What is a CMS?
Posted by Lindsey Bowshier on Jul 9, 2021 4:30:00 PM
One of the most common questions we hear as a web marketing agency is, "What is a CMS?" This is usually after one of us annoyingly drops this jargony acronym in a conversation with a new client or prospect. To which we sheepishly reply, "Oh, sorry! It stands for Content Management System." Which is often followed by: "What is a content management system?"
And that's when we remember that not everyone lives in this world of web design and development. Even a business owner who has had a website for years still may not know how or why it works and, in all likelihood, has no idea if they can make updates on their own or how they would even go about doing that.
So let's start from the beginning.
How it Started:
Building a website is complicated, and it always has been, but it's come a long way in the past couple of decades. Can you believe that it used to be that when you logged in to update your company's website, you were met with walls of intimidating code? And the slightest error in that code could be detrimental to the entire website. The prospect of ruining a website can cause even the most intelligent people to shy away from the task of website updates, which would leave those updates to the IT team to handle when they "got around to it." This was a huge problem for business owners and marketers, and really anyone without a degree in computer sciences.
How it's Going:
Thankfully, those days are far behind for most businesses. Rarely do we encounter websites built fully in HTML (though they still pop up now and then). Today's websites are built in user-friendly software platforms known as content management systems. Your developer handles the complicated work of building your website within the CMS and then creates a back-end interface where you can easily add pages, make changes to images and content, and manage features like a blog, gallery, or catalog. And the best part is, they'll generally limit your ability to access anything that could allow you to break your whole website.
Popular Content Management Systems
There are a handful of common CMS platforms you've probably heard of.
Released in 2003 as a blogging platform for the layperson, WordPress was quickly co-opted by developers to build entire website experiences. Hundreds of "plug-in" features have been added to this open-source platform, and it remains the most widely used CMS by bloggers and businesses alike.
If Tribute Media built your website, it's probably a Drupal site. This platform has been around since 2001 and is the CMS used by 6% of the top 10,000 sites, compared to WordPress at 16%. It's favored by organizations with sophisticated functionality needs, including Tesla and NASA. Perhaps it's because of this status of being slightly less prevalent that Drupal is not as vulnerable to security concerns as WordPress.
A favorite of marketing professionals, including us here at Tribute Media. While Tribute Media primarily builds in Drupal, HubSpot is our go-to when the marketing needs outweigh the functionality needs. The HubSpot CMS is built directly on top of your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool, aka, your contact database. It offers a ton of extra marketing features, including the ability to personalize content for specific website visitors.
The content management systems listed above are the ones often referred to as "enterprise-class" or "Professional" CMSes. These are the platforms that most medium-to-large businesses are using to manage their websites. To build a website on these platforms, you need a web developer to build the website framework for you, but then they are easy for marketing teams and non-techy business owners and admins to manage.
Not all Content Management Systems are Created Equal
In the past several years, there have been more and more what we would call "DIY" content management systems. The Do-it-Yourself CMS experience is completely WYSIWYG (this is an acronym for "what you see is what you get," but it's pronounced "wizzy-wig," which is fun to say!). Now, technically, all the other content management systems mentioned above have WYSIWYG capabilities--that's what makes a CMS so easy to use. But the ones I'm referring to are platforms like
Even domain registrars like GoDaddy are getting in the game with their own native website builders. These platforms are even easier for the layperson to use. They have templates available for free or that you can buy, and you don't even need a web developer to build it for you. You literally just drag and drop everything and add your own content and images. Dream come true, right? Well, there is a downside, of course. That is, if you need to add functionality down the road or if you care about getting found in the search engines. There are certainly use cases for these. My personal blog is built in Squarespace (though no one reads it), as is a site I made for a family member who truly doesn't want their business to grow beyond what they can fulfill themselves and just wanted the legitimacy of an online presence and a place to send people to see their work.
The problem with these types of content management systems is that we see business after business that has built their websites on these platforms when they are just starting out because it's fast and cheap, but then they outgrow them. Meaning, they need to add a feature that their chosen DIY platform can't support, or they are ready to turn their website into a source for lead generation, and these CMSes simply cannot be optimized as thoroughly as an enterprise-class CMS.
Why can't you optimize a Squarespace/Wix/Weebly site?
Sure, you can add your meta descriptions and image alt text and check a lot of SEO boxes, but there is a lot more to Search Engine Optimization than just metadata. Website performance is a significant ranking signal for Google, as well as (and really because) it is important to your website visitors. For these do-it-yourself website builders to be as easy to use as they are, it requires more coding behind the scenes than a platform like Drupal. And the more code your site has, the more work it takes to load. The difference to the end-user--your site visitor--can range from negligible to downright annoying, but Google's bots can definitely tell the difference and will favor lighter, faster loading sites.
The truth is, web development and web marketing professionals (aka the people who can help you with website optimization) don't like working in these DIY platforms because they are just SO different from the enterprise-class CMSes we work in, day in and day out. Even though they feel super easy for you to use, we genuinely have to readjust our brains to the WYSIWYG experience. We might be going in to update some content for search engine optimization purposes and screw up your whole website design. Truly. I've broken my blog dozens of times and have had to rebuild pages all over because it's as easy to break as it is to build.
Choosing a CMS
Even if you are just getting started and a low-cost DIY content management system seems like the best option, I urge you to think a bit more long-term. How much will it cost you (in time, effort, the distraction from your business, Tylenol for the inevitable headaches) in the long run when you have to start all over with a new website in a professional CMS?
Just because a professional "enterprise-class" content management system can do all the things, it doesn't mean...
1) your site has to have all the bells and whistles on day one. (In fact, our growth driven design approach discourages it.)
2) you have to go through a lengthy, expensive web development process.
You can start with an extremely simple website built on a professional CMS and know that, rather than having to "get a new website" when you grow, that you can just keep adding on to your current one. Maybe after a couple of years, you want to refresh the homepage design. And then, as your team grows, maybe you want to add an employee directory. Get a few projects under your belt? Add a project gallery. Want to start selling online? Add a catalog and e-commerce functionality. All without having to start from scratch.
An Enterprise CMS Without the Enterprise Price Tag
Through the years, we've seen too many folks grow out of their websites built on WIX or Weebly and have to start over to see organic traffic growth or even just to make the website more personalized. And this is probably because they had the notion they couldn't afford to have a professional web development company build them a website on an enterprise-class CMS.
Tribute Media has been passionate about changing this notion, so for the past couple of years, we've been building a library of our own Drupal website templates in hopes of making the Enterprise CMS accessible to more small-to-medium businesses. Think of it as our answer to Squarespace.
Of course, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. There is a larger upfront investment, and the hosting cost is higher, but this investment pays dividends over the lifetime of your website. You also get support from real humans in our Meridian, Idaho office, as well as the security updates you need to keep your site safe from hackers.
As you can imagine, your $16/month investment with Squarespace doesn't come with much handholding. And that's the thing, it's these small-to-medium size business owners that need the most support early on, and they're just sort of "out there" (on the web, that is) without professional support or direction from their website providers.
Some things are just worth investing in, and if your web presence isn't one of them, I don't know what is!
Written by Lindsey Bowshier
Lindsey is the President of Tribute Media. Her degree is in English and Communication with an emphasis in Journalism, her background is in copywriting and content marketing, and she's had pretty much every job at Tribute Media since she joined the agency in 2014. Outside of work, Lindsey participates in a "super-cool-not-at-all-nerdy" writing group. Her favorite writer is Dorothy Parker.