We don't need no stinking CMS

10 years ago, having a website was cool. You paid your designer a small fortune to update it for you, which was done in Frontpage or Dreamweaver, or for the hardcore geeks, notepad.

Then we developers invented something called a content management system, or CMS. And everyone was running around going "Hey, you can update your own content and you don't need to pay us for little changes" and end-users thought this was just wonderful.

Ironically, the biggest strength of the CMS is also it's biggest weakness.

The greatest strength of the CMS

Anyone who can operate a word processor can add / edit content on a website.

A fundamental flaw with most CMS systems

Anyone who can operate a word processor can add / edit content on a website.

Here's what happens

Users got in there and added "rich" content without an ounce of regard for brand guidelines, consistency or even basic common sense. It wasn't uncommon to see 4 or 5 different fonts on a page, smiley faces in every paragraph, white text on block yellow background, and low-res pictures that had been stretched using the WYSIWYG editor far beyond what you would consider reasonable.
People would start their homepages by saying "Welcome to our homepage. If you find any errors, please email the webmaster...".

The result: blatant ignorance / disregard for brand, sales awareness, web copy, SEO, usability, accessibility, professionalism and even spelling.

The workarounds

CSS fixed a lot of these problems. You could define styles for H1, H2, H3, bold, italic and others, then let the user pick from a small number of styles. This largely fixed the consistency problem.

You can disable the smiley, font, and other nasty buttons on the WYSIWYG editor.

I took it a step further and taught my clients BBCode instead of giving them a WYSIWYG. BB code is much easier to edit than HTML because there are less tags, but you don't get the user-friendly WYSIWYG editor. Most clients hated me for it at the time, but I have never had to raise a hefty invoice for spring cleaning HTML since.

Many CMS systems break the page into smaller, more manageable pieces (eg Wikipedia style). This is largely a good way of handling the problem.

Content approval is also another common way of handling these issues - where all content must be approved / edited by an admin person prior to going live.

Your CMS is not easy to use

I recall a few years ago giving a training session to a room full of content authors on their new CMS system we had developed.
About halfway through the training session, I realized our CMS wasn't easy to use, when compared to their old system.
The old system was a matter of everyone emailing their changes in MS Word or whatever format to a dedicated staff member who would painstakingly update the website manually. From the author's point of view, their content made it online within a couple of days, free from bugs, spelling mistakes and brand issues. They could email 10Mb BMP images with their content and they would magically appear on the website as optimized JPGs.

How could we, as CMS authors, come up with an easier system to use than the existing one?

The future

I just finished a website for my brother-in-law, who runs an Auckland physio clinic. When I asked if they wanted the password to the admin section of the CMS, they looked at me as if there was something wrong with me.

Why would they want a password when they could simply pay me to make the changes for them?

Consider the following things a good web developer might do to the content they are supplied from a client...
  • Optimize body text for search engines
  • Change all references to "click here" to something useful
  • Break up large blocks of text with bullets and headings
  • Write a catchy headline that will be read
  • Resize images appropriately
  • Crop images so the subject is more prominent and visible
  • Ensure images are the correct format
  • Ensure all images have useful and relevant alt attributes
  • Ensure there is a call to action at the bottom of every page
  • Ensure the message of the content is clear and concise
  • Enforce any brand guidelines or constraints on the content
  • Test that external links work, are pointing at the right place and have rel="nofollow" if required
  • Remove MS Word apostrophes and bung characters
  • Link to internal pages within the text content where appropriate
  • And many more.

Regardless of how easy to use your CMS is, you simply can't fix these problems using software. These are the skills that web professionals develop, and these are the skills we bring to the table when someone wants a website.

I am finding that more and more clients aren't at all interested in updating their own content. I almost always install a CMS for them anyway, simply because there is less development time / cost, and it's faster for me to make content updates to their site.

I think there is a definite trend in this direction. I say the purpose of a CMS is no longer about being able to update your own content, it's more about automating the things that should be automated, while making tools available for developers and end-users to produce good web content.
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Tags: contentcmsmanagementsystemscontent management systemscustomerscms content "content management systems" customers management systems