How To Choose A Content Management System

Joomla!If you're looking for a Content Management System (CMS) to power your website it can quickly turn into a daunting task. You start seeing the names of the open source CMS like drupal, e107, Joomla!, plone, and wordpress. In the comercial world names like Sharepoint come to the surface. Trying to figure out which one is right for you can quickly turn into a nightmare. Let's look at some things that may help you make a decision.

How Not To Pick A CMS

I think one of the best ways to understand what to do is to learn what not to do. Learning from mistakes seems to work. It's just easier to learn from someone else's mistakes.

An example of what not to do is to try and figure out which is the best CMS and then use that for your site. You might be thinking, "But, If I select the best CMS than I'll have the best site." If only this were the case it would make decisions so much easier.

drupliconWell, which is the best CMS? Packtpub gives out yearly awards to the top CMS. This is based on user feedback and expert panels of judges. In 2007 the award for the top PHP CMS went to Joomla! with drupal in second place. The award for the top all around CMS went to drupal with Joomla! in second place. How can these two be flip flopped like this? The PHP CMS category seems like a subset of the overall category and it really is. The reason for the difference is a different set of judges with different things they are looking for. There is no definite winner in the area of CMS.

This problem of choosing the best CMS would be like trying to shop for a car. When you try to shop for a car you think about what you need it for because they are not all the same. If you need to pull a trailor you need a vehicle that can do that. If you need to seat 8 people you wouldn't buy a small car. The same is true when you choose a CMS.

Your Needs

In engineering terms this is called a set of requirements but when you choose your CMS you don't need to be so formal or technical. Simply create a list of things you need it to do. Think about what you want it to do and not necessarily how. Here's a brief (and incomplete) list of needs for a church site:

  • Podcasting
  • Spam Fighting/Prevention
  • Blogs
  • A Calendar and Events
  • Integration with Maps
  • A graphical editor
  • Simple page creating and editing

On top of more obvious needs like these you need to think about other needs like performance. Will a lot of people visit your site? Does the software need to preform well to handle a load?

And, don't forget to think about short term and long term additions. Think about features you might want to add 6 months, a year, 2 years, and 5 years out.

Based on this list of requirements you have take a look at the different CMS solutions and narrow down the list based on your needs. Sites like the CMS Matrix are there to try and make this part of the process easy.

Choosing the CMS

At this point you should have the list narrowed down to those that will meet your functional needs. Now, it's time to look deeper at some specifics to help you choose.

  • Security - All software applications have security holes in them. Even with the best developers in the world it's impossible to write perfect code and the more complex the system the harder it is to write error proof code. Look at a CMS and see how they handle security. A good project will have a security team, a security mailing list, and release security updates quickly when problems are discovered.
  • Support - At some point you're going to need support. Maybe you broke something and you need help. Maybe you are just trying to figure out how to do something. Check out the support channels for a project and see how accurate and responsive they are.
  • Usability - Not all CMS are easy to use and some differ in different areas. See how easy they are to use as a reader, a user, and an administrator. Easy to use is good. Usability for a reader and a user of your site should take a higher priority than an administrator.
  • Other Features - This is the point where I would look for other features in a site. Features like a password strength meter when a user sets a password would fall into this category.
  • Style - There are a number of good CMS that are very different due to style. People have different tastes and different styles so the CMS they develop contain them. Which one fits your style?

At this point you will most likely be down to just one product and feel pretty good about it. If you still have more than one you can go back through this process and be a little more strict. This process may take a little longer than some others but it should leave you with a solid product that meets your needs that you can feel good about choosing and easily justify to anyone who questions the decision.

Good luck choosing a CMS. If you've learned any tips or tricks along the way or know any killer resources please share them. This can be one of the toughest Internet decisions to make.

Other Resources

Excellent breakdown

Great article. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for all the research.

cms analysis

thanks for the info Matt. I know you are a Drupal guy as I enjoyed your podcast series. I have started using Drupal as well and love it, but I noticed that the theming showcase isn't as wide and good as Joomla's design templating. Is there a reason why designer's are less attracted with Drupal? is it the documentation or a specific limitation with Drupal?

I've really only used the zen theme as a starting point for my designs, but I haven't noticed many other good theming templates for Drupal.


How drupal is seen by designers

I think there is a 3 part thing with designers using drupal and template designs.

I think, and I could be wrong, that when designers choose a tool to use they go to a project and look for sweet looking default themes. Often drupal is used in very custom ways on sites such as this and this. They end up with some pretty good designs. But, these designs are custom to what's going on and the project. And, for good branding reasons and how they are tied to the functionality they are not released as templates.

When a designer goes to look at the drupal themes they don't see too much that stands out so they move along quickly thinking that people don't do good designs with drupal. Maybe a drupal showcase of hot sites would help drupal out. To let designers see what you can do with it from a design point of view.

Second, I think many designers are looking for something that's a complete package out of the box when they set something up. So, they install their package and it does almost everything they want it to do out of the box. The problem is that you can take a site so many ways this isn't reality. Drupal was designed to have a small core and then you use modules to to extend it and turn it into a site. I've never built a site out of just drupals core.

Finally, much of the buzz of drupal is in the developer communities. There isn't the same buzz in the design communities. It's starting to get more and some really cool looking sites like this and this.

Then, some of the alternatives, like Joomla!, look really shinny on the surface so designers flock to them instead. Just don't forget there are a number of really well designed sites that are built on drupal. They just don't look like drupal sites and a lot of people don't realize they are. Here are some other ones I like the look of:

I'm sure there are other angles. These are just the ones I've experienced.

drupal designers

Encouraging to see some of these samples, the Drupal community does need to showcase more of these.

The Rock Band video site is intriguing but I think it is just serving the swfs and not the content in the swfs... nevertheless, good site.

Coming from more of the design side of things, I do see the opportunity for Drupal theming. There will probably be a fair amount of work needed for Drupal developed sites in the coming years so I look forward to jumping in on that. Looks like fun.

thanks for your thoughts on this,


Do you think the

Do you think the Mothersclick site is Drupal powered?


Why Drupal & Drupal Theming for Designers

Your advice on selecting a CMS based on specific requirements makes sense if evaluators split them into functional/non-functional requirements. Most people look at feature sets (functional requirements) first and the offerings of Drupal, Joomla, and Wordpress are quickly converging. Which will make it more challenging to select the best-fit CMS. In most instances, we're recommending Drupal.

The comment on Drupal's lack of appeal to designers is important. Information sharing and showcases are helpful, but this aspect of Drupal is definitely underserved.

Joomla and Drupal Converging

I'd agree that drupal and joomla will converge on functional requirements. I don't think wordpress will or should. It is an incredible piece of blogging software. In the world of open source it doesn't have rivals. If they extend it to be a real content management system they will add enough to take away that easy of use. It would hurt it's target audience.

I was actually reading about the Joomla and drupal convergence the other day. While we are in no way near it you can see the road ahead. Joomla is trying to add the good framework and drupal is trying to be better out of the box. I think what will differentiate these two and any others in teh future will be extensibility that's so easy my mom could do it while providing an extremely rich feature set.

I think it would be great for designers to be able to do more with drupal. I'm hoping and thinking that drupal 6 will go along way towards that. In drupal 6 you can do css only themes if you want. That should be appealing to designers. It's a start.