What is a content managed website?

Sometimes, it pays to go back to basics and rethink fundamental assumptions.

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John Newton
CMS screen

Sometimes, it pays to go back to basics and rethink fundamental assumptions. While the terms ‘content managed website’, ‘content management’, ‘content management system' and 'CMS' are commonly used, I think different technologies, approaches and implementations of the CMS makes this a very tricky concept to pin down.

Mainly, this relates to the degree to which the CMS facilitates content control. For example, some content managed sites enable editors to manage the website’s main content items (for example, blog posts or tags) but due to the restrictions inherent in the software or the way the site has been built, editors are effectively prohibited from making changes to other areas of the site, such as footer or header content or complex layout elements like grids. This is never good practice and I think editors should be able to change all visible text on a site and generally speaking this should be possible for any site built in Drupal or WordPress. (For help deciding which of these two excellent content menagement systems is best for you, see this earlier post.)

However, content management can be conflated with layout management and this is another matter altogether. Many sites offer essentially fixed page layouts (aka templates) and editors can insert or edit content within the page zones that have been built. In some instances, site editors may wish to alter these layouts and a modern CMS often makes this possible - indeed this may be viewed as a natural evolution of the CMS. There are, though, many drawbacks to extending the notion of the CMS this widely. To begin with, a properly built template and its content areas will have been developed through a detailed understanding of the site’s audience and their needs. Sometimes, giving editors too much freedom to override sound decisions can seriously compromise the site’s integrity. Good web development teams are specialists in layouts, usability and aesthetics too. Giving site editors freedom of action is important, however very few site editors are skilled web designers, and as such it’s responsible to make sure their power to alter the site is properly controlled. And while layout editors have come along way in the last few years, I believe these tools can be very overwhelming for site editors. On the other hand, when a site editor is also a skilled web professional, it is of course equally important to make sure they have access to all the powerful site building features they require. Today’s sophisticated CMS layout tools bring full control of content and layout management within the reach of a technically competent content management professional.

Beyond layout and content control, a CMS is also a tool that enables ordinary editors to implement complex web functionality quickly and easily. It isn’t easy to build from scratch search tools, media management, site maps, or to optimise content for SEO or social media referencing. However, this is precisely what a properly built and configured CMS will do for you. Keeping the management and configuration of all this simple is critical to make the life of site editors as easy as possible. Many CMS’s offer advanced functionality out of the box. For example, with Drupal and WordPress you can set up workflows, so content can go through various stages of approval. This is essential for magazine-style publishing, however it may not be very important for small or even medium sized sites. Most of the time, you’ll want to restrict this feature to certain types of content only or turn it off altogether.

As the functionality of the CMS grows (and the plethora of optional modules and plugins rises exponentially) once again I think it’s a good idea to restrict the administrative functionality for editors to hit the sweet spot between ease of use and control. Often editors can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of menu items and options available within the website management area. Just as highly sophisticated word processing software has so much functionality that most users never need, so a modern CMS has very many options that are better kept switched off until there’s a good case for switching them on.

The art and science of good content management design is to build a site that first and foremost meets the needs of its audience while at the same time anticipates the skills and likely requirements of its editorial team.

Image by Werner Moser from Pixabay