventory application, credit card processing, research paths and other intensive tools. It’s critical to frame the CMS decision in an understanding of the technical environment required for these pockets of functionality.”

So What To Do?
FTP, custom browser based CMS, open source CMS or tricked out mashup–it’s all good. Just choose carefully. Here’s 14 tips for choosing a content management system.

  1. Get involved in the decision. Don’t let your web designer or anyone else choose your CMS without explaining the rationale.
  2. If your designer/developer is using FTP to synchronize files between their computer and the web server, keep in mind that it may be beyond your company’s capabilities to maintain the site yourself in-house without specialized training. That said, FTP has and always will rock.
  3. Explore the various idiosyncrasies, strengths, benefits and drawbacks of different open source systems by looking at a number of sites built on each platform. Each CMS has its own personality.
  4. Research and understand the legal implications of using open source software, specifically the license requirements of the package you want to use.
  5. Figure out if your web server or hosting account will accommodate the technology you choose. Some software plays better on one server platform or another.
  6. Be open to mashups. Think of your current CMS, whatever it is, as the primary system and mash in another. If your site is FTP, then try mashing in WordPress for RSS feed functionality and social media tools. If your primary is Joomla, it’s perfectly OK to create extra pages maintained by traditional FTP.
  7. Custom is cool, but don’t make a huge investment in custom content management unless it absolutely makes sense. If you do then make sure your development team is in place for future modifications and fixes. These things fail, get hacked and every program can somehow break. Be aware that web publishing is always changing so, if you make the decision to “go custom,” be ready for the commitment entailed. Above all, don’t build an expensive white elephant.
  8. If an advertising agency or web design firm offers to “host” your website and offers browser based site maintenance as part of the package, ask them what CMS they’re using and how it affects your ability to leave with the site someday (pet peeve).
  9. Worry about SEO. The “stock” installation of WordPress does not make some crucial SEO attributes available, without extending by plug ins. Some CMSs make it impossible to change basic attributes like Title tags. Make sure, at minimum, that your CMS allows for custom HTML title tags, meta description tags and interlinking.
  10. Get a consultant, if even for a minute, if you feel out of your comfort zone in making such a decision. A couple of hours of advice and oversight might save you a world of heartache later.
  11. We call migrating a site, from an existing CMS to another, a “site flip.” Site flips can be dangerous as it’s pretty easy to wreck years of accumulated search engine trust for your site and existing organic prominence. If you don’t know what terms like “301 permanent redirects,” “permalinks, “link juice” or interior linking mean–get professional help, prior to the flip, to avoid disaster.
  12. Be sure to consider what web applications might be required or are already deployed on the site. This may well dictate the server platform, and therefore content management options. Also, web apps’ often have CMS features, so study possible tools already at your disposal.
  13. Ask about backup. How is content preserved in case of disasters. WordPress can email a DB backup on a schedule. Lots of advertising or interactive agencies build their own custom CMSs on their own servers and resell them to clients as a profit center. Don’t assume it’s being backed up properly.
  14. With CMS standardization comes vulnerability, as malfeasants try and figure out how to hack-rip you off or otherwise wreck your day. If you’re using open source components then make sure to stay on top of system and plug in versions.

If content is King than it’s very important to avoid being the jester when managing it. Take a healthy interest in how your website is published and work with your team to determine the most appropriate solution. Ask a lot of questions and don’t assume that anyone’s looking out for your best interest.

  • David Temple

    Great advice. Now if I could get all my future clients to read this before we have to tell them why their cms sucks so bad.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @David: Repeat after me: “Dear Client, please go read ‘Content Management Evolution: 14 Tips to Avoid the Wrong System’ on my friend Marty’s blog…and BTW…your content management system sucks SO bad.” 🙂

  • Gab Goldenberg

    Marty, can I just say that of all the search marketing blogs I have read, yours is consistently one of the most original. CMS stuff has been covered before, but very few people in search marketing have done it from a general fyi angle – it’s usually “10 tips to trick out WP for SEO.”
    And more generally, your social media stuff (e.g. avatars, Facebook..) impresses me to no end.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Gab: Thanks so much. That means a lot to us coming from you Gab. Will you be @ PubCon?

  • Jim Durbin

    Quite the post Marty. It’s rare for even large companies to get that their CMS could be the reason they’re scoring so poorly on SEO. I’m consistently shocked to find that SEO is an afterthought, but it springs from giving traditional IT the reins and telling them to come up with a solution.

    We tend to suggest Typepad for smaller projects – it allows Marketing to own the CMS (we get clever and call it a CMS instead of a blog), when all they need to do is post content up. WordPress works well if you have a PHP developer, but because it’s so easy, internal departments often don’t do more than a basic install.

    Have no doubt – a social media technologist is a position that is gaining in importance. We have lots of us content folks out there, but very few that get into the systems and optimize it for growth, ease of use, and SEO. In truth, it’s an enterprise level architect who gets social media, but it’s a very difficult thing to map out for an organization. Considering that websites total in the hundreds of thousands of major brands, both agencies and internal DM’s ought to read this post and be thinking about retooling their entire network of sites.

    Of course – if they did, blogs would suffer pretty horribly in the rankings, so maybe it’s a good thing.

  • Ahmad Samater

    Hi, When I read the subject line, i was interrested to read what the 14 tips where.
    By the time I read 5th point, i came to a conclussion that this was not covering ECM but WCM.
    Sorry but the subject line shouldn’t have been changed to WCM rather ECM. ECM is a much larger solution than just WCM.

    Good points for WCM though.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Jim Durbin: Makes tons of sense…we avoid the word “blog” like it’s the plague. It’s always amazing to hear a client say “oh, you mean we can BLOG with WordPress? 🙂

  • Scott Clark

    @jimdurbin – brilliant, I do the same thing. I now refer to WordPress as the “site editing platform” for example. Not that anyone’s listening. Their I.T. friend has already yelled “Drupal!” at them so many times that I have to talk them out of it when all they want is a 30 page site, good SEO and a blog.

  • J Solutions

    I would like to add multi-lingual support in your list. Not all CMS can handle websites in more than one language, some even cannot handle multi-byte Asian characters (the tip is to test the search function of the demo). If your website contents has an Asian language version, remember to test the system well.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @J Solutions: Thanks, multi-lingual support is in fact a feature that matters to many.