Choosing a Content Management System

Choosing a content management system is hard for someone who is not familiar with any of the aspects of web design or web development. It is a challenge to make a decision on which content management system best suits your organisation’s needs. There is no best solution available on the market, each system has it’s strengths and weaknesses. After reading this article you will be able to make a better informed decision on what content management system is best suited for your organisation’s needs.

In frustration with the number of content management systems that are available for free, for sale or through rental/lease and their tactics to sign up uninformed users for systems that just are not well constructed, not search engine friendly or portable I have listed some very basic testing points you can bring up when talking to a sales rep for the company.

First of all you have to understand the basics of how a content management system works. Once you have a handle on how the system works the selection process of a content management system will seem much easier.

Requirements of the Content Management System

Laying out the business requirements of the content management system on paper will help you assess the different content management systems available on the market and provides the vendors (if you are going to tender the development of the system) a way to quote on the type of programming and technologies required for the project.

Note:  With a number of years of tendering projects used by general consumers behind me, I strongly suggest you do your homework so you are an informed consumer and can compile a specific specification as to what is required of the project. A vague set of tender documents will result in a vague tender submission by vendors. They will catch you on any and all loop holes/incomplete specifications resulting in you paying way more than the contract price through extras.

You have been warned. I don’t want to have to say “I told you so.” End of lecture, let’s more on.

Meeting Content Management System Needs

Your specific organization may have some specific needs like minimizing legal risk, eliminating security risks or specific recordkeeping requirements.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the body which creates the standards for web documents. They write the specifications that web designers/developers and browsers are to follow to create standardization throughout the web.

The content management system developers should have tested their product before public release for compliance with the following:

  1. Code Validation

    The site produced needs to pass the W3C validation service check. Some companies will say it doesn’t matter but it does. Coding that is done correctly and to the latest standards will migrate to future technologies better, will be cross browser compatible and with further care will be accessible.

    Insist on standards compliant coding to at least Strict compliance with the latest (X)HTML standard.

  2. Stylesheet Validation

    The stylesheet contains the coding for the presentation (look) of the website. There are standards for this also.

    The current HTML and XHTML coding standards require that all presentation attributes (formatting) be moved to an external stylesheet (separate file). Not only does this make it easier to make site wide changes (say changing the colour scheme from red to blue), it gives the website leaner coding and reduces download time of a web page.

  3. Link Validation

    Links are how people and the search engines move from page to page within the website. Links can also take one to offsite resources.

    Some navigation systems use a programming format called JavaScript. Search engines do not read JavaScript plus some people turn off scripting as a security precaution. JavaScript based navigation also creates an accessibility issue.

    Another system of navigation is to use images. Search engines and devices used to read web pages to the visually impaired cannot read images. If the navigation system is image based then there needs to be some regular text links on the page also to supplement the image navigation.

  4. Hidden Links and Redirects

    Hidden links and redirects not done properly are also a problem. Google specifically tells webmasters not to use them.

    • Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
    • Don’t employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.

    Reference:   Webmaster Help Center – Webmaster Guidelines – Quality Guidelines

  5. Accessibility Check

    Accessibility of a website is important not only from a legal point of view but also from a business point of view. If you or your web design team do not feel this is an issue then read Does Your Website Have to be Accessible? to see why this is important.

    There are accessibility guidelines in place. Each country has it’s own set of guidelines plus local government may have also adopted further guidelines.

General Website Setup Checks

Robots.txt File

Within the file system of a website there can be a robots.txt file. This file is used to give instructions to the polite search engine bots (not all search engine bots are polite) which files they are to avoid adding to their index and which folders to stay out of.

If the robots.txt file is not constructed correctly this can be harmful to the success of the website being indexed by the search engines (added to their database).

This is something you should be aware of for future reference once you have the website setup.

WWW vs Non WWW Version of Domain

In the browser address bar people can type a website address with or without www. at the front of the web address. The internet is setup so either way will take the visitor to the website. This is a problem as far as search engines are concerned. Having the www and non www versions of the website available to the search engines creates duplicate content.

If the hosting has been setup properly a permanent redirect (instructions for the search engines) will be in place to tell the search engines to go to one of the versions of the website. You have to decide which version of the website you want to promote and tell the hosting to permanently redirect the other version to the selected one. Only permanent redirects are acceptable for the search engines.

Search Engine Friendly Links

Most content management systems are database driven. The programmer who built the system may have created links that contain variables and other information to tell the database what information to fetch. The problem with this is search engines don’t really like anything that stands in it’s way of accessing a web page. Google specifically addresses this issue in their Webmaster guidelines:

…If you decide to use dynamic pages (i.e., the URL contains a “?” character), be aware that not every search engine spider crawls dynamic pages as well as static pages. It helps to keep the parameters short and the number of them few….

…Allow search bots to crawl your sites without session IDs or arguments that track their path through the site. These techniques are useful for tracking individual user behavior, but the access pattern of bots is entirely different. Using these techniques may result in incomplete indexing of your site, as bots may not be able to eliminate URLs that look different but actually point to the same page…

…If your company buys a content management system, make sure that the system can export your content so that search engine spiders can crawl your site….

…Don’t use “&id=” as a parameter in your URLs, as we don’t include these pages in our index….

Reference:   Webmaster Help Center – Webmaster Guidelines

What all the above is basically saying is that a link that looks like this:

Backing up Your Website

is better than one that looks like this:

There is also a problem with a system that uses only one page to present the website content. If you click links on a page and the address in the browser address bar remains the same (e.g. index.asp) then the search engines are not going to find all the other pages on the website. To the search engine your website only has one page, index.asp.

Adjusting for Different Screen Resolutions

Website designs can be fixed width (a predetermined width set in the background coding) or liquid (fluid) design (adjusted to different screen resolutions and font settings).

For an explanation of how this works read Not Designing for Most Common Screen Resolution . The instructions on how to test a web design for different screen resolutions are also within the mentioned article.

Summary on Choosing a Content Management System

This article has covered some basic criteria that you should look for before narrowing down your selection of a content management system. This only scratches the surface of the many things to consider when selecting a content management system. Other issues include (but are not limited to):

  • Server operating system

    A system on an Apache web server can be easier to work with than a Windows server.

  • Whether each page can have it’s own web page title, keyword meta tag and description meta tag.

    Some search engines base your placement in their results on what information is in these areas. Having the same web page title, keywords and description on every page will appear as duplicate content in some search engines eyes.

  • Website design and database ownership

    With a hosted plan (content management system and hosting are one package) usually the company that provides the content management system retains ownership of the web design and the database structure. This means if you decide to move the website to another location you will have to start from scratch, you can’t take the design or database with you.

    A purchased content management system could be bound by the same rules as a hosted system so make sure you read the fine print before purchasing a system.

  • Access to the website files

    Most hosted content management systems do not allow you to have access to the files that create the website in the background. This means if you or you web designer have the knowledge to improve the background coding for search engine optimization and code validation you can’t access the necessary files.

  • Website backup

    Website backup is an issue you also need to address. What if the hosting company servers break down? How will you have a backup of the website to restore? For more information on website backup read Backing up Your Website.

After spending hours on research looking for an out of the box solution for customers I have yet to find a solution that does not require some tweaking (if you can).

To me a solution that you take ownership of the content management system either through purchasing the software or through the open source community (free solutions that you can customize with some limitations sometimes) is the most viable solution for content management. Some tweaking will be required but at least you own the website and your work to create the website is yours.

For further information or an evaluation of the content management system you are considering please contact Accrete Web Solutions.

Further Reading

Want another opinion? Other articles which also cover the complexity of choosing a content management system:

Redefining content management  Another look at the complexity of choosing a content management system.

Choosing an Accessible CMS a review of some of the more popular content management systems and how accessible they are.

14 Key Requirements For A Search Friendly CMS

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