What You Need to Know

What You Need to Know

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)
  • Links
  • Indexing posts and adding them to the correct categories
  • Allowing comments
  • Tagging and search features
  • Authorship
  • File management for downloads
  • SEO features (titles and meta tags)
  • Caching for faster page loading
  • Themes

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.


WordPress is perhaps the most popular — and most versatile — CMS. According to research from W3Techs, 43% of all websites surveyed use WordPress, accounting for 64% of the CMS market space.

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.

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