Content Management Systems – a look back in time

At work, we’re planning a website redesign. Okay, less of a redesign and more of a realignment. Our current site has been around since 2004 and though it is still serving us fairly well (four years isn’t a bad lifespan for a website of this kind), we’re beginning to outgrow it, as our research agenda is both shifting and adopting a more prominent role, and as our organizational structure is also in transition.

At the same time, there are the more common complaints that tend to prompt talk of redesign: getting sick of the stock photos, moving from a bunch of Dreamweaver-edited static XHTML pages to a CMS, leveraging some better metadata systems and content linking logic for a lot of older but still very relevant content, adding e-commerce capability, etc.

So, as part of the process towards creating some consultant RFPs and/or strategy documents, we’ve been doing some exploration into the world of content management systems. Though I think we’ve had the inkling from the start that we were going to go with Drupal, it’s been worthwhile looking into some other options and seeing what people have to say about CMSs in general. Particularly interesting has been looking back at articles on CMSs from three, four and even five years ago and seeing what’s stayed the same and what’s changed.

First in this mini-retrospective, we have Making Your Content Management System Work for You: An Interview with Jeffrey Veen of Adaptive Path, from 2004. While there’s a lot of advice in here that’s still relevant, like starting simple and leaving room for complexity growth, and focusing on the editorial and metadata people during a CMS installation, I can’t imagine anyone saying today,

90 percent of the web sites don’t need the complex features of a CMS

In my experience, a CMS is exactly what 90 percent of websites need. Especially in the small-business and NGO world where you likely don’t have the time or human resources to have someone manually updating the pages on your site. If we’re talking about overly complex or bloated or enterprise-level CMSs, then I would agree with the above statement, but fortunately there’s an ever expanding list of free/open-source and reasonably priced CMSs that offer lower and lower entry barriers into this world.

The second article of note that I came across was the not-so-subtly-titled, Study: Content Management Tools Fail, from 2003. Some choice quotations from this one:

The report found the bulk of companies surveyed felt they overspent on content management platforms, and the tools in those platforms are under-deployed. Sixty-one percent of the surveyed companies said they still rely on manual processes to update their Web sites…

In addition, a recent Jupiter Executive Survey showed close to half of the respondents felt their deployments of content management platforms “barely scratched the surface of the functionality they originally licensed.”

Unfortunately, these experiences will probably still resonate with many modern-day CMS users. There is the temptation to go for the Cadillac when all you really need is the Corolla, and without proper implementation many of the most useful features of modern CMSs, like their ability to automatically leverage relationships between related content, will site idle. In addition to implementation, training, even on apparently straightforward issues like how to use the TinyMCE (or equivalent) editor, is crucial to success but is often neglected.

Some other typical CMS problems are highlighted in this boxes and arrows article, Managing the Complexity of Content Management, by Victor Lombardi, from 2004 that draws on the results of this IA Institute study, the Problems with CMS. To my knowledge, a study like this hasn’t been conducted recently, but I imagine the results would be similar, though hopefully somewhat lower on all measures as CMS vendors have attempted to respond to customer’s frustrations in the interim. Lombardi’s article has some more great advice on “buying the right size”, and “creating and efficient information architecture,” and I have to say that the two or three most common problems identified (expense, complexity, and training) are precisely the reasons why I like to recommend WordPress or Joomla! which are both open-source and relatively easy to use even for people with little technological background.

Lastly, we have CMS and the Single Web Designer from A List Apart, by James Ellis, writing in 2002. Discussing the evolving role of the in-house web designer who faces the increasing adoption of CMSs, Ellis warns that implementing a CMS is like outsourcing many of the typical functions performed by the “web generalist” and that many organizations may reconsider their need for an in-house designer.

While I don’t have any statistics on this (though perhaps when some more data is available for trending something like this could be pulled from A List Apart’s Survey for People Who Make Websites), my hunch is that the web generalist’s time in the sun is not yet over. Speaking solely from personal experience with working for and volunteering with small- to mid-sized NGOs (budgets ranging from a few 100k to several million), I can say while need for a full-time webmaster is probably drying up, everyone seems to be in constant need of an in-house staff person who is capable of some amount of web design and/or development, because nearly everyone seems to have encountered any number of the following situations on a fairly regular basis:

  • need to make a slight typographical change to an image, and no longer have the original PSD (or whatever) files–web generalist opens up Photoshop, makes the alteration, saves time and $$$ of going to a professional designer
  • need to fix some bad (X)HTML that the CMS javascript-powered editor is spitting out–web generalist either conducts appropriate training, fixes output, or tweaks the editor itself
  • organization has RSS feed that doesn’t aggregate everything it should, or doesn’t validate–web generalist to the rescue
  • organization wants to host some multimedia but thinks it’s too expensive–web generalist says, Hey, ever heard of Amazon S3?

The list could be significantly extended.

That wraps it up, I think, for now. On balance, I’d say that the articles outlined above are still quite relevant to the world of CMSs and webmastering today. If anyone out there in blog-reader land knows about more recent CMS user experience survey data, I’d be really interested to know. If it’s not out there, it would certainly make a worthwhile study–I’d say, particularly with a focus on smaller scale organizational users because I think CMS Watch puts enough dough into the enterprise-level CMS research field.

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