What is a CMS, and Why Should You Use One for Your Website?

You many have heard people talking about how important it is to have a content management system, or CMS if you have a website.

Content Management Systems can go by different names. Sometimes these kinds of websites are referred to as dynamic websites, or by the exact name of a content management system in use (such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, OSCommerce, Zen Cart, or Squarespace).

But what exactly is a CMS (Content Management System) and why should you use one?

Static Websites – The Old Way

What is a CMS and why should you use one for your website?

First, let’s talk about the “old way” of doing websites: The Static Website.

Back in the old days, in addition to walking uphill to school barefoot (both ways), we had to create a separate HTML file for each page of a website. So, for example, if you were planning to create some kind of content each week, for example,  an article, you had to create a fresh HTML file, with the whole template in it, plus the HTML markup for the content itself, every time you wrote the article. Invariably, there was some kind of problem with it. Perhaps you had a > where it didn’t belong.

It was horribly time-consuming.

Not to mention, if you didn’t know HTML yourself, you had to hire a web designer to create the page for each and every article you wrote. If you had software like DreamWeaver, this process may have been a bit more manageable, as Dreamweaver allowed you to store templates, however, it was still a pain.

Content Management Systems – A Better Way

Enter Content Management Systems like WordPress. Ah, better.

A Content Management System quite simply separates the layout of the website (the technical stuff you need a designer to help you with) from the content. The content is usually stored in some kind of a database like a MySQL database, which is widely available on most web hosts today.

With a CMS, the website owner logs into the back end of the website (the “dashboard”), clicks a button and creates the content by simply typing as if they were using MS Word.

Once you hit publish on your content, the CMS automatically creates a page in your website with the content inside of the template. With some templates and CMS options, you might be able to select different options for changing or customizing the layout for different kinds of content, but in general, with a CMS you only have to worry about creating your content. The layout remains the same, consistent throughout the whole site.

Although most content management systems like WordPress are usually associated with Blogging, they are not exclusively for blogging. You can use WordPress and other CMSes to create any kind of website. Some are specifically designed for shopping carts (like OS Commerce or Zen Cart), and others are general purpose (like WordPress and Joomla).

Working Fresh out of the Box

With most CMS options, there is a wide range of free templates (or themes, as they are called for WordPress), which you can use right out of the box. This means you don’t necessarily need to hire a designer like me to create you a custom layout from scratch, at least not at the start.

In fact, I’ve begun to advise my clients to create some basic content before they hire someone like me to create a layout for them, so we can get a better idea as to what kind of layout they will need. I talk about this in more detail in another post on 12 tips for improving your website.

Some free templates can also be given minor alterations to have a more customized look. Many WordPress themes have Theme Options included which allows you to customize different parts of the layout without needing to know CSS, HTML, or PHP.