November 15, 2011

To CMS or not to CMS?

There are huge advantages to using a CMS, but some of these features also bring disadvantages.

As a Technical Director at AB&C, I’m mainly involved in the technical production for our web projects — from landing pages for specific campaigns to websites for hospital systems. For the last few years, we’ve been doing much of this production in a content management system (CMS), a web-based application that enables us to give our clients design templates that they can fill in with text and pictures.

There are huge advantages to using a CMS, such as out-of-the-box features like page/document management, search indexing, etc. But these features also bring downsides into play:

1.    Designing and building a site in a CMS requires a lot of overhead, which we accept because of the benefits down the line. For example, a CMS makes adding new pages easier and faster.

2.    While a CMS makes it easy to do things like add pages and edit text, it can make it difficult to modify designs or change how the site functions.

3.    Many of our clients aren’t comfortable editing their sites and either ask us to help or turn the whole thing back over to us. When we end up making the updates, we find ourselves wishing the CMS wasn’t there so we could just “make the changes directly” instead of spending time getting the CMS to do what we want.

4.    Pages created within a CMS using basic text and pictures tend to be boring and poorly formatted when viewed on a mobile device.

For large sites that are content-heavy and require multiple users to make changes, a CMS is a necessity and the costs are worth it. For sites that don’t have those requirements, a CMS can be a burden.


Due to the nature of the CMS, it can be difficult or impossible to do certain optimizations that affect the speed of the website.

Speed is important because search engines like Google ranks fast sites over slow sites. Google is all about making the web faster (the faster you browse, the more searching you’ll do; the more searching you do, the more ads they can sell — have you ever wondered why Google has its own browser?). So if all other factors were equal between website A and website B, the faster of the two is likely to receive a higher Page Rank. Website speed also affects consumer behavior. Even a slightly slower site can result in fewer conversions and higher abandon rates.

It also turns out that much of the real and perceived speed of a website doesn’t have to do with how fast the Internet connection or the servers are, which version of the latest browser you’re using, or even how fast your CMS is, but with how the web pages themselves are constructed.

There are some trivial and not-so-trivial techniques that ensure web pages load as quickly as possible, and working around a CMS can put some of these out of reach.

So what?

Because of the four downsides mentioned above as well as the performance aspect, we’ve been choosing more frequently not to use a CMS. It’s often overkill for the website at hand, and without it we can make changes to the site more quickly and further optimize some of the technical components that help pages load faster. We can respond more quickly to change requests from our clients, it’s faster to make basic edits to the text, and the faster page load speed is appreciated by visitors and search engines alike.

An example

We recently built a website for an international commercial truck manufacturer. It seemed like a good candidate for a CMS: it is mostly a set of pages, it needed to be available in multiple languages and it had regularly changing content (press releases).

We chose to build the site without a CMS and bolt in basic CMS-like functionality for some key areas like press releases. The end product was a hybrid: content editors can manage press releases and dealer information, but the landing pages and other marketing content stays with the designers.

We addressed the four downsides:

1.    Overhead and costs are lower.

2.    It’s easy to adjust designs and functionality.

3.    Content can be changed quickly.

4.    Content is presented in more compelling way across all devices.

And the site is super-quick with sub-second page loads, pages and content optimized for search engines and every other trick we could find to make the site as fast as possible.

What does this mean for you?

For your next web project or website update, consider whether or not you really need a CMS. Maybe you should let your web/marketing team or agency handle that for you. I know — it’s tough to let go of that control. But the solution will probably be more portable and easier to change, the costs will likely be the same (or lower), and your website will be faster and present its content in a more compelling way. Most important, you’ll be able to focus less on making edits and more on your core business.