What are content management systems, how do they work and what are the most popular options out there?
In the early days of the internet, running a website required technical knowledge, such as understanding how to use File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and how to format pages using HTML.
Content management systems (CMS) reduced this technical burden, allowing anyone who can operate a word processor to format and publish content online.
What Are Content Management Systems?
Content management systems are programs that make it easy for multiple editors to add new or manage existing content on a website. Editors do not need a lot of technical expertise to create, format or edit content.
Most CMSs are web-based, meaning users can manage posts, product listings, comments and other content via a web browser. The CMS abstracts a lot of things, including:
- Adding images to content
- Formatting (no need for HTML tags)
- Indexing posts and adding them to the correct categories
- Allowing comments
- Tagging and search features
- File management for downloads
- SEO features (titles and meta tags)
- Caching for faster page loading
Setting up a CMS for the first time may require some technical knowledge, but once it’s up and running, changing settings or publishing content is a matter of using an admin interface or a graphical editor.
Using a CMS may seem overkill for a company or individual looking for a simple “online business card.” But those who want to sell products online, use contact forms or publish regular content will likely find that a content management system makes the process easier.
Content Management Systems and Online Stores
News publishers, magazines and blogs aren’t the only sites that rely on content management systems. Online stores use the same platforms to manage product databases, user reviews, ratings and orders.
However, the needs of online store owners can be more complex, especially if they also have a brick-and-mortar shop and the two stores share inventory. CMSs integrate the online store’s database with the physical store’s point-of-sale system, allowing shop owners to track inventory more accurately.
An ecommerce-focused CMSs, like Shopify or BigCommerce, can also tackle the challenge of payment processing. These platforms handle all security, financial and data protection elements, helping businesses cater to online shoppers with minimal fuss.
Related Article: 3 Ways to Improve Your Ecommerce Game
Why Use Content Management Systems?
While some businesses still use custom-coded websites, there are several benefits to using a CMS instead.
You Don’t Need to Know Coding
Using a CMS means web designers can specify how posts, comments, products, FAQs and other parts of a site should look.
The writers, editors and moderators who maintain the website can then focus on the content itself —- they don’t have to worry about maintaining a consistent look and feel.
Editors can manage content using a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor and feel confident that the finished page will look exactly how they expect.
Collaboration Is Easier
With a CMS, an organization can give multiple people access to the back-end of a website to write or edit posts or manage comments. Each user can have different permissions limited to their job title.
This setup is more secure than giving multiple people access to the web server via FTP, and it also means the people working on the site don’t need technical knowledge.
Collaborators can log in from a desktop, tablet or mobile device and manage content quickly and easily.
Theming and SEO Are Automatic
Popular CMSs often have SEO tools built-in, meaning they’re search-engine-friendly by default. Website owners and content creators will still need to do keyword research and create good content, but what they publish will present itself in a way search engines understand.
Creating good-looking websites is also relatively easy. WordPress, a well-known CMS, has more than 9,700 free themes and a vast library of premium themes with more support and customization options.
Most content management systems offer additional modification options on top of the themes users can install. Changing colors, fonts and header images is a simple matter of clicking a few buttons in the admin panel.
You Can Edit Content at Will
Updating a static HTML website requires accessing the server and making changes to the code. If you delete a page, you must go through the whole website and delete any references to that page, ensuring there are no broken links.
Using a CMS makes this process easier. The system indexes content for you, and if you delete a post or page, it will remove all references to it. If you rename it, that will be reflected in the index too.
Headless Content Management Systems and the Internet of Things (IoT)
In this guide, we’re primarily focusing on traditional CMSs designed to present content in a visually appealing way for users of desktop or mobile web browsers.
In recent years, however, another category of content management system has grown in popularity: the headless CMS. Headless systems are more flexible and aimed at business owners who want to make their content accessible to Internet of Things (IoT) users.
The Internet of Things is the collection of all devices, sensors and systems connected over the web. It’s voice assistants, video doorbells, internet-connected coffee makers, smart thermostats and much more. Statista estimated that by 2025, more than 75 billion IoT-connected devices will be in use.
Many of these devices either lack displays or have very small screens, meaning the way users interact with them varies dramatically. Some people will use keyboards, while others will have touch screens, buttons or rely on voice control.
Traditional content management systems can’t serve all of these IoT devices because they decide both the website’s content and how the site should look. But a page that looks stunning on an iPad could be unreadable on a smartwatch. A text-only display may be unable to show the page at all.
Headless systems, on the other hand, allow brands to deliver content to any device — and let the device decide how it should look (while still adding in theming to offer a good-looking experience on a traditional web browser).
Let’s consider the example of a news website. Using a headless CMS, the news site can send out content to IoT devices without including information on how it should look. A smart speaker can “read” the headlines. The ticker app on a smart fridge can scroll the headlines.
Some headless CMSs, such as CosmicJS, also offer API integrations with popular productivity tools and social platforms. Users can connect the CMS to Slack, HubSpot or similar services and get updates about new content in their chosen environments.
Related Article: 34 Free or Premium Headless CMS That Should Be on Your Radar
Content Management Systems and Website Security
Anyone with an understanding of web development can code their own CMS. However, doing so creates a burden of security on the developer. If that person fails to follow best practices or neglects to keep the code up to date, there’s the possibility the site could get hacked.
Recent research from Storyblok revealed that 32% of the world’s largest businesses experience CMS security issues at least once per week — and 7% face a problem daily.
Popular, pre-made content management systems tend to attract the most attention from hackers. Most of these systems are open source, meaning anyone can download and run the code, review it and contribute to it.
Open-source software is quite common. Linux, in its many distributions, has an estimated market share of 37.7% of the server operating system space, according to W3Techs. Nginx and Apache, two open-source web servers, have a combined 64.9% market share.
Despite open-source software’s popularity, it’s natural to question how secure these products are. Researchers investigated the security challenges associated with open-source web platforms in a 2020 report published in the Journal of Informational and Organizational Sciences.
This report tracked 15 websites running open-source web content management, tracking the attacks they faced, the frequency of attacks and how website owners could protect themselves.
The researchers discovered that the CMS attacks fell into a few key categories:
- Remote file inclusion
- Directory traversal attacks
- SQL injections
- Unprintable ASCII attempts/execution attempts
In addition to the above attacks, the Defender script running on the CMS detected attempts to “scan” the system to determine which CMS was running, and general requests from bots with a bad or unknown user agent or that were determined to be from a scraper.
These attacks are well-known issues to experienced web developers, and proper precautions — such as sanitizing user input and having robust error handling — can mitigate problems.
One of the benefits of open-source software is that popular projects have large teams of developers. For example, Joomla has more than 780 contributors. Such a large team of developers will likely identify bugs and other issues quickly.
Managed vs. Unmanaged CMS Products
The 2020 report cited above noted that many security challenges surrounding open-source CMS tools occur because of users with a poor IT background. These users might know how to create software — but not how to do so safely.
Not only does out-of-date, vulnerable software jeopardize the website’s security, but some issues could endanger the server and the data of other users.
That doesn’t mean free and open-source software is a bad thing. If the software is up-to-date, it’s likely to be more secure, reliable and feature-rich.
One way to prevent issues from arising, according to the report, is to pay attention to the security education of new users. Another option is to use a managed system — a subscription-based CMS like Shopify (for ecommerce sites) or WordPress (for content-based sites).
With a managed CMS, website owners pay a monthly or annual fee, and don’t have to worry about configuration, backups, security or other administrative tasks. They also have access to tech support if any problems arise.
For many businesses, a managed CMS makes economic sense, especially if they don’t have an in-house IT team — or their in-house team is busy with other projects.
The Best Free Content Management Systems in 2022
Let’s look at some of the most popular free CMSs — many of which are open source.
While this platform was originally for blogging, it’s incredibly extensible and has a huge library of plug-ins, allowing everything from online stores to membership sites. Currently, there are more than 59,000 plug-ins in WordPress’s library, many of which are free to use.
There’s also a huge database of themes, and it’s relatively easy for users to customize the look and feel of the platform, even if they don’t know HTML, CSS or PHP. WordPress can run on relatively basic hosting, and the easy-to-use post editor looks and feels like a word processor.
Released in 2005, Joomla has a smaller user base than WordPress, but it’s popular with those who want to make more complex websites. Its active user community and extension developers offer support for those looking to mold the platform to their liking.
Joomla boasts several valuable features out-of-the-box, including:
- Search engine friendliness
- Granular user permissions
- Multilingual support
- Mobile-friendly themes
The CMS lends itself to running membership sites, corporate websites and, through extensions, online stores. Bloggers, on the other hand, tend to prefer the ease-of-use, lower system requirements and larger library of themes and extensions of WordPress.
Drupal is an open-source CMS designed with large content sites in mind. For editors, the platform makes it easy to write and format posts and upload pictures. It also works well with Apache, NginX and Microsoft IIS, meaning you can deploy it in almost any development environment.
However, from the point of view of a webmaster, it’s harder to change the look and feel of a Drupal website than a WordPress one. As such, it’s less appealing to those with limited technical knowledge or who want to run smaller, simpler sites.
Drupal’s strength is in the sophisticated APIs it offers and its multichannel publishing tools. Several major brands use this CMS, including the SyFy network, The Economist, Chicken Soup for the Soul and more.
Textpattern is a relatively bare-bones open-source CMS coded in PHP. Its main selling point is that it’s lightweight, offers good performance and can run on relatively low-powered servers.
Textpattern is under the GNU General Public License, and the team welcomes contributions from users. While it’s less well-known than WordPress and Joomla — with a market share of less than 0.1%, according to W3Techs — it still has a large library of extensions.
Users can format posts using Textile, Markdown or HTML, as well as simply writing in plain text using the editor. Customizing the look and feel of the CMS is a simple process for those who know HTML and CSS. There’s also a collection of user-created themes.
Some people refer to Moodle as an LMS (Learning Management System) because it’s aimed at managing e-learning websites.
Moodle shines when it comes to making courses with modules, quizzes, video content and downloads. It offers powerful user management, with roles for learners, course creators and teachers. The default themes are mobile-friendly, and the platform supports various languages.
This CMS has higher system requirements than more general systems, but that’s typically not an issue for the intended audience.
Related Article: Building a Case for Centralized Content Management
The Best Paid Content Management Systems in 2022
Free content management systems are powerful and feature-rich, but they require some technical knowledge to set up and maintain. Website owners who’d prefer to have a third party in charge may wish to consider a premium CMS.
The platform’s main focus is online stores. Users can choose between pre-made layouts and themes, easily add products and pick between several payment processors. There are also blog and contact form functionalities.
Shopify has a pricing tier to cater to different business sizes, from sole operators with a handful of products to big brands. The system is also easy to scale.
The main selling point of Wix is its ease of use. It’s designed for simple websites with just a few pages, offering a drag-and-drop builder for users.
The free version of the platform allows for the creation of straightforward websites with Wix branding. Paid users can add more page elements, create more complex designs and remove third-party branding.
The main downside of this CMS is its proprietary nature. Users may have a hard time migrating data away from it should they decide they’d like more control over their sites or want to add non-supported features.
Another popular ecommerce CMS is BigCommerce, currently used by brands like Cafe Nero and Skullcandy. Its omnichannel capabilities make it easy for retailers of any size to get online.
BigCommerce is available in a headless option, allowing users to take advantage of the platform’s back end while being in full control of how their store looks and feels. Integrations are available for WordPress, Contentful, Contentstack and more.
The platform’s focus is storefronts, but all versions include a built-in blog and features like product ratings and reviews. The core BigCommerce product is aimed at enterprise users and is priced accordingly. Smaller businesses might consider BigCommerce Essentials, a scaled-down offering with pricing starting at $29.95 per month.
Adobe Commerce (Magento)
Magento is now known as Adobe Commerce. The free Community Edition of Magento is still available for those happy to install and manage the platform themselves. Adobe Commerce is the premium hosted version.
Adobe Commerce is for businesses that want to offer multichannel experiences. It caters to B2B and B2C users and covers the whole shopping experience. The platform makes building web pages simple thanks to its drag-and-drop interface. Users can build product pages, blogs and other site elements quickly and easily.
Inventory management, product recommendations and reporting are all included, with no need to install plug-ins or add custom code. Those who want extra features will find a large library of extensions and themes.
The Bitrix24 platform positions itself as an all-in-one workspace for businesses. It offers collaboration tools, a customer relationship management system, task management, a CMS for building websites and online stores and HR tools.
The site builder promises strong SEO features, allows users to create mobile-friendly websites and offers easy integration with Google Analytics.
Those who want to try this CMS before they buy can sign up for the free version. To access more features and customer support, users can upgrade to a paid tier, which starts at €39 per month.
Managed Deployments of Open Source CMS Platforms
In addition to the above premium CMS platforms, website owners can pay for support for one of the free platforms.
For example, WordPress comes in two flavors: the free, open-source WordPress.org and the commercial WordPress.com. Those who purchase an account with WordPress.com receive automatic updates and support for their blogs, but it restricts the plug-ins available and the changes users can make to their sites.
Some web hosts offer one-click installers for popular CMSs, such as WordPress and Joomla. These installers go through the process of uploading the files and setting up the database for the customer. In some cases, the installer automates the process of keeping the installation up to date.
This option is ideal for people who don’t have a lot of time or are moderately technical but don’t feel confident in their ability to manage security updates.
The downside of this type of installer is that while it automates important tasks, it’s simply a script. There’s no technical support or backups included, and users still have some responsibility for managing their installation.