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June 15, 2006

Why Content Management Systems Suck!

Content management systems suck(TM).

That's a line noone's heard before. But regardless, I get asked whether building a content management system in the current market is a good idea.

Here is what I think.

1. "All content management systems suck"

And that is why we need another one. The result is when you are shopping for content management systems, there are a million to choose from, and they do all suck (with exceptions).

And so people build another content management system, that sucks, the the circle of life continues around again.

2. "You need a CMS!"

I believe that a large number (not all) people who build content management systems are under the impression that the world needs content management systems.

So in sales pitches, you hear "look! you can change the text on your home page! Think of the money that will save in not having to hire a designer to change your home page!".

The harsh reality is that the typical person in a company has better things to do than change the text on the home page, like run their company. Going to the time, money and effort of installing the typical CMS is like fitting wheels to a tomato - time consuming and completely unnecessary.

If you don't believe me, ask your clients when last they changed their home page. Tell me if any of them don't say "you can change your home page?".

Most people don't need CMSes. The odd once in a flood that they need to change their home page, they send an email to a web designer and say "change my home page". Small cost, as needed, no problem.

3. "Our CMS Will Fulfil All Your Needs!"

No it won't. Accept this, and move on.

If you don't believe this, see point 1 "all content management systems suck".

No content management system will ever be the beginning and end of content management, simply because content is so diverse. You can do one or two things well, but you cannot do everything well.

4. "But There Are Parts Of The Site That Need Updating!"

Now we are getting somewhere, the key word is "parts of the site". Not the whole site.

As soon as we zoom in more deeply, we find CMS systems that work surprisingly well and are very effective, but these systems all assume "part of the site" needs to be updated.

The classic example of this is an image gallery. This is a specialised CMS designed specifically to display images and image descriptions, on those parts of the site that need an image gallery.

The reason this is important is because end customers are picky. They may like the "press release" module for a CMS package, but hate the "image gallery" module.

"Oh, but our CMS only works with modules that are written for our CMS". Bzzt. You are outta there. As soon as you try and be the "all inclusive" CMS, your software starts to suck.

5. "Ok, We Have Specialised Content"

Again, we're getting closer.

The most extensively used CMS systems solve a very particular problem, and one of the most popular applications is blogging.

Everyone has an opinion, and lots of opinionated people want to air their views, and they don't want website design to get between them and publishing glory, they have an opinion damnitt!

And so Wordpress and Moveable Type have cleaned up the blog software market, with many others following behind.

Blogs solve a very specific business need, which is to render a website that works like an online newspaper. As blogs became more popular, the newspaper format, and the added value services that grew out of the model, like RSS feeds, entrenched "the way blogs were done".

This means blogging is a well defined solution, which means few major market players, creating software that does most of what end users want. By and large, blog software doesn't suck.

6. "But I'm a Website Designer! Don't I need a CMS?"

Yes, website design tends to involve the same tasks: page layout, boilerplate work, template creation.

If Everyone Used The Same Platform(TM) we would not have this problem - we could just deploy the content using The One True CMS(TM), and If Everybody's Tastes Were The Same(TM) we would be able to reuse the templates and just change the stylesheet. How cool would that be?

The reality is that people don't use the same platforms. Some platforms are less hassle than others, which may be more powerful. Other platform choices are religious. Website owners also want to differentiate their website from the competition (with the exception of bloggers, who just want to get their opinion across damnit!!!).

So as nice as the Utopian common website template is, it just isn't going to work.

7. "Ok Wiseass, What Does Work Then?"

According to this designer, you need to combine the best tools that solve your particular need, and "glue" them together into a coherent unit.

Then, your web designer, with good old fashioned HTML skills, will be able to create a common look, where practical, across the different components of your website.

One of the best examples of this in action is http://www.apple.com and http://lists.apple.com. The first URL is the main website, but the second URL is a specially customised version of GNU Mailman, the mailing list manager.

From the user's perspective you wouldn't notice, because both sites contain a common navigation bar across the top. But if you know Mailman, it's pretty standard stuff.

In this example, Apple wanted to take a best of breed mailing list manager, and incorporate it into their site. If they followed traditional CMS marketing, they would have used the "mailing list" module of their favourite CMS, and missed out on the features they needed that Mailman provides, including the best feature of all: "It works like all the other mailing lists on the net".

So what is the point of this treatise? I was asked what I though of CMSes, and so what started out as a short email turned into this perl of wisdom.

And like all bloggers, I have an opinion, damnitt!!!