Commissioning a website – Part 1 – Choosing a CMS

For the average business owner, commissioning a website is often confusing and, sadly, disappointing. In this guide, we will look at several of the key purchasing decisions you need to make when buying a website and help you to make a more informed decision that you’re less likely to regret six months later.

Choosing a content management system (CMS)

Content management systems allow clients to update their content as and when they want to. If you wake up at 3am and realise you really need to add a page about something, you should be free to log on and add one at will, if your website has a CMS. A CMS frees you from having to go back to (and pay) your web developer every time you want to change or add something simple on your site. However, all content management systems are not created equal. They come in different flavours:

  • Open source CMSs are those which have been built by a community of developers online, rather than being owned by one particular company.
  • Proprietary CMSs have been built by, and are owned by, a particular web developer. Or if you work for a big enough company, you may have your own system you’ve built in house.

Sometimes only particular parts of the website will be content managed, sometimes the whole site. Even if the ‘whole site’ is content managed, there may be parts of it where you have to go back to the developer to make changes. Often the header and footer content, or the home page, aren’t editable by the client. Note that the term is ‘content management’ – you can’t usually make radical changes to the design through a content management system, unless your web developer has given you full admin access to the site. This is unlikely, as usually web developers will give you a lower level of access to the site in order to prevent you from accidentally breaking things. The advantage of the open source approach is that you are not tied into a particular web developer – as long as you choose an open source system that is commonly supported, it should be relatively easy to transfer the website to another developer later on. The caveat: I say ‘relatively easy’ here because even when two developers are using the same CMS, there are still 1001 different ways for a developer to have created the website, and even with an open source system, it’s quite likely that your new developer would want to substantially change the website when they take it over, so that it’s built ‘their way’. No developer ever (in my experience) enjoyed taking on a website that was built by someone else – it can sometimes take so long to pick apart someone else’s code and figure out how exactly the site works, that you might as well have built it from scratch. We would recommend that you stick with using a CMS which is likely to be commonly used for the foreseeable future – not one that’s on its way out of favour. Too often, I’ve encountered clients who are stuck because their original web developer has gone to live in Darkest Peru and no-one else can take over the site because it’s built in a system that no-one else uses any more. No developer is going to want to invest weeks of their time learning a new system, just so they can add a Facebook widget to your home page for you. Another advantage of open source is that these systems tend to be modular, with a whole community of developers beavering away to create useful (and sometimes useless!) functions you can add to your website. This means an open source website tends to be cheaper, because they’re not built 100% from scratch – there’s often a pre-made function that can be used and customised by your developer to supply what you need. On a similar note, there are also typically lots of pre-made templates for open source CMSs, and many web developers, when they give you a choice of designs for your website, aren’t actually being that creative – they’re just showing you a load of templates that were actually designed by someone else. Having a site built using a template can sometimes be a good way of bringing the cost down – but a lot of agencies will still charge you premium prices for rolling out a cheap template and sticking your text and pictures in it. The key disadvantage of having an open source website is that they do tend to be targets for hackers. However, the risk of your site being hacked is minimal if you follow best practice by choosing strong passwords, backing up regularly and updating the CMS software regularly. (Note that you may need to pay your web developer a monthly or annual fee for keeping the software up to date and the website backed up). One of the key advantages of the proprietary approach is that the site is less likely to be a target for hacking (though this doesn’t get you off the hook from following best practice! You should still be backing up, plugging any security holes in the software and choosing strong passwords). Also, the functionality may be more custom to your requirements, and the site may well be smaller – made up of fewer, smaller files – because the developer hasn’t had to build in every function that every customer might need, but has been able to focus purely on your own needs. Advocates of the proprietary approach will often tell you that open source websites tend to look ‘templatey’ and that you can’t build absolutely anything you want in them. However, this isn’t true. An open source website can look exactly how you want and perform exactly the functions that you want, within the realms of what’s physically possible on a website. A developer who’s telling you that something can’t be done in an open source CMS usually just doesn’t know how to do it! A third approach is to buy a site with no content management system. Quite why anyone would do this in 2015, I really can’t imagine. But it happens! Sometimes clients just never update their website for years and years on end, so I guess in those cases they don’t really need a CMS.

Questions to ask your web developer

  • What content management system will my website have?
  • Is it proprietary or open source?
  • What happens if I need to move my site away from you?
  • Are you using a template or designing and developing the site from scratch?
  • Which parts of the site can I edit using the CMS? (And which bits can’t I?)
  • How will you protect my site against hacking?
  • Are there any ongoing charges I need to budget for, such as backups and updates? Is there a licence fee for the content management system?

What Ascendancy’s answers would be

  • What content management system will my website have?

We advocate WordPress because it’s the world’s leading open source system. All our sites are built in WordPress, with the exception of one or two historic sites we’ve inherited from other people.

  • Is it proprietary or open source?

Open source.

  • What happens if I need to move my site away from you?

You should be able to find another WordPress developer very easily. We minimise the use of third party plugins where we can, and code within the WordPress framework. Of course, we wouldn’t want you to move your site away from us, but it’s your right, so we make sure it can be done with the minimum of fuss. We don’t charge any exit fees or anything like that either.

  • Are you using a template or designing and developing the site from scratch?

All our WordPress sites are built from scratch, with a custom theme, unless a client has specifically requested a particular template that they want us to use. We believe in being open and transparent so if there’s a template involved, you’ll know about it.

  • Which parts of the site can I edit using the CMS? (And which bits can’t I?)

Because we build our WordPress themes from scratch you will probably find that you can edit more parts of our WordPress sites than you can if your site was built by someone else. We make the menu editor accessible to you, and as much of the content and images as possible, including the home page content and the text that’s on the footer. You can’t normally change the overall layout of your site without coming back to us, but then most people don’t want to do that often anyway. We don’t normally give clients admin access to their site, so that they can’t accidentally break it, but we do make as many things editable as we reasonably can.

  • How will you protect my site against hacking?

If your site was built by us and is currently hosted with us, then we will be updating the software for you occasionally for you free of charge anyway, it’s part of the deal. We don’t want any of our clients’ sites to be hacked as it impacts on our own reputation, so we don’t give clients the option of not updating the software. There are also regular backups which we can revert to should something happen to your site. We advise all of our clients to follow best practice with regard to passwords – these should be strong and not shared across users – each user should have their own password and if they leave your company, you should delete their access. We don’t update WordPress for free for clients where their site was either built by someone else and on our hosting, or built by us but is currently hosted elsewhere. In these cases any updates would be chargeable. And with the free updates that we offer, we can’t guarantee exactly when or how often we’ll do them, as we fit them in around other things. We can offer a service whereby we update WordPress to an agreed schedule, at an additional cost.

  • Are there any ongoing charges I need to budget for, such as backups and updates? Is there a licence fee for the content management system?

The majority of our web design customers pay us nothing on an ongoing basis other than their annual fee for hosting their website, email and domain names. Some choose to have us market their website as well, and some need regular maintenance on their website because it is business critical and they are continually working to improve it further.  

Tags: , , ,

You might also like…