I’ve recently been working on a number of web content management system selections. My preference is to carry these out in a two-stage process (see the one-sheet guide to selecting a WCM). The first stage pre-qualifies suppliers according to client attitudes to cost, risk and technological preferences. The second stage then gets into the real tasks that you want to perform, discovering how the WCM enforces and informs processes.
Like most other people in this business, I approach this from the point of view that there is no best WCM, just different products that may be viable for different kinds of tasks. It’s about finding a product that will allow you to get started as quickly as possible without precluding later ambitions. I try to show clients what a WCM could do for them, and in turn client aspirations suggest product features. These usually centre around a number of core areas:
How is content updated? Is it through a browser, a document template, or some other application? If it is through a browser, which browsers does it work in? Does it require a plug-in? How viable are those constraints within the organisation? If the organisation is planning to devolve editing, how appropriate are WYSIWYG and in situ editors? If content entry needs to be more controlled via forms, how will users preview their work? Can the WCM offer different editorial interfaces for different types of users? And hand in hand with the interfaces, if you have lots of devolved editors, how does the WCM assure concurrent contribution and secure access for different kinds of users?
Pages vs. elements
Some WCM only really have the concept of pages and associated assets, making it hard to re-use fragments of content across the site. This simple model is generally appropriate for two scenarios: where there are many devolved, occasional contributors who would be confused by having to perform multiple tasks to get a piece of content to update on one part of the site and wouldn’t immediately understand the implications of a more complex editorial change; and for sites which have quite user journeys with little information appearing in more than one place.
For sites which need to re-use content a lot, where there’s a central editorial team assuring that changes are propagated correctly, more advanced systems that use “fragments” of content in multiple locations across the site in an “edit once, publish many” model can bring significant business benefit. These content management models usually bring more flexible templates but they can also make it more difficult to audit content: what did a given page look like on a specific day and who made the content changes? They are also reliant on robust link cohesion, so that if you move a piece of content, the WCM continues to link to its new location.
Absolutely central to most WCM is the concept of a content type. This is the model that allows you to define which fields editors need to complete to publish a page and the constraints on those: e.g. title (no more than 200 characters), summary (plain text), main body text (rich text), location (postal code), category (list of valid values), etc. These structures are important for a number of reasons. They allow you to create business rules for linking content, such as get me the three latest news items about Germany. They allow you to create different presentations for different types of content, so am event looks completely different from an FAQ. And they allow you to contol which information must be completed before content can go live and how it will be presented on different platforms once it’s been published.
There are other metaphors that WCM use to relate complex content: hierarchical metadata structures such as folders, categories or channels enable you to group content together in more complex ways. Flatter metadata structures also allow you to “traverse” across website structures and relate content in differnt part of the information architecture that don’t sit into this hierarchy. It’s often useful to have multiple kinds of metadata, particularly faceted taxonomy, if your content is particularly complicated and needs a lot of content relationships in order to achieved desired user journeys.
Where the WCM isn’t a standalone application but needs to integrate with other systems in a web platform – user directories, CRM, eCommerce, transactional tools – you need to validate how it will communicate with other systems. Is it through the Application Programming Interface (API), web services, or some other method?
The maintenance and extensibility of the system can also be important requirements. If I need to change a content type, what does that involve? If I need to get data from another application, can I do this in a de-coupled way?
Some other factors may come into play, such as workflow, internationaisation and personalisation. If one product is particularly strong in one of these areas and it’s a key requirement, then it may get into a shortlist even if it’s weaker in some of the other areas identified above.
This all brings me to the recent debate about whether WordPress is a CMS, with numerous contributions on Twitter as well as from:
My experience of WordPress is that it’s really good at two key features where some established content management systems are relatively poor: search engine optimisation and comments. On SEO, it ties your blog post title to a friendly URL, enables good internal linking (as long as you don’t move any pages), allows tagging and categorisation and offers some great SEO tools. Comments meanwhile can be quite tricky for some WCM that operate separate content contribution and consumption environments, but WordPress does this easily, with useful anti-spamming tools and the ability to follow the comment conversation by RSS or email.
When it comes to the question of whether WordPress is or isn’t a WCM, the best analogy I could come up with was a camera phone. A camera phone does take pictures, it is convenient, some phones even have a flash and autofocus. But would you get a camera phone specifically to use as a camera? I think not if you’re serious about photography, It is a camera, but a very limited one.
WordPress is a blogging tool with some shared characteristics of a WCM. If you apply some of the many available modules to it you can come up with a really nice proposition, up to a point. But you’re effectively hacking the software to get it to behave as many WCM already do. You can get any software to do pretty much anything in the end, but that still doesn’t make it a WCM.
WordPress is widely used by many organisations as a web content management system and there are a lot of photos taken on camera phones. But you need to understand the product’s limitations and if these don’t affect you and you’re achieving what you want, then no one should criticise you for your choice. But let’s be sensible about it and say that even if there’s no such thing as the best WCM, you know that it wouldn’t be WordPress.