Choosing your first CMS: the checklist

When I discuss Content Management Systems with content owners, it often becomes apparent that they have no system or set of criteria for choosing the right one. Ideally, the CMS is the reflection of the business and the publishing workflow of the company. The reality is that in most cases, the CMS is chosen by the design firm that is doing the job, with WordPress as default.

So, you are an author wanting to share your content with the world. You also have (or are planning) information products (ebooks, special reports), or multimedia products (video tutorials, instructional DVDs, etc). If this describes your situation, here is a concise checklist of things your CMS must do out of the box.

The two types of content your site will most likely feature are:

  1. Blog articles (dynamic content);
  2. Landing pages.

Blog articles are the main format of your on-going web publishing. It's no secret that releasing fresh, quality content on a regular schedule is favored by search engines —resulting in more traffic to your site.

Landing pages are for targeted offerings and promotions — your products and services. Great–looking landing pages, optimized for both findability (SEO) and conversion, are your second content pillar. (And yes, you absolutely do need a landing page for each one of your offerings).

Based on the above two requirements, here's the checklist:

  • Does the CMS feature SEO–friendly URLs out of the box? An URL is the unique address at which a page is found. It is also a concise descriptor for the page’s content. Well–formed URLs are in the top few critical aspects of findability. Example:

Bad URL:

Good URL:

  • How easy is it to create custom designs for various types of pages? In a typical site, the second thing that gets applied (after the garden-variety CMS) is a "theme". However, themes are pretty much useless because they make you fit content to design, which is backwards. The opposite must be done. First you identify your content types (articles and landing pages, to use our example), then you design pages that carry each well. Think content types, not themes.

  • How easy is it to customize metadata for a page? This builds on the previous two points. A clean, semantic URL is the first step towards making your page findable. The second is to customize metadata for that page to reflect its unique value proposition.

  • How easy is it to create drafts? Inspiration is perishable. Attention is scarce. You need a publishing tool that lets you record your thoughts in a semi–structured way while they are still fresh — ideally with less hassle than starting up the Large Hadron Collider.

  • Bonus point: is there an active group of developers working and maintaining the platform? This isn't a question of commercial vs open source. It's a question of: "does this project have enough innovative potential to maintain the interest of a large group of progressive developers?"

What you must know about content management

A CMS is a tool that will follow the evolution and growth of your business. The truth is that once you are beyond the basic blogging stage, your CMS will most likely need to be customized to your business domain and / or to the workflows of your publishing team. This is explained brilliantly in the two articles below, which I believe should be required reading for any business owner embarking on, or expanding operartions in, web publishing:

  1. Redefining Content Management, by D. Keith Robinson on the Treehouse Blog.

  2. Strategic Content Management, by Jonathan Kahn on A List Apart.

In a nutshell

Business strategy drives content strategy, which drives content types, which drive design.

Initially, settle on a CMS that allows you to write and edit with the most ease; and one that can be used to create custom pages (both in design and metadata) and iterate quickly on design, optimization, and testing.

Don't let technology get in the way of publishing; if necessary, involve competent people to manage the processes in a cost–effective way.

Then, start brainstorming a custom solution as soon as your business processes get too specific for a generic CMS.

Edited September 2022.