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Why a CMS Is Not Always The Best Choice

In times of Wordpress, Joomla and Co. more and more pages are built with of a Content Management System as back-end solution, but not always is a CMS the right choice to built a web site. I’m talking here almost exclusively about static pages, because there are more and more static pages that are built with the help of a CMS by now; an often unnecessary and sometimes even bad choice.

For pages that have often changing or new content, news sections or even blog pages a CMS platform in some form is in 99% of the cases the best choice, so we won’t further talk about this kind of web site.

But where do we draw the line between often changing, dynamic web pages and static pages?

When you start working on a project (whether it is for a customer or for yourself) try to determine as early as possible whether or not a news or blog section will be required or if there is going to be other content that needs to be updated/added regularly. If a web page needs to be updated once or twice a year it certainly can be considered a static web page. It also depends on what kind of updates need to be performed. There is a big difference between the extensive update of a portfolio with new images, texts and case studies and the adding of a “We wish a Happy New Year to all our clients”–message.

In the end it is mostly a decision based on personal preferences and work patterns. Hopefully it will be easier to decide once you read this article.

CMS?

Please keep in mind that we are talking about small to medium-sized web sites and not big, corporate web sites, for which special rules apply.

Generally you can say, if you are working on a static page don’t use a Content Management System. It doesn’t only mean more work for you, but can also have a range of other, less obvious disadvantages.

Although most CMSs offer you a great flexibility there are always certain things to consider when designing for a specific CMS, a disadvantage you don’t have when you code your page regularly with (x)HTML and CSS. It usually also takes a lot more time to code and test a CMS theme or template than it does with a simple web site. It is also easier to design and craft individual pages manually and pay more attention to the details if you are not restricted by platform-specific guidelines. You could logically argue that it is easier to make site-wide modifications with a CMS template, but what for do we have Dreamweaver templates, extensive CSS frameworks and co.?

The plural of CMS

CMS, the abbreviation of Content Management System, often causes confusion regarding its plural form.
The plural of the long version is Content Management Systems, the plural of the abbreviation is CMSs. The possessive plural is CMSs’ (Example: The CMSs’ greatest advantage is the ease of use).

Another point that speaks against the usage of a CMS, if you don’t need one, are security issues. Even though most CMSs are on a high-standard and pay a lot of attention to security issues they offer much more contact surface for hacker attacks than a simple html-based web site does. This may not be a major point, but you should still consider it.

Security

Even though you might think the contrary, on the long run a CMS-based web site will require more maintenance than a regular web site. You have to regularly update the CMS, its plugins and with that eventually as well your theme files. If you are really unlucky complications will occur and you have to spent valuable hours fixing a page that doesn’t actually require a CMS.

It is in addition often much more complicated to implement scripts and other desired functions into a Content Management System than in a regular, html-based web site. Whoever tried to implement javascript features into a Wordpress theme knows what I am talking about.

Finally there is the Search-Engine Optimization. Although most CMS offer quite good SEO results, they will never reach the quality of a hand-crafted html-page, where everything is in its place and you can make full use of all html-tags and their SEO advantages.

Sometimes your customer will insist on a CMS, because he wants to (understandably) be able to edit and change the contents of his web page himself. If it is clear that he will only use this possibility at rare opportunities try to use a very minimalistic and simple CMS, that leaves you as much freedom as possible. CushyCMS and Simple CMS are great examples. You only add a line of code to your regular html-site and the customer can edit the important parts of the web site all by himself. You can even brand the backend very easily yourself.

CushyCMS

This is not meant to be an anti-CMS article. I love CMSs and all their advantages (I guess you could call me a Wordpress-addict), but I’m against their (growing) use if it really isn’t necessary and the disadvantages overweigh the advantages.

What do you think? In what situations should CMS’s be used and when do you use them? Feel free to share your thoughts.

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Comments so far

  1. Nicole says:

    I have been trying to figure out web design/layout/cms stuff since I was laid off almost a year ago… I am still stumped albeit the site I want to create is complex. I have tried Joomla, paid so much money to sites like JoomlaBamboo to only end up having difficulty making everything copesthetic. Keep in mind, I am a biz dev not web dev… who can’t afford $44K website (which is what I was quoted) while unemployed. When you are don’t know something it is impossible to know the difference in “mistakes & bugs” and this article helped me realize my frustration is not simply ignorance. p.s. I love your work.

  2. Rogier says:

    For small sites (up to approx. 20 pages) I use my own little php template script, which uses one master page that includes the other pages (with some safety checks built-in off course). That way I only have the edit one template file if the client wants to change something in e.g. the menu.

    For bigger sites I always use Wordpress. Just because I’ve worked with Wordpress for 7 years and I can build templates pretty fast with it.

    • ximi says:

      Thanks for your comment!

      A custom solution has naturally great advantages and can beat a simple html/css based solution.

      I didn’t want to make a case against the use of CMSs anyway, but rather point out that it is not always appropriate to use one.

  3. Alan says:

    Good points in the article.

    Another thing to consider for designers is loss or revenue. If you build on a CMS, you have little chance of the client coming back for more work and thus more revenue.

    I do both, and do what you say in the article, if they need a news or blog, then its a CMS all the way, but if its just a static info site, i would always look to use HTML/CSS as if anything else its normally quicker at load times.

    • ximi says:

      I wouldn’t necessarily list the returning business as a point I base such a decision on (after all a customer is likely to refer or return if you do a good job anyway), but for some that might be another point against the use of a CMS.

      In the end it is always a individual and even somewhat personal decision.

  4. giedrius says:

    I disagree. In most cases you are better off by using CMS than without it (If there are more than 4-5 pages). First, you are talking about DW templates, which are bad solution SEO-wise compared to templates which are much better SEO wise.
    There are couple valid (not too strong) reasons not to use cms, though:
    1. Security (however, lots depend on server security itself, there are internet worms that simply overwrite index.html files once server is infected).
    2. Speed ( though cms with caching can compete).
    And some cons:
    1. Site-wide modifications (they happen, no matter how good job you do)
    2. Re-doing same html over and over again makes html errors more likely, and it is bad programing style. Which leads to 1.
    Sure, CMS can be as simple as own script, but it is good idea to have one.
    3. Specification changes.

    • ximi says:

      Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it, if someone actually disagrees or criticizes.

      The DW template is just one of many options (I personally don’t use them and don’t really know too much about their advantages and disadvantages) you have. If I want to replace a footer on a (static) site I usually use a search/replace function.

      Security is, as I mentioned, just a minor point, but definitely a concern for some people (and clients) and no CMS is as safe as a pure HTML/CSS page.

  5. Paulo Cesar says:

    What about CMSs where you don’t program on templates, but rather use plain HTML/CSS and just include snippets like RadiantCMS?

    • ximi says:

      Just like I said in the post itself: If a customer insists, even though there is not really the need for a CMS you should use a very basic and simple system.
      RadiantCMS is certainly a good example for a simple CMS, but many of the negative points mentioned in the post still apply.

  6. Salim says:

    Hey there,

    thank you very much for the article. Just a few days ago and several times before that, I broke my brain thinking about what to do, if the customer just want’s to edit for example his ONE news page.

    Like you I thought that a CMS is quite to big and complexe for a simple website. And like Rogiers I thought about programming my own php script. But I suck at PHP and so this was more a “could-be idea” than a solution.

    I’m definitley going to try this. Thank you again! (=

    Salim

  7. Carl Warrent says:

    Great article. Ultimately make the call “Does this project require a CMS and regular updates”, if it does then Wordpress is great and we use this for loads of clients. One thing we’ve noticed though is that per client, there’s a LOT of time required to teach them the ins and outs of using a CMS (which while easy to use has Soo many features that need explaining). What may be second nature for us is a totally new concept to most if not all of my clients.

    • ximi says:

      You make a great point there Carl and I’m even considering updating the post with it.

      It definitely requires additional time and effort to teach a client how to use his CMS as well as you can expect regular e-mails with questions regarding certain features and functions.

      I also made the experience that, even though you built your CMS theme/template as solid and stable as possible, Clients still often find a way to mess the layout up or break the CMS in some other way.

  8. This article eloquently restates what I try to tell most of my clients. Many need to update their website but many don’t need a blog or need to edit daily. I either use Wordpress or Pagelime.com

    http://pagelime.com is, in my opinion, much more robust than cushyCMS or simpleCMS and just as easy to use – in fact, my clients find it easier to use than the other two. Pagelime also gives me, the designer, far more control over a site. Just wanted to add Pagelime to your list of great “add a line of code” CMS systems!

    • ximi says:

      Thanks for the addition Brandon, I appreciate it.

      I didn’t know about PageLime and I personally only used simpleCMS with which I was relatively content.

      For me the decision comes more often down to static html/css or full-blown CMS (or Wordpress) than actually to these Mini CMSs (I have no clue if there is an official term for them).

  9. A well thought out article which I can see me directing prospective clients to!
    And thanks Brandon for recommending PageLime, will have to check that out as well :)

  10. Webtoolfeed says:

    Great article, very true!

  11. Maddie says:

    If you both decide that it’s best to go with pure html/css, I’m curious what kind of maintenance services you offer to your clients?

  12. Kyle Hayes says:

    Thanks for this excellent article. It’s exactly the opinion I was searching for in that my prospective client wants to be able to edit parts of the site. Yet, knowing their business, not on a daily basis. In the past I’ve built custom solutions, but I like the idea of a simple framework, as it were, or even one of the micro-CMSs you mentioned.

    Going along with @Maddie’s comment, I’m curious to know what others charge for maintenance as well and what that entails.

  13. Crockett says:

    Our business model may be different because we only offer non-database driven websites (html, css & javascript). Coming from experience in branding and graphic design we chose not to learn php & mysql until fully proficient with these languages first.

    Many sole traders and small start up companies want to focus on running their business and dont want the hassel of first learning and them remembering how to occasionally use cms. They prefer to email new information to us to update their site for them. We have an agreed hourly cost broken down into multiples of 15 minutes, invoicing them monthly or quarterly.

    Many customers find it more cost effective to pay us than spending their time doing it, especially if we are also designing the accompanying print work. It becomes a regular part of their advertising budget.

    Another benefit is that regular contact is part of good customer service and nearly all our new work comes from personal referrals.

  14. Cheap SEO says:

    I have launched 10 websites to date, the only website I have without a CMS I have to say is the most hassle free site I own. I agree small business owners just want to start running their business not faffing around with their CMS and their site.

    Great post!!

  15. You can maybe start without the CMS but as the time goes on and your site starts to develop with the addition of more pages it’s best to have it. The best way to go about it is to do research on the various benefits on offer from different systems. A small, local web design company will be able to give you a realistic price and help you decide if you need it immediately.
    joomla midlands´s featured post: Homepage – main content

  16. Cheap SEO says:

    Really great article, will source it in my next article.

    Thanks
    S

  17. Webdesign says:

    The biggest disadvantage of most open source content management systems for me was the inability of using your own HTML in the process. That’s why I don’t like Joomla, Drupal or WordPress at all. Ofcourse you can edit their HTML, but that takes a lot of time.

    I’ve recently discovered MODx. It’s also open source, very flexible and it lets you use your own HTML. Which speeds up development very quickly. Have you ever heard of it?

  18. David C. says:

    Small business owners cares about all this if they would knew about it. java features into a Wordpress theme will never reach the quality of a hand-crafted html-page, where everything is in its place and you can make full use of all html-tags.Cms platform is a good choice for the ones that wants to keep their business small.My opinion

  19. Thanks for your post. I also think that CMS are good but we must not use these for every website.

  20. kksidd says:

    For web designers who are not that comfortable dealing with PHP code, CouchCMS (http://www.couchcms.com/) is the perfect fit.

    It uses simple XHTML tags to mark out areas within a page that are editable.

    It is as simple as Cushy yet does so much more.

    Best of all, it is free for non-commercial and personal sites.

  21. Roko Nastic says:

    You’re 100% right, if one doesn’t need a CMS, than it is better with pure simple html+css site. Besides better security, performance will be much better also, loading time will be very fast.

    Another good and sipmle CMS is CMSMS – CMS Made Simple. Excellent choice for those looking for a lightweight solution, easy editable for their non web design savvy clients.
    Roko Nastic´s featured post: Weighing Up The Pro’s and Con’s of a Bespoke CMS

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