So you’re sitting behind your desk planning on redesigning your website or creating a brand new digital presence, and you’ve come across different articles already telling you that you need a content management system (CMS) to keep your content up-to-date.
The next question on your mind is whether to use an out-of-the-box solution for your website’s CMS or build a custom software from the ground up. Yes, I’ve been in that junction before. Let me share with you how we at Propelrr decide what to use every time we have website design and development projects.
We have a list criteria to help us decide whether to use WordPress or create a custom CMS:
- Ease of use
- Flexibility and customization
In addition to our selection criteria, we also consider our client’s input. Of course, we have to consider our client’s insights as there will be cost and timeline implications from the choice of the CMS.
As the lead web developer in Propelrr, I am often asked during client onboarding whether to use an out-of-the-box CMS or to create a custom CMS whenever new projects come in.
I always go back to answering a fundamental question: How should this website make an impact to the brand? And by answering this question, I find myself looking into different aspects of a good website: speed, security, content relevance, UX and UI, and even SEO.
And to ensure that your website is marked good in these aspects, your content management system should work for your advantage by making sure that it won't make your website heavier. Also, your website’s backend or logic layer should be protected from unwanted access. Next, your CMS must make it easy for your publisher or editor to update your website’s content even without the need for programming skills. And lastly, you should be able to implement basic to advanced level technical SEO for your website.
Before I proceed, let us establish a few facts:
- Websites need to have content management systems. No doubt, content is king. Your audience needs to consume original and relevant information. No way to do it faster than to have an intuitive CMS that makes it easy for content managers to publish new content even without having programming skills.
- Out of all the websites that use known content management systems, 59.9% use WordPress.
- Page speed has become a ranking factor in mobile search. Websites that “deliver the slowest experience to users” will be impacted by this new algorithm. And just like the winter in The Game of Thrones, The “speed update” is here.
So now, we go back to the original question: How do you decide which CMS to use? (Note: l will use WordPress to represent all of the out-of-the-box content management systems because of fact #2 above).
Over the years of creating websites of different scale, we’ve used our 6-point criteria for choosing one over the other.
Ease of use
Content creation, especially ones that are relevant, is a significant work by itself. The CMS should not make it harder for content publishers to update the website’s content regularly.
WordPress is renowned for its simplicity. You don’t have to be a programmer to be able to put up new pages or articles for your website. Sure, you need to have a certain level of WordPress know-how, but after a few hours of using it, you’ll know your way around the CMS. Yes, it’s that intuitive.
A custom-built CMS, on the other hand, can be tailored for publishers to see only the options or input fields that they need to update. Unlike WordPress’ admin pages which have tons of options, fields, categorization options, tags, etc., a well-designed and developed custom CMS can make it simpler for the publishing staff to use.
Flexibility and customization
WordPress offers a wide range of pre-built themes in the market. However, for those who are more design savvy, WordPress allows the building of themes from scratch. This would entail programming work as you need to have HTML, CSS, JS, PHP, and MySQL skills to be able to develop your custom theme. I’ve discussed some tips on theme customization in one of my previous articles.
Couple this custom theme development in WordPress with tons of available plugins in the market that provide sufficient functionalities to suit your particular requirements, and you will be able to extend the generic look of a WordPress blog to a full-blown website.
However, if you’re going to hire a developer and a designer to create a custom theme in WordPress, you might want to consider building a more flexible solution — a CMS built specifically to address your requirements. Because you might find spending more time and money creating a custom theme in WordPress due to the limitations in the functionalities offered by the available plugins and its predefined library of codes.
Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to implement a custom search functionality. Your intention is when a user searches for a specific keyword, your website will produce results in the following manner:
- The website should be able to find the search keyword in either the title, page category, page tag, content, and custom fields you’ve built using WordPress’ add_meta_box function.
- Your website should be able to put together a list of pages, posts or products, which contain the search keyword in any of the fields mentioned above.
- Your website should be able to list the results according to relevance.
Normally, if you speak WordPress lingo, you would go for a query with a combination of ‘s’, taxonomy query and meta_query parameters. However, the hard part comes in the listing of results according to relevance. And upon searching for the right solution from the mountain of plugins, none would fit your exact specifications.
This is where the value of a custom-built CMS comes in.
You design your page, post, and/or product hierarchy and database in such a way that the search requirement stated in the example is possible.
It is a fact that WordPress is an open-source software. Simply put, everyone who downloads the WordPress source code would have access to the same source code your WordPress site has, except for a custom theme that you might have.
This being the case, it is relatively easy to find loopholes and vulnerabilities in a WordPress site since technically anyone can download its code, tinker around with it, and reverse-engineer core features to be able to create attacks.
There is a published article about the different attacks that WordPress sites had in the previous years.
However, if you are considering or are already using this solution, you need not worry because there are different ways to prevent unwanted attacks to your WordPress websites such as using strong and unique passwords, updating your core WordPress and plugins to the latest version, using a combination of security plugins such as Sucuri Security, WP Security Coat, and Block Bad Queries. Another way is to use OWASP’s ZAP tool to scan for vulnerabilities in your website.
But since a custom CMS’ code is designed from scratch, and unless you’ve given access to your code’s repository to an attacker, your code (at least the business logic) is safe from unwanted prying eyes of hackers. But this does not guarantee that your website is not safe from attacks. However, you can apply customized additional security measures to address known vulnerabilities.
As previously established, WordPress is open-source and made available to work for millions of websites. Therefore, there are specific scripts in a WordPress installation that your website might not even need. However, this still gets loaded during runtime. And these extra scripts loaded to your website increases your time to first byte, and your overall website load time.
Aside from Google’s speed update in July, it's known that slow load times cost companies billions of dollars in revenue every year.
Since a custom CMS is flexible enough to be able to load only specific scripts on pages that need them, you’ll have more chance to optimize your website’s speed when using a custom CMS.
A few essential points to consider regarding SEO when choosing which CMS solution to use are the following:
- Image library features - you should be able to add and edit image details such as image name, title, caption, and alt text, and resize your image file sizes in your CMS. WordPress does good in this aspect since its media library allows CMS users to add and edit the image details mentioned above. In a custom CMS, of course, this is also possible if you build it to do so.
- URLs’ structure - your CMS should be able to produce SEO-friendly URLs such as https://www.example.com/a-great-book and not https://www.example.com/?page=1&category=2. In WordPress, this can quickly be set up in the permalinks settings page. For a custom CMS, again it is possible if you design it that way.
- Set up canonical URLs - there might be cases that your page is accessible via different URLs. Say for example, https://www.example.com/a-great-book can also be accessed via https://www.example.com/books/a-great-book. To address this correctly, you should use canonical URL. WordPress has an option in its Edit Pages to input the canonical URL which automatically adds the rel=”canonical” tag in the page’s source code.
- Breadcrumbs - having an option to set up breadcrumbs in your site improves navigation experience and internal linking. WordPress can do this via plugins such as Yoast. For a custom CMS, this can be built from scratch.
- Content hierarchy such as categorization - basically your CMS should allow you to create categories and subcategories, and put pages under these categories. WordPress does an excellent job in this aspect, but then again you can design your custom CMS to do this as well.
- Titles, meta tags, keyword tags and H-tags - Last but not the least, the basics. Your CMS should have the option to customize page titles, meta descriptions, and content tag hierarchy such as H-tags, p-tags, list tags, etc. WordPress’ WYSIWYG editors and SEO fields in its Edit Pages enables you to do this, but can also be done in custom CMS if built correctly to support the necessary SEO tags.
The last criteria (probably the most important)
The last and a significant criterion for choosing the right CMS solution for you is your client’s or significant stakeholders’ inputs.
Your client or the management of the company you’re working for has a lot of non-technical considerations such as the size of the business and expected users, cost, and timeline for implementation. These factors play a significant role in the company’s decision which option to choose.
A custom CMS is an excellent choice if budget and time permits. It is a sustainable choice if you have an in-house developer or a web development company as your long-term partner who will build and maintain your website.
But for most of the businesses who fall into the SME category, WordPress is an excellent solution. Building a custom theme for a WordPress website is relatively more affordable and takes less development time than creating a custom CMS and website from scratch. And as I mentioned in this article, there are enough customization options for simple to intermediate use.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on my article so feel free to send us an email.