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Another Perspective on the “Best” CMS Debate

posted by Matt Ward on Feb 5, 2011.

There’s a debate in the design and development community about which Content Management System is the “best” available tool out there (assuming that you haven’t written your own). I won’t be trying to answer that question in this article, but would rather like to introduce a slightly different perspective on some important considerations that should go into making that choice.

Recently, I have seen a couple of different articles that have tried to address the question of what is the best content management system (CMS) to use for a website. First, Amber Weinberg wrote an article over on Freelance Folder, entitled “Which Content Management System Should You Focus On?”. The article basically introduces the concept of the CMS and its importance to modern day web developers, provides a brief listing of some different options, along some of the pros and cons of each (according to the opinions of the author), and offers a few simple tips on how to get started choosing your platform. It’s a great introduction for beginners.

More recently, Brian McDaniel authored a different post entitled “Why WordPress Is The Best CMS”. In this article, Brian explains a number of different reasons why he has migrated nearly all of his web work to WordPress from systems like Drupal and Joomla. He talks about a number of the benefits of WordPress as a CMS (even though it was originally created as a blogging engine), with his typical humour and wit (the closing line is priceless), making some interesting and valid points along the way.

Interestingly, both authors actually favour WordPress, and generally for reasons that I tend to agree with. Personally, I’m a big supporter of the WordPress platform and probably use it for about half of the work I do (with the other half being built on Concrete5).

Additionally, both authors also conceded that you really need to pick out the CMS that works the best for you. Amber touches on this by suggesting that you

Download some of the platforms you’re interested in, install them and try to code a couple of sites in them. It also helps to pick up a few books or read a few tutorials on the CMS itself.

Similarly, Brian writes:

The short answer to the oft-asked question we started with is this: choose the CMS that works best for you and your context. Try them all, if you have the time. You may find that something other than WordPress is your best CMS

What both of these comments ultimately point to is that the best CMS is the one that works the best for you. The respective authors each present you with the reasons why they choose WordPress over any of the others, but the final decision has to rest with you, your situation and the requirements of a given project.

From my perspective, that’s good, solid advice.

However, as I have been thinking about the idea of what makes one particular CMS better suited to a particular project, I thought about a number of different things. One was the way I differentiate between a WordPress-based project and a Concrete5-based project in my own work. That one’s actually pretty simple. Anything that requires a blog, news stream or other means of publishing periodic, article-like content will be built on WordPress. Similarly, anything that may require some complex, non-standard functionality is probably better suited to WordPress, because there is more likely to be a plugin, and even if there’s not, custom coding just tends to be easier.

On the other hand, if the project is for a simple brochure site, I tend to lean more towards Concrete5, which allows me far more flexibility in terms of the placement of multiple content areas, and actually allows me (or the client) to edit content directly from the page, rather from the admin back-end. I really dig that feature.

Regardless, this is a perfect example of how the unique requirements of a particular project ultimately direct my choice of CMS. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that there is another important factor that comes into play.

That factor is available resources.

I tend to agree with Brian and Amber in that creating a theme for WordPress is pretty simple, and hooking into its broad range of core processes is fairly straightforward too, allowing for a great deal of functional flexibility. On the Concrete5 side, turning a static HTML and CSS page into a basic theme is probably even easier than creating a WordPress theme, and involves just plugging in some snippets of code in the desired content areas. Coding custom functionality is a bit more tricky, but by now I’ve worked with the guts of the system enough to be able to figure most things out.

So, when I start on a new website project, I’m going to turn to one of these two solutions, based on the requirements of the project. That being said, however, it is entirely possible (and perhaps even likely) that there may be another CMS out there that, based simply on its feature set, might actually seem like a more appropriate choice.

But chances are, I’m not going to use it. Why?

Because what “works best” often entails more than a pure mathematical evaluation of functionality. It must also take into account things like time and resources, both of which tend to be a limited commodity.

As a real life parallel, I live in Canada, and right now we’re in the middle of winter. Winter is generally very cold here, and due to the effect that this severe lack of heat has on water, we have a tendency to get snow. Sometimes, we have a tendency to get a lot of snow. Unfortunately, snow is not a particularly considerate phenomenon, and it likes to cover everything pretty much equally, including our roads. Given this, I can tell you that there are times when a big, 4-wheel drive truck with extra large tires would be a much better transportation solution than the Mazda 5 that my wife and I currently own.

Unfortunately, we simply do not have the financial resources to afford that big truck, especially since we would only be using it a few times a year, when there is a lot of snow on the roads. So, we just have to make due with the vehicle we have (which, during most of the rest of the year, suits our little family just fine). It may not be the most ideal solution, but it’s always managed to achieve the intended result of getting us from point A to point B.

I think in many ways, the same is also true of web design and development. There may very well be another content management system out there that would actually be a better solution for a project, but you may simply not have the resources to implement it. That could be a matter of money, but more often than not its also going to be a matter of time.

Many systems come with a steep learning curve, which means that you would have to invest the time into actually learning how to code and develop for that particular CMS. Depending on the system, that can require a pretty significant investment, and probably one that most clients wouldn’t be all that keen on paying for. It is also likely to stretch out the course of your development cycle, and ultimately delay the launch of the site, which is another thing that most clients would probably prefer to avoid.

So, even though using WordPress or Concrete5 (or your CMS of choice) might not be the most ideal solution based strictly on core functionality, when you factor in learning curves and extended development time, things might look a little different. If I can accomplish the same objectives using one of these familiar systems that I could with a “better suited” system, in a fraction of the time, then for me it’s a better decesion to go with the familiar system.

After all, its the end result that matters far more than how you get there (though that’s not to say that the getting there is not important), and selecting the right CMS for the job is not always about a list of features. It can also be about comfort, time and limited resources.

In closing, I’d just like to throw out a quick shout out to both Brian and Amber for writing interesting, thoughtful and useful articles! Thanks guys.

What do you think? What is your favourite CMS? How to you determine what the best tool would be for a given project? Is it strictly a matter of features, or do you consider other factors too?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

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About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Feb 5, 2011

Jordan Burke says:

In my opinion, the “best” CMS is the one that fulfills the objectives and requirements of the project you’re currently working on (or, barring that, allows for creating functions that will). I love Drupal, but I know that trying to use Drupal for every site I do would be like trying to use a hammer to not only hammer in nails, but also to try and cut wood, measure dimensions, etc. CMSes are tools, and using the right tool for the job is an important part of being an informed designer and developer.

Feb 5, 2011

Dianne Volek says:

I used a small CMS called E107 for several years. It was great and every time I tested out other CMS’s I went back to E107. Then I started getting requests for customization beyond e107′s capabilities. Clients get fussier each year – things that would have been prohibitively expensive 5 years ago, are now presented almost as an afterthought by the client with no expectation they will need to pay extra. Six months ago I switched to Drupal, and despite the steep learning curve I’m really happy. It’s easy to add fields, lots of modules, lots of themes. I am putting a big investment into Drupal to learn it, but I’m confident it’s the right one for me for at least the next 5 years or so. It can handle both the brochure types sites, the “words” focused sites(news, blogs), and then also web applications like e-commerce.

Feb 5, 2011

Dave R says:

I can tell you that a big fat truck with big fat tires on icy roads is a big fat disaster waiting to happen. Can you blog while upside down in a ditch? :)

Not that I’d wish that on anyone, I just live in the mtns of Colorado, where we see the folks who believe this myth about big SUVs being better in snow than a small AWD car or wagon… They’re the first ones causing massive wrecks on I-70.

Wait, you didn’t write that as the main point of your post? Oh yeah, that’s right, I wanted to thank you for the interesting perspective, as someone who is migrating to WP for most of his CMS. Good stuff.

One of the requirements that I used to tell my programmers was that their CMS had to be fully commented open-source PHP. That is useless. I’m contending with a broken CMS that after the original developer disappeared into the ether, I’m having to completely strip out.

Going to a bazillion-person strong community of WordPress users makes me more comfortable that I won’t have to hire a new programmer who calls me up and says “I can’t fix this.”

Feb 5, 2011

Brian McDaniel says:

Thanks for reading & mentioning my post about WordPress, Matt. And I absolutely agree with your added factor you’ve explained so eloquently in your post. In fact, I had never even heard of Concrete5 until your post, and I immediately went to take a look at it. Ironically, within a few minutes all I was thinking was how I do not have the time to invest in learning yet another CMS, which so wonderfully illustrates your point here. The time it takes learning new CMS frameworks is just not something I have the ability to invest, so I have found that WordPress works for almost every type of site I build, from the simplest brochure site to the most complex. That’s what makes it best for me, just as you’ve said, and hopefully my post pointed out much the same. Thanks for your elaboration and always helping me see things from another perspective.

Feb 5, 2011

paul says:

I’ve never used Drupal before, but the content types (CCK, Views) seem to be very robust compared to WP custom post types. I downloaded Drupal 7 and really like the UI, but the most common modules are not all ready for 7 yet.

Feb 5, 2011

dedide says:

First thing I always tell my students is think of what the client is prepared to pay for as well as what they need.

Feb 5, 2011

Christa Prentice says:

Great post, I totally agree. I continue to choose WordPress, both because it has amazing features/plugins AND because I am the most efficient with it.

Feb 5, 2011

Saffron Scott says:

I’m with Jordan — the ‘best’ CMS for the job is the one that works best for the project and/or the client.

I will admit WP is easy as sin to code, but I’ve also had a lot of clients who don’t like the feel of it, so I give them Drupal, Joomla or something else a little less WP-y.

The CMS I used to love the most was MT though. Super easy. Design whatever you wanted and then just in the right DIV and you were done.

Now, I’m more 1) Joomla or Drupal, 2) WordPress, 3) ExpressionEngine if the client is willing to pay, 4)Anything else that does the trick.

Feb 6, 2011

George says:

I reckon that 99% of the negative Joomla comments are made by programmers, they feel threatened because their livelihood is at risk. You see Joomla is so easy to understand and you can get a site up in no time with a fraction of the cost – WITHOUT A STUBBORN PROGRAMMER.

Some programmers think that they rule the world and that all web designers need them and use this philosophy to justify their prices. I don’t even want to start talking about the absence of a “can-do” attitude.

With just a very basic understanding of php, average knowledge of css and html – you can build you own site.

Joomla has everything you will ever need from a CMS. Any logical person (except a programmer) who gives it half a chance will realise this.

Having said all this, there may be a VERY slight chance (and i really do mean VERY slight) that you may not find the functionality plug-in, component or extension you are looking for (over 6500 to choose from), you will eventually have to deal with a programmer to build one for you – make sure you have plenty patience, time and money if this happens.

Goodbye!

(oh, and for those complaining about their clients not being able to understand the admin area – why are you even letting them log in there – Joomla users can use the front-end editor to submit/edit articles)

Feb 6, 2011

insurance compare says:

The best CMS is wordpress simply because of all the plugins and themes

Feb 6, 2011

SharePoint Lover says:

How about SharePoint? Here is a showcase of websites built with SharePoint http://www.topsharepoint.com

Feb 6, 2011

tripdragon says:

Or you could become a real programer and create a partial CMS out of Open Source Frameworks like Rails or Cake among others. This gives you and the client absolute control and clarity for the project big or small.

Feb 6, 2011

Rohit Mishra says:

I have been using WordPress for a while on my blog and love the ease of functionality. However, my experience with WordPress is that of a user and not a developer. I recently got a freelance contract to develop a website for a nonprofit. I have heard great review of Drupal and intend to use that for this project. What your article has made clear for me is that I should try WordPress development on some other project and not become focused on using Drupal for everything.

Feb 6, 2011

Jens Scherbl says:

@tripdragon Agree with you, except I think it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel over and over again.

Therefore I use Symphony CMS (http://symphony-cms.com) which is basicly a Framework to build your own CMS based on the needs of your individual project.

Feb 6, 2011

Daquan Wright says:

WordPress is usually the best choice because it “works.” WordPress is easy for clients to understand and flexible in what it can achieve (seriously, wordpress can be adapted to a lot of projects). But the Mozilla websites run on Drupal, so if you need a huge suite of applications linked together, Drupal is probably the better choice.

It’s true that the right tool for the job is important, but clients need to like the software. Joomla and Drupal are “not” easy to learn and they are harder to implement as well (in a trade-off they give you a lot of built-in functionality). But keep in mind, Drupal takes up a lot of resources. I’ve ready plenty of reviews that stated Drupal with an active userbase hogs system resources and shared hosting plans will often shut drupal sites down because it takes away from the other sites. If the client is not willing to pay for a decent server that is utilizing higher-end software, we need to keep this in mind. It’s part of the reason I wouldn’t use drupal for my main site, simply because I cannot afford a more expensive server.

I like Amber’s article. You work best in what you know, but the software must be flexible enough to cover the client’s goals and objectives as well.

Right now WordPress is my goal, afterwards, Drupal.

Feb 7, 2011

Daniel Winnard says:

I use primarily WP, but have tinkered with the others Joomla, Drupal etc. Alot of the time for me it is down to timescale and deadline for the client which is one of the more deciding factors in which CMS I use.

@tripdragon I don’t see with all these great CMS’s out there why you would need to spend more time coding, programming your own CMS, to do a job that all of these CMS’s could already do for you.

Feb 7, 2011

Vera says:

Very interesting and sensible advice, about choosing the right CMS keeping time and other resources in mind. A lot of times, I realize that the CMS I’ve chosen might not be the best (mostly because it could be much too bulky), but it was the fastest way (for me) to build a project.

My personal favorite is WordPress. I love the community and I love the Codex. I tried out a few others (mainly Typo3 and Joomla) and I just couldn’t find my way as easily with them as with WP.

Most of the time, the client would impose his/her preferences. When left to me: 1) features either inbuilt or plugins which don’t require too much customization 2) ease of use 3) lightweight

- For the most part, like you said, if a site needs a blog/news system I’d choose WordPress.
- If it’s a community-based one, I’d choose Typo3.
- If it’s a simple brochure-like one, I used to choose Joomla, but mostly because it was faster than looking for something else, due to time constraints.
- For e-commerce sites I only used Magento and Joomla (with VirtueMart) extension). I find the first one better, but with an extremely steep learning curve (for the free version). Keep meaning to look for an easier alternative.

Feb 7, 2011

Paul Stewart says:

I would like to see more designers use the content management framework: MODX.

WordPress seems to be the designers default especially for blogs but sometimes larger projects where it is not really appropriate.

Modx IS the designers CMS of choice! its lightweight and the templating system is so easy, just use your standard html!

Minimal time investment – loads of advanced funtionality!

Feb 7, 2011

Johan de Jong says:

Personally I use WordPress as a CMS, not because it’s the best CMS or the best for the project, but because I can work with it.

You never should ask the client which CMS they prefer, or “which CMS is the best for the project”, but rather ask the question: “which CMS do I know the best”. Since, even when systems like Joomla and Drupal are great for certain projects, I have no idea how to customize it, while I do have the knowledge for WordPress.

So, use the system you’re comfortable with, and improve your knowledge by using it more and more.

Feb 7, 2011

Evan Mullins says:

I agree that which CMS you use depends greatly on which CMS you are comfortable with. In an ideal world we’d have the time and energy to study all the great CMS solutions and understand the subtle (or not so subtle) differences between them and always be able to choose the best tool for the project. In the real world though, we find ways to do things that are easiest on us. I don’t think the best thing is to use the same tool for everything just because it’s the only tool we have or know how to use. We should make the effort to have at least a couple tools in our belt though (not saying that we need to have a full tool shed just to hammer a nail though) But if you want to cut a board with a hammer, you may get there eventually, but using the resources to learn how to use a saw in advance will make the project better in the end, not to mention make you a more capable problem solver in the future.

That being said, I feel like a hypocrite. =) I usually use wordpress, I do try other CMSs but so far, I always end up coming back to WP.

Feb 7, 2011

Josh Waldron says:

WordPress plugins are the primary reason I direct clients toward WordPress as the CMS of choice. It saves $1000s in development costs, and most functionality can be customized without building a framework from scratch. I’ve yet to find a better alternative that doesn’t require some type of subscription based plan or design limitations.

Feb 10, 2011

egiova says:

I totally agree with this statement. As developer I do have preferences, however customers’needs have to be my criteria. I love this one, or the other, it doesn’t matter in the end. I have to evaluate the knowledge of computer things of my client, the apps I include have to fullfiled its necessities. So, the choice belongs to customer, always. Period.

Feb 24, 2011

DESIGNfromWITHIN says:

MODx all the way! It is truly amazing and flexible…

I use WordPress and Mangento too, but just prefer MODx!

May 9, 2011

Joomla Developer says:

My view is that each CMS has +ve and -ve points.. WordPress is good for blogging where as Joomla and Drupal are good for a small business websites. I would go for Joomla the first probably I am much more comfortable with the flexibility of Joomla rather than wordpress. Nice post. Thanks for sharing!

Aug 29, 2011

Junon says:

I got tired of all these Content Management Systems. I spend more time trying to program features for them for specific needs than actually getting the results from them. I can understand many people here will simply accept what they can get, but I don’t like making sacrifices.

At this point I just developed my own framework and build my CMS on top of that, and for each client I develop for, I make small specific changed based on their needs. So far it’s been working for me, surpassing all CMS’s I’ve used for what I need to do.

Sep 23, 2011

Diogo says:

Ok, even knowing that you won’t change your mind :) I would challenge you to take a look at Processwire. It’s a very recent CMS and I’m surprised that it can be so powerful, flexible and very easy to learn.
A nice thing, is that the API is inspired by jQuery. With selectors, you can target any page on the website and any field inside this page, just like you can target elements on the DOM. It’s a very interesting concept.

Nov 19, 2011

Greg D says:

nice article. I’m currently using WordPress as a CMS and although I’m for the most part happy with it’s functionality, I wonder if it’s perhaps a bit bloated for ‘brochure’ style sites as you say.

Someone gave me a demo of Concrete5 a while back and I was amazed at how simple it was (and the edit on a page is great for clients!). Not many people seem to know about it, so I was glad you mentioned in your post.

I think I’m definitely going to give it a try. For the all-singing and dancing sites WordPress with the many plugins is great, but simple business brochure sites possibly don’t require a lot of bells and whistles, so Concrete5 could be the way.

Nov 24, 2011

Open Source Development says:

nice article…. i m using both wordpress.org and wordpress.com both… i like your post… its tooo informative…

Apr 12, 2012

Phil says:

I’ve spent a couple of weeks learning Drupal and while I like the fact that it is a framework that can do just about anything I just find that its brain works differently to mine. Just about everything is counter intuitive. I’m going back to Textpattern

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