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Keeping It Fresh: Web Content Management Systems
By Diana Roberts
Websites provide information. Whether you sell products or services, or your site is educational or commercial in nature, content is king. Few websites are truly static and even fewer should be. Good design and regularly updated content are the key to keeping your website relevant, fresh, and valuable to users - not to mention the search engines. Paying a web designer whenever you need to upload new photos or text gets expensive. For frequent updates, a Content Management System (CMS) makes it easy to manage updates yourself, even on complex dynamic sites.

Simply put, content is all the “stuff” on your website: text, photographs, charts, graphics, audio/visual elements, downloadable forms or PDF documents, interactive pages and applications that allow users to do or affect something. In short, content is anything that appears on the site, and all the elements that comprise it. Content management is how you manipulate that “stuff”: text revisions, calendar and event updates, new photographs, forms, even new pages or tabs on the site. A CMS is a computer program or software that allows you to add, delete, or manipulate the content, generally without any special knowledge of code, programming or web design magic.

When developing a website, your designer will want to know in advance what content the site will include. This is important, because content influences both the design - how the site is composed visually - and how those elements are structured in the code so that everything works together. Ultimately, everything on the “front end” of a given website (the part the user sees) is the result of programming code on the “back end” that translates into a given effect. This is what scares most non-developers away from updating their own sites: they simply don’t know the language.

This is where a CMS comes in. The increasing number of programming languages, an exponential increase in the sheer number of websites on the World Wide Web, and the many features now integrated with other technological gadgets (cell phones, PDA’s, networks, etc.) make it increasingly important to make sure that your content is both accurate and properly integrated into the site structure. If you have an active calendar section, for example, that lists important dates or event information but doesn’t get properly coded to print or download to peripheral devices, it sort of defeats the purpose. Or, say you want to update product information or feature a new item, but the photos don’t load properly. Even more to the point: do you really have the time or money to contact your web designer every time a change needs to be made? Probably not. If you have an integrated CMS, you don’t need to know the code.

In most cases, CMS input or editing panels are designed to look and operate just like the familiar programs you use every day. Text is generally straightforward, using standard keyboard typing, copy-paste functions and common formatting commands typed directly into the panel. Some use the familiar button or menu technology to upload photos, graphics and other files. In short, they’re designed in such a way that anyone with standard computer skills can accomplish basic web editing tasks, without knowing html or other coding languages.

In an ideal world, all CMS are programmed to integrate smoothly with every page and function on your site. In reality, however, many CMS solutions can cause as many problems as they solve. Most off-the-shelf versions have limited functionality. They are generally designed to work with do-it-yourself web design templates, both of which place limits on how much you can customize your site or editing options. Depending on the version, they can be full of glitches and may be intended to work with a very limited number of web design programs. In short, off-the-shelf CMS (in conjunction with the templates they are designed to work with) may very well hold your website hostage.

Customized CMS, developed by your web developer specifically to work with your website, is the best option. Alternately, there are sophisticated, professional caliber CMS available from both proprietary and open source vendors, usually via Internet download or subscription. You can get these yourself, or ask your designer/developer

to research the best options to integrate into the site. Proprietary software requires the purchase of a license and cannot be altered. “Open source”, on the other hand, means that code can be viewed and modified by the public to encourage peer review and improvement by other programmers. These are generally free, though not always. Professional CMS can be extremely effective and most are designed to work with a range of design architectures. They range in price from free to quite expensive, depending on the source and what your needs are. Many of them are efficient and cost-effective. However, unless you know what you’re looking at, it may be hard to tell. Some of them are great, while others can hobble your site as much as an off-the-shelf version.

It all comes down to how much time and effort you can invest in learning about the technology. One of the main problems with the more sophisticated do-it-yourself CMS is that they can be quite complicated to integrate into your site. Incorporating a CMS into the original infrastructure of your site generally improves functionality and allows for future customization. Most proprietary CMS vendors offer tech support, but they may charge additional fees and "support" usually doesn't mean a technician who can come to your office for installation or set-up. While a handful of open source CMS providers offer excellent products and tech support, most expect you to be knowledgeable enough to manipulate and/or customize the code yourself. Most open-source providers value effectiveness, broad applicability, and free access to further information. They usually provide links to other resources, product reviews and blog posts.

The simplest, safest, and most effective solution is to go with a custom CMS developed by your web design/development firm. This is the most direct way to ensure that your CMS is designed to meet your individual needs and is integrated with the specific configuration and features of your website. Customized CMS may be more expensive up-front, but for sites that require frequent updates or complex integration across various pages and functionalities, it may be more cost effective in the long run. Work with your designer to make sure you both understand what your website and CMS needs are. In some cases, custom CMS may be less expensive than other options, especially if you consider the amount of time and potential frustration of figuring it out on your own.

A reputable, professional designer/developer will be able to guide you through the decision making process and answer your questions. If you have the interest and are feeling techno-savvy, it’s always a good idea to do a little research on your own, even if you leave the job to your IT specialist or web designer. The more you know, the more likely you are to get what you want and need.
Diana Roberts is Senior Copywriter for Boss Creative. Based in San Antonio, Boss Creative is a web design firm specializing in design, development, online marketing and SEO. To learn more about Boss Creative, view their portfolio and see what they've done for clients around the nation at


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