Best Content Management System software of 2020
Ranking the best cms software
CMS software is the workhorse that’s behind any quality website. CMS stands for content management system; this kind of software provides you with an interface for creating and managing your web content—that is, your articles, blog posts, and pages on your website.
Without a content management system, you’d be stuck writing static HTML pages for all of your content, and you’d end up with a website that looks straight out of 1995. The right CMS software can not only enable making high-quality web content; it can make it downright easy to create.
Why use CMS software?
CMS software has become so ubiquitous for content management that the real question isn’t why to use CMS software, but which one to use—even the most rudimentary websites today still use CMS software under the hood to create and edit content.
You’re probably familiar with some of these: Squarespace, WordPress, and Wix, for example, are all examples of CMS software. In many cases, there is crossover between web hosting and CMS software (WordPress, for example, provides its CMS software as well as a web hosting platform for bloggers), and this can be the source of some confusion. Fundamentally, CMS software is the system that runs your website, not the physical computer that your website “lives” on, or is hosted at.
CMS software makes creating great web content easy, and this is the primary reason to use it. Understanding the workings of your CMS software is essential for being able to leverage all of its great features.
CMS software makes it easy to add images, add links to other pages on your website, and lay out your content in a manner that’s easy to read. All of these things are a major help when it comes to getting your website ranked higher in search engines, and in improving the experience of the actual users on your website.
You already know that a poor-quality website is often interpreted as a red flag for a low-quality business, and CMS software can help you avoid this pitfall.
Any good CMS software will also support add-ons to suit your company’s specific needs. For example, if you are hosting video content, CMS software will have native support or easily available plug-ins to link your video content to your YouTube channel.
Similar plug-ins support embedding tweets and Instagram posts. You can also use CMS software as an interface for tools that help you improve the quality of your website by evaluating your content for its search engine optimization (SEO) and readability.
Companies that do e-commerce also need good CMS software that supports online sales: the level and quality of e-commerce support is one of the factors that distinguishes the best CMS software packages.
Opting for a paid CMS software is often worth it for the customer and technical support. While many of the most popular content management system tools are open-source and freely available (like WordPress and Drupal), these can be imposing tools to use if you have no training.
Moreover, if something breaks, you’re the one on the line to fix it. If you get paid CMS software (or web hosting with paid support specific to your CMS software), you have somewhere to go when things go wrong. If an update crashes your website, or if you can’t get your email newsletter sign-up form to work, you can save yourself a tremendous amount of headaches by asking for technical support versus trying to go it alone and find the solution yourself.
CMS software makes it easy to reuse content like logos and customized web content. Much like digital asset management software helps you store and find your company’s internal media content, CMS software often provides media libraries for you to store photos, logos, and other media that you will use on multiple different pages on your website.
CMS software also supports reusable content, like a custom form, an interactive widget, or a chart display, that you can copy and reuse whenever necessary on your website.
CMS software isn’t just limited to building websites on the internet. Many companies use CMS software to create “intranet” sites for their internal documentation, knowledge base, and other useful information that needs to be accessed by many different employees.
Likewise, CMS software is also popular for making technical documentation, and several specialized CMS software packages exist specifically for these kinds of technical needs.
Who uses CMS software?
If your web presence is about content, in any form, you want to use CMS software. “Content” is a broad category, but can include basic information (like your company’s location, hours, and services), articles and blog posts, audio and podcasts, video, images, and more.
Clearly, if this is the case for your company, the primary users of your CMS software are going to be the content creators—that would be your writers, your podcasting audio editors, your video editors, your marketing team, and so on, depending on the specifics of your company.
If your company is big enough to have a web development or IT team, they’ll be using your CMS software as well, but the work they do will mostly be behind the scenes. Good CMS software offers a high degree of customizability.
For example, if you change your company logo and color scheme, and need to change all of the content you’ve previously published, you don’t have to manually edit every web page on your site. A few tweaks to the themes on the back end of your CMS software can make all of these changes automatically.
This involves some digging under the hood and changing some of the computer code, which is why this is often left to your web dev team or external contractors who are specialists in customizing websites for a particular CMS system.
The most obvious use of CMS software is to create and manage public-facing websites, and this is indeed their most popular application. However, CMS software can also be used for hosting internal content for your company, like your marketing and sales knowledge base, or resources for new employees. Many medium and large companies have their own internal information that’s created and maintained on a content management system—even if your public-facing website is a custom-built software platform, using CMS software for your internal knowledge base can make it a lot easier to get this information up and available, without having to invest much effort in building a platform to host it.
When thinking about who uses your CMS software, you’ll have to drill right down to the level of individual users. Most CMS software packages allow you to create accounts for many different users who may be adding, editing, or curating content on your website.
Because this content could come from a variety of different places (sales, marketing, social media, etc.), you’ll likely need to get a lot of people trained in on your CMS software and a lot of user accounts made. You’ll also need to set permissions for each user—for example, you probably only want your web development team to have the ability to edit the back-end code that sets the style and layout of your website.
Many good CMS software tools are open source, meaning the software is completely free to use. Several big-time CMS software systems, like WordPress and Drupal, are totally open source: the code is freely available for download, and you can start using it anywhere for any kind of website.
Open source CMS software is fantastic because it can save you a lot of money, and because they are open source, they offer huge possibilities for customization.
The downside is that open source CMS software may be more prone to security vulnerabilities, and you definitely won’t get the same level of customer support as you would with a paid CMS system (however, many CMS software packages offer paid services to support your website).
You may have to choose between ease of use and customizability when selecting CMS software. When choosing a content management system, it’s easy to get drawn in by examples of flashy, heavily customized websites that push the CMS software to its limits.
However, these kinds of sites tend to rely on a lot of knowledge about how that particular CMS software works, and this kind of heavy customization can make the learning curve a lot steeper. The whole point of CMS software is to let you not worry about the technical side of your website, and instead focus on creating the content itself—you don’t want your company’s bloggers having to poke around in the raw HTML code every time they want to post an update.
Sometimes, with either the CMS software itself or the plug-ins and add-ons for your content management system, you’ll need to choose between ease of use and customizability. Unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s usually better to opt for CMS software with a shallower learning curve: that will get your web content up and running quicker, with fewer headaches to boot.
The most popular CMS software will have more resources available for customization and problem-solving. With business software, bigger platforms aren’t always better, but in the CMS software arena, the most widely-used CMS platforms have a distinct advantage when it comes to fixing problems and providing customization.
Since they have so many users, chances are somebody has already had the problem you’re having, and someone else has already come up with a solution. As such, fixing issues or adding new features to a website made with WordPress or Drupal is a lot easier than doing the same thing on a less-popular CMS software, just by virtue of the number of users who have ever created content on that platform.
For example, let’s say your company makes educational content and you need a way to display equations on your web pages. If you have a smaller CMS software package that wasn’t designed with this use case in mind, you might have to put together your own customized solution.
However, if you use WordPress or Drupal, there are extensions that you can easily use to add equations to your content. Likewise, if an update or a plug-in crashes your website, it’s usually easier to find a solution when you are using a popular platform (though keep in mind the drawbacks of free CMS software, namely the lack of customer support).
Many CMS software tools also offer web hosting, but you should check to see if your needs would be better suited with a dedicated web host separate from your content management system. Much of the confusion about what CMS software actually does can be traced to the fact that many companies that make CMS software also offer web hosting.
Remember, your content management system is just the set of tools that manages the content on your website—to actually put that website on the internet, you need to host it on a physical server, and point users to that server with a domain name.
These can be three completely separate services—you can buy your domain name (e.g. yourcompanyname.com) from one provider, host your website with a different provider, and install any content management system you like.
For simplicity, many companies often choose the same provider for their web hosting and their content management system. However, if you want maximum flexibility in your website functionality, you may want to choose your web host separate from your CMS software.
Some makers of proprietary CMS software who also host your website can make it difficult for you to move elsewhere for web hosting without also dropping the CMS software.
You may need to pay extra for plug-ins to support podcasting, e-commerce, and other functionality, even if you use open source CMS software. Many businesses will get to a point where they want to put content on their website beyond what’s supported by their CMS software, whether that’s hosting podcast content, providing an online e-commerce store, or adding interactive widgets.
Even if you go with a free and open source content management system, you may need to pay for additional plug-ins to gain the ability to provide your website users with this more advanced content.
This is part of what keeps open source software ecosystems afloat—the large number of paid plug-ins, themes, services, and developers who create new software content, which in turn enables you to create new web content. With a paid CMS software package, you might get more functionality up front but may find yourself needing to upgrade your plan to get additional features as you need them later.
Q: What is a content management system?
A: A content management system, or CMS, is a unified platform that is designed to make it easy for non-programmers to create high-quality websites.
Behind the scenes, CMS software is comprised of a content management application and a content delivery application. The management application is what you use to create, edit, and update your web content, while the content delivery application is what actually serves this content to visitors to your website. CMS software gets installed onto the servers that host your actual website.
When web developers talk about “migrating” to a new CMS software package or migrating to a new server/web host, this is what they’re talking about. As a content creator, the CMS software is the interface or dashboard that you use to interact with your website. It allows you to draft posts, edit content, schedule postings, review comments, check your analytics, and more.
Q: Is CMS software the same thing as web hosting?
A: No, this is a common misconception: CMS software is not web hosting! CMS software is what you make your website with—web hosting is where you put it. Your web host owns a physical computer somewhere (actually, many physical computers) where your web content “lives.”
Signing up for a web host doesn’t give you CMS software, just like buying a plot of land doesn’t automatically give you a house. This misconception stems in part from the fact that many companies do indeed offer both CMS software and web hosting. Most confusingly, some offer them separately! WordPress, for example, offers web hosting through WordPress.com, but that is distinct from its free and open-source CMS software, available at WordPress.org.
If that wasn’t enough confusion, you’ll also need a domain name—that’s your website’s address. Unlike buying a house, you can buy the address for your website separately from your web host.
Q: How is CMS software different from a blogging platform?
A: Many popular CMS software packages are blogging platforms—WordPress, for example, became popular initially among bloggers. Blogging platforms always involve some type of content management system, but usually combine it with free or low-cost web hosting.
WordPress.com, Tumblr, and formerly Google’s Blogger are or were popular blogging platforms, each with their own CMS software. However, CMS software offers a lot more beyond simple blog websites. You can host it on your own website, and extend its capabilities with plug-ins and add-ons for e-commerce, enterprise websites, and more.
Q: What CMS software should a nonprofit use?
A: Because they’re typically operating on a much more limited budget than a for-profit corporation, nonprofits have a strong incentive to use one of the freely available open source CMS software tools like WordPress or Drupal.
Choosing a popular CMS software is a good move, because it will be easier to sort out technical issues. Nonprofits often have to solve their own problems, because they don’t have room in the budget for technical consulting services.
Q: What CMS tools are good for small businesses?
A: Like nonprofits, zero-cost options like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal are quite attractive for small businesses.
However, one thing a small business may want to keep an eye on is scalability. If your business plans on expanding someday, you will want a CMS software package as well as a web host that can easily expand with you.
Look for features like website analytics, email newsletter functionality, and other add-ons that might help you accelerate this expansion process.
Q: How can you tell what content management system a website uses?
A: Many web services like WhatCMS, CMSDetector, and others can identify websites made with several of the most popular content management systems. What’s harder to tell is what level of customization they’ve done—there are plenty of flashy, unique websites built on common CMS software systems, but you’d never suspect it because the code and layout have been so heavily customized.
In terms of competition, it’s not so important what the back-end software is on a website; rather, the most important thing is the content that users see. With any good CMS software, you can make professional, aesthetically pleasing, and clean websites as long as you have good content.
Q: Can you build your own CMS software?
A: Many large companies do just that: with an army of web developers, self-made CMS software is nothing insurmountable. In fact, before the advent of CMS software, this is what almost every big company did: build your own CMS, or hire someone to do it for you.
Today, though, unless your company has deep pockets or needs many features that are impossible to handle without custom software, it’s often a lot less trouble to use readily-available CMS software, customized as needed with add-ons or snippets of custom code.
The ability to insert custom code blocks into CMS software packages is a game-changer, because if you only need to customize a handful of things, you can easily do it without totally overhauling your website.
Q: What are the most popular CMS software packages?
A: It’s impossible to talk about CMS without mentioning WordPress—by some estimates, one in three websites on the internet run WordPress as their CMS.
Other notable CMS software include SquareSpace, Drupal, Joomla, Magneto, and WooCommerce, with those last two being notable for their e-commerce specialization.
All of these, and other popular CMS software packages, make it easy to make a good website; the real key is the content, not the software running in the background.
If you want to have a beautiful, highly-visited, and engaging website, you need to choose good CMS software.
Picking the right CMS software package for your business makes it easy to create and maintain high-quality web content, whether you need a basic website for your business, lots of rich content, an e-commerce platform, or all of the above.