By now, only the oldest and dustiest of business websites are still using flat HTML coding instead of a content-management system. And for good reason: a CMS offers a better look, more features and the ability for a business to update its own web pages without having to pay a web designer every time its About Us page needs to be changed.
While nobody should build a flat HTML website anymore, the smallest of businesses might get good results with one of the better website builders, such as SquareSpace. But since larger businesses are nearly always better off with a CMS because it offers more features, the question then becomes, which CMS?
And the first choice to make when it comes to a CMS is open-source or proprietary.
Like all open-source software, an open-source CMS is built and maintained by an online community of developers who offer the software to the public free of charge and make the code available for developers to use to build themes and plugins.
- It’s free — no cost to purchase or license
- Many options for web hosting
- Core software offers basic functionality needed for a general business website
- Thousands of plugins, many also free, offer additional features (Check out some of the best plugins for WordPress)
- WordPress and other common open-source CMS software are supported by large communities, so it’s easy to find help
- Updates for changes in such areas as SEO and social media along with security are available on a regular basis, usually for free
- It’s easy to export your content should you ever want to use a different system
- Security risk: Hackers especially target the most popular CMS and plugins of varying quality may offer vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit
- Basic vanilla installation will need customization to offer specialized features like e-commerce or ticket reservations
- Like plugins, themes vary greatly in quality, with a fair share of ugly designs
- Lacks built-in tech support (but a wide community offers various paid and free support resources)
Of content-management systems, these days WordPress is the king, powering nearly a quarter of the world’s websites and adding 50,000 new installations per day. The next two contenders, Joomla and Drupal, follow far behind. Fans of each system will swear by their favorite and we’ve chosen WordPress because it’s got the best balance of features to build powerful websites with ease of use for a client to manage her own site easily after its launch.
But an open-source CMS is not right for every website, especially if you need special features right away. That’s when you may want to consider a proprietary CMS.
While an open-source CMS is developed collectively and owned by no one, a proprietary CMS is developed in the same way as traditional software such as Microsoft Office, by one company, which retains ownership of the software.
- Offers certain advanced features right out of the box
- Comes with tech support to help you get online quickly and easily, fix things that go wrong and add new features if they are available
- Possibly more secure, since it’s not popular enough to be targeted by hackers and also since it’s managed by professional programmers who can do regular security upgrades
- Its owner will charge you to buy it and probably charge you to use it too, which could include an initial license fee plus annual renewal and hosting fees (yes, you usually have to host your site with the CMS’s owner)
- Clunky design and lack of features
- Expensive to make design changes, as usually you must pay the CMS owner to make code changes for you
- Limited ability to add features or extend functionality — if the manufacturer didn’t put a feature in the original system and isn’t planning to add it anytime soon, you may be out of luck
- May be difficult to export content and switch to another system
The winner: open-source CMS (usually)
For a general business website without e-commerce, reservations or other special features, an open-source CMS will be the best choice hands down for a higher quality system without any licensing fees.
But for a website in a particular industry that requires special features from launch, it might be worth putting up with the clunkiness of a proprietary CMS while having to pay regularly just to use the darn thing. For example, if you run a hotel or B&B, you can sign up for a system owned by Priceline called buuteeq (cute spelling, right?) that offers you a room reservation system built in. When I last used this system for a client about a year ago, I found it hard to use and very limited in features compared to WordPress. It also felt outdated, and didn’t even come with a built-in blog. However, the system is used by big hotels around the U.S., so for that niche, it’s obviously filling a need.
The other exception I might make is for some of the newer proprietary CMS packages, like HubSpot’s Content Optimization System. Since my company started using HubSpot about six months ago, my limited experience using their COS to build forms and landing pages has been mostly positive. It’s well designed and offers an experience similar to WordPress in many ways and better in some others. Since I love WordPress so much, I still haven’t moved my own site to the COS or started building client sites in HubSpot’s system, but I’ll consider it in the future.
When to avoid a proprietary CMS
So, if you’re in an industry like hospitality or the performing arts dominated by one proprietary CMS, give that system a serious look. It may be just what you need to get a web site up quickly that will fulfill many of your needs right away. Likewise, a proprietary CMS from a big national company like HubSpot that does a good job in marketing automation might also be worth a look.
But if your local web agency tries to sell you on their proprietary CMS that they use for all their clients regardless of industry, your best bet is to just say no. Otherwise, you might be facing years of frustration while having to pay handily for the privilege without any big benefit over an open-source CMS, adding insult to injury.
I know of one web agency in my area of Virginia that created their own in-house CMS about ten years ago that they sold to their clients. Unfortunately, many websites around here are now stuck with this agency’s private CMS. The technology hasn’t kept up with WordPress over the years, but the clients still have to pay hundreds of dollars a year in licensing fees just to keep their websites online. And no one can fix this private CMS or add new features to it except the agency that built it in the first place.
The saddest part of all — after apparently closing their Virginia office and moving out of state, this agency has moved on to building websites in WordPress.
And if that local web agency can’t build you a site in one of the top open-source CMS packages — WordPress, Joomla or Drupal — then go to someone who can.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group