Web and Ecommerce 7.13. Content Management Systems

Content Management Systems

Web content management systems, called CMS for short, allow you to create, delete, and edit pages on your Web site simply by typing the content into a Web form. You don’t have to do any coding, programming, designing, or updating. You hit a few commands, do type like crazy, and check out for the day. The basic principle of a content management system is that it separates the content of a Web site or Web page from the visual presentation of that content.

If you want your site to change regularly, a content management system enables you to make those changes quickly and cheaply. You can even use a content management system to allow your users to add content to your site, in the same way Facebook or YouTube does. While it may cost extra to set it up, a good content management system can save you thousands of dollars a year.

Personally, I don’t understand why anyone builds a Web site without one. Really.

Chances are you’ve used a content management system on more than one occasion without even being aware of it. If you have a page on MySpace or Facebook, you’ve worked on a content management system. If you have a blog somewhere out there in hyperspace or you’ve participated in an online discussion forum, yes, you’ve most likely tossed in your two cents by working on a content management system.

Almost all content management systems reside on the hosting server and are accessed through a Web browser. Most use a database to store the templates and the content, but a few actually write the pages as individual files. When someone calls up a page, the server takes the page template (the visual presentation part) and plonks in the content from the database. So when you’re on CNN.com, you’re getting two things: a Web page and a bunch of words and pictures from the CNN content management database.

For all practical purposes, a Web CMS realizes its full value for very large sites that have several people involved in editing and managing the site. All the big sites you visit on a regular basis―like Time.com, CNN.com, or Amazon.com―have one or more big, burly, expensive content management systems doing all the heavy labor at producing all those new pages every day.

But a Web CMS can dramatically cut the development costs of any business that needs to update its Web site on a regular basis. Online retail stores, content destinations, catalogs―these kinds of sites realize immense value from a content management system.

A content management system is both a strategic and an operational consideration―one that has to be worked out before you start developing your Web site. First, you determine the strategic value of updating your site on a regular basis and how this will work operationally. If all you have is an online “brochure,” you don’t need to update your site very often. If, on the other hand, you’re running a store with merchandise changing all the time, you’ll want a good chunk of your site governed by a content management system.

Once you determine your strategic and operational goals, you have to decide which parts of the site will be dynamic―that is, governed by a content management system―and which will be static, that is, built from standard Web pages. Only then can you sit down and start building your Web site. Why? Because dynamic pages require the production of templates, that is, pages that only have graphics, markup, and programming, but no content―the content will be generated by the CMS. Those templates have to be designed specifically to maximize their use in delivering dynamic content.

Content management systems have the following components:

Templates: A Web CMS works by using templates, which are graphical renderings of the pages that will house content. A CMS can, of course, have more than one template; a typical CMS Web site will have three or four templates (Amazon.com has five). Essentially a template is a “build once, use over and over” Web page. Every time you add a Web page, you don’t have to recreate the template. You just insert the content into the database. And if you want to change the template, you change it only once and presto! All the pages using that template change, too.

Content editor: the content editor lets you change, add, or delete content from your Web site or Web pages. Because the visual presentation is stored in the templates separate from the content, this means that adding or changing content is easily done just by typing―no coding or fancy footwork involved.

Workflow management: most content management systems allow for work to be done by several people and for you or an entire battalion of supervisors to manage that work. While you may not have such a complicated organization, yet, many companies have content created by one person, edited and proofread by another person, and approved by one or more other people before the content ever goes live. Workflow management allows that kind of process to proceed easily.

Document management: most Web content management systems also include document management features by keeping a record of when content is created, when it’s changed, etc. Some CMS applications integrate with project management systems.

Web standards: the best Web content management systems adhere to current Web standards and are automatically upgraded to reflect changes in those standards.

Extra features: we’ve just listed the bare bones of a CMS―almost all content management systems also come with plug-ins that add significant features and power to the basic system, like being able to convert Word documents into content. Other extra features include:

  • Advertising management
  • Asset management
  • Blogging tools
  • Online chat tools
  • Classified ads
  • Contact management software
  • Discussion forums
  • E-commerce tools such as wish lists and product catalogs
  • Events calendars
  • FAQ page management tools
  • Graph and chart makers
  • Guest books
  • Help desk communications software
  • Image and photo galleries
  • Job postings
  • Link management
  • My Page creators (for users)
  • Newsletters
  • Polling and surveying software
  • Project management
  • RSS feeds (syndicated content pulled from other sites, such as CNN)
  • Site map page creators
  • Test or quiz generators (including grading and correcting)
  • User pages
  • Web forms

Some things to watch out for when shopping around for a content management system:

  • Platform―your Web site can be hosted on any number of operating systems. Your CMS―and the database it’s attached to―have to be compatible with that system.
  • Production―Some CMS systems produce “flat” files, that is, a new page for each piece of content, but most use relational databases. A relational database gives you more power and control over the system―for instance, in a flat file system, if you change the template, the old pages won’t change. A small subset of content management systems produces XML files.
  • Database―the relational database attached to the CMS is, of course, a database management system. That DBMS must be compatible with and supported by your hosting server.
  • Scripts―content management systems also run server- or client-side scripts, such as PHP, Perl, or Java―certain scripts, such as PHP, require server-side support.

7.13.1. Mambo Server


Mambo, which uses PHP as its coding language and MySQL as its back-end database, is one of the most popular content management systems on the market. It is an open-source, free content management system and, with all the add-ons, one of the most complete systems. Most importantly, Mambo, like Joomla!, has an easy-to-use interface that does not demand high skills or a steep learning curve. Universally praised for both its power and ease-of-use, Mambo comes as a standard application offered with most hosting services. You will, however, have to install many of the add-on components to get the full power of the system.

Like all content management systems, Mambo is designed for collaborative work on a Web site. A Public Frontend allows authors and publishers to produce, post, and edit content in the areas of the Web site where they have permission. A Public Backend is for manages, administrators, and super administrators, who can control the menu configurations, banners, users, components installation, and the look and design of the site.

Mambo content administration is handled with elements: you build a page with elements like static content, news items, polls, banners, FAQ items, etc. A single page might have more than one element: the bulk of the page may be static content, but there also might be a news flash in a side bar and a poll at the bottom. In Mambo, you input each of these elements separately.

Mambo offers a WYSIWYG editor so you can see how your content will appear as you’re producing it―a distinct advantage over other CMS applications. Mambo also includes a scheduler that publishes items automatically according to the times that you set for publication.

The Mambo Template system is amongst the easiest to learn across all the CMS applications. However, unless you’re willing to put in a fair amount of time, you will want to hire a firm that specializes in CMS design or, better yet, has experience with Mambo.

Mambo’s greatest virtue is the sheer amount of add-ons that have been developed for the system. The Mambo community is very large (not as large as phpNuke, however), and it has developed incredible resources including image galleries, shopping carts, payment systems, Google AdSense modules, and even integration into skype.

Mambo Features

See Appendix C: CMS Features Comparison

Sample Mambo Sites

The following are Web sites built entirely with the Mambo Server content management system and represent a pretty full range of what the application and its add-ons can do.

7.13.2. Joomla!


Joomla! consistently ranks as one of the top content management systems by users of all stripes; like Mambo Server, it is an opens-source, free CMS that uses PHP as code and MySQL as its back-end database. In fact, the resemblances don’t stop there. In 2006, almost all the Mambo Server programmers quit the project and released their next version of Mambo as Joomla!. So the various versions of Joomla! are really new versions of Mambo (although Mambo Server has a whole new set of programmers updating its software). For this reason, the two are often grouped together and simply called Mambo and Joomla! Joomla! is much more popular, however, and boasts some pretty significant sites.

Joomla! comes standard with most hosting packages.

Like Mambo, Joomla! is famous for its ease-of-use, easy installation, and the huge number of add-ons, mostly free, that make it one of the most powerful CMS applications out there. Joomla! also boasts a larger developer community and a significantly larger number of Web design firms that specialize in Joomla! Web sites.

Like Mambo, Joomla! has a Public Frontend allows authors and publishers to produce, post, and edit content in the areas of the Web site where they have permission. A Public Backend is for managers, administrators, and super administrators, who can control the menu configurations, banners, users, components installation, and the look and design of the site.

Joomla! content administration is handled with elements: you build a page with elements like static content, news item, polls, banners, FAQs items, etc. Joomla! offers a WYSIWYG editor so you can see how your content will appear as you’re producing it and also includes a scheduler that publishes items automatically according to the times that you set for publication.

Like Mambo, the Joomla! Template system is amongst the easiest to learn across all the CMS applications. There are many resources available both in print and online to help you use Joomla! and develop Web sites on the platform.

(In case you’re wondering about the name, it’s Swahili and means “everything all together.”)

Joomla! Features

See Appendix C: CMS Features Comparison

Sample Joomla! Sites

If you want some idea of what you can do in Joomla!, check out these sites.

7.13.3. Drupal


While Mambo and Joomla! have some pretty passionate adherents―especially on the non-technical side―Drupal is considered the best in class for both open-source and commercial CMS applications. It is used in many of the largest, most trafficked sites on the Web, like Us Magazine and The Onion. Originally written as a bulletin board application, Drupal has expanded to become one of the most full-featured CMS applications with a wide variety of add-ons. Although it boasts a large developer community, however, it does not have as many add-ons as Mambo and Joomla!

Unfortunately, for non-technical folks, it is a harder application to use than Mambo and Joomla! Developers prefer it over Mambo and Joomla!, but they have skills most of us lack. Besides having a steeper learning curve, it is also much harder to install―which should give you pause because it’s rarely offered with hosting packages. You will have to install it yourself.

Drupal uses modules and a customized content classification system to handle content. You set up the taxonomy to classify various types of content and the plunk the content you produce into one of the categories. This gives you significant flexibility without having to write any code, a feature no other open-source CMS has.

In addition, Drupal has some very powerful automation features that can greatly speed up content publication.

Finally, there are a number of customized versions of Drupal. For instance, the Howard Dean for President Campaign in 2004 significantly revised the Drupal code for grass-roots activism. That version of Drupal is now called CivicSpace and is available free for similar sites.

And, yes, if you’re getting tired of silly names, please take a number and wait your turn. In this case, the word is Dutch (druppel) and means “drop,” as in “a drop of water.” What the . . .? Here’s the story: the developer wanted to call it “dorp” (Dutch for village) but typed it wrong.

Drupal Features

See Appendix C: CMS Features Comparison

Sample Drupal Sites

Drupal is the most widely-deployed CMS open-source application out there. You’ve probably been to several Drupal sites without knowing it. Here’s a smattering of major samples:

7.13.4. PHP-Fusion


Using PHP as its scripting language and MySQL as its back-end database, PHP-Fusion is a relatively lightweight open-source content management system popular with owners of small sites. With add-ons (called “infusions” in the PHP-Fusion world), PHP-Fusion has almost as many features as the big three―Mambo, Joomla!, and Drupal―but has a slightly steeper learning curve. Like the big three, PHP-Fusion frequently comes packaged free with many hosting services.

PHP-Fusion Features

See Appendix C: CMS Features Comparison

7.13.5. PHPNuke


PHPNuke is an open-source content management system primarily designed for community-based portals, like news, social networking, or fan sites. Based on PHP as the scripting language and MySQL as the back-end database, PHPNuke started life as a news content management system. Most Web hosting services very commonly offer it as a free add-on, but many users find it far more limiting with far fewer features than the big three―Mambo, Joomla!, and Drupal. Most limiting of all, in the authors’ view, are the page templates―you can easily tell you’re on a PHPNuke Web site simply by the way it’s laid out. Check out some of the sample sites to see what your site will look like when powered by PHPNuke. If original (or even good) design is important to the success of your site, PHPNuke is not for you.

The most substantial criticism of PHPNuke involves security issues. This is well-known in the CMS community and when one of the authors researched sample Web sites, he came across more than one that had been shut down because some hacker had managed to access the site, erase the database, or some other villainous deed.

You will encounter PHPNuke in many, many forms as you research or try out content management systems, because it has many “forks.” A “fork” is a completely separate version of the software. Because open source software is free to anyone to change or develop, they are often changed and packaged under a different name. You will probably encounter some of the following PHPNuke forks as many are offered free with hosting packages:

  • Nuke-Evolution
  • openPHPNuke
  • phpWebSite
  • PostNuke
  • Xaraya

PHPNuke Features

See Appendix C: CMS Features Comparison

Sample PHPNuke Sites

The School for Self-Healing (www.self-healing.org)

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