Code is the foundation of every website that you browse—this one included. In fact, this page you’re looking at is your server’s projection of the code we’ve provided for it. Think of the code as a detailed recipe, while the page you’re seeing is the finished meal, served up ready for you on a platter.
So, when it comes to creating and managing your own web content, we wouldn’t blame you for thinking it might be a difficult task if you can’t write code. But that’s not necessarily the case.
In fact, many solutions are designed specifically to make managing web content a simple and efficient task, even for those of us who are not so technically minded. One of these solutions is a web content management system (CMS).
A web CMS is a platform designed to enable users to create, edit, and manage website content without the need to know or use code. Perhaps Rome wasn’t built in a day, but, using a CMS, you can publish a webpage in one. But what exactly is a CMS, and how does it work?
We’ve put together the ultimate guide to clue you in on some of the key things you need to know if you’re thinking of investing in a CMS for your organization.
Throughout this guide, we’ll cover the benefits of using a CMS for your business, the key features you should look for in a CMS, the differences between the three types of CMS (coupled, decoupled, and headless) and, lastly, a few recommendations on how to choose the right CMS for your organization.
Let’s jump into it.
What Is A Web Content Management System?
A web CMS is a type of software that enables you to easily create and manage digital content on a user-friendly interface, without needing any prior technical knowledge.
Traditionally, the CMS handles the basic infrastructure for your web pages—that is, the coding and other technical elements—while all you need to do is determine what content you want to go where. It really is that simple.
Of course, there are other types of CMSs that work a little differently from the traditional type. And the two main alternatives are known as “decoupled” and “headless” CMSs. These require more technical input and might lack the capability to design your frontend—but don’t worry. All that means is that you’ll need a little more support from your developers on the frontend—creating content is still a relatively straightforward task for the non-technical user.
CMSs are designed to suit a wide range of use cases—they aren’t limited to a particular sector or type of website. So, whether you’re a small business opening your first online store, a mid-sized restaurant promoting your new menu, or a large bank running a blog about the latest finance trends, you can leverage a CMS to help you publish and manage content.
Why Use A Content Management System?
So, CMSs seem pretty great––but what’s in it for you? Before we explore some of the key types of CMS and features that come with them, let’s talk about why you should even be interested in the first place.
More than 67 million websites are estimated to use a CMS—a number that’s only growing. And WordPress—the most popular web CMS—dominates the market share at 65.2%, with almost half of all websites using its infrastructure.
So why are so many websites leveraging CMSs to manage their web content?
Well, there are a plethora of benefits that you can reap by using CMS software. These include:
- No technical knowledge needed: Non-developers and non-technically minded users can easily and efficiently manage web content from an intuitive dashboard, reducing your reliance on frontend developers
- Easy collaboration: Since all content is housed on one platform, multiple users can edit and manage your website with consistency
- Anytime, anywhere access: This is great if you’ve got team members dotted around in different locations that all need to update and manage web content
- SEO-friendly features: Most CMSs come with built-in search engine optimization (SEO) features that can help your content rank in searches
- Content scheduling capabilities: You can schedule content to automatically publish at specified dates and times—coinciding with your content plan
- Community and developer support: Because CMSs are so widely used, you can find support and resources on online forums or from chats with developers
- Easy integrations: Most CMSs enable easy integrations with other applications you might be using—such as customer relationship management (CRM) systems
- Cost savings: You can cut development and hosting costs by managing website updates from one central platform
So, if you’re looking for an easier and smoother way to manage your web content, then chances are a CMS is the solution you’re looking for.
Key Features To Look For In A Content Management System
Before we get into some of the key features, there’s one thing we need to quickly explain. There are three types of CMS—coupled, decoupled, and headless—and each works in a slightly different way.
We’ll explain how each different type works in more detail later, but, for now, all you need to know is that, while coupled and decoupled CMSs include both frontend and backend functionality, a headless CMS includes only the backend.
This means that some features might only apply to the first two types of CMS—but don’t worry, we’ve clearly highlighted any instances where that happens.
1. User Dashboard
A staple of any content management platform is an easy-to-use user dashboard. This lives on the backend of your website, which means it can’t be seen or accessed by external users and requires you to log in to access it.
It’s from here that you can monitor and manage all content across your site, as well as see recent activity and interactions, view key metrics and analytics, and quickly create drafts for new webpages and blog articles. Here’s where you can also track any scheduled posts and any comments on your live posts.
Depending on the specific CMS you decide to invest in, you also might be able to create a custom dashboard for your site, which includes your company logo and any plugins or extensions you might want to add.
2. Content Editor
Without using a CMS, creating webpage content involves starting with a static HTML page, writing out your code, and then uploading this to your server. But with a CMS, you can just type text straight into your content editor—no coding or technical knowledge needed.
The content editor—or text editor, as you might see it referred to as—is your one-stop shop for how you create and edit your content. Think of it in a similar way to how you create and edit Word documents on your computer—you can create new drafts, edit existing text, and organize pages, as well as paste in pre-written text or write out your draft in the editor itself.
But here’s where it might get a little complicated. The way that you edit and manage content will depend on the type of CMS that you have. So, if you’re using a traditional CMS, you’ll likely be able to make your edits using what’s called a WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) editor. What this means is that, while you’re editing your content, you can see live previews of how it’ll look on your webpage once it’s published.
Using a WYSIWYG editor, you can edit the frontend presentation simultaneously alongside your content. Many CMSs provide drag-and-drop structuring, which means that you can add content in segmented blocks which you can later move around and rearrange. You can also add in images and other types of media, and determine where on the page these will appear.
This type of editor will also enable you to change your text’s font, color, and size, as well as add pull quotes, call to action (CTA) buttons, and more.
But—as we mentioned above—headless CMSs lack frontend functionality. So, while you’ll still use a content editor to create and manage content, you lose the ability to use WYSIWYG editors—as well as to see live previews of how your content will look on the frontend. This can make things pretty difficult for non-technical users if they want to edit page presentation and layout, and can result in further formatting issues down the line.
3. Themes And Templates
Here’s another feature that heavily depends on which type of CMS you invest in.
Of course, you can start with a blank page and add in content like building blocks until you reach your end product—but you don’t have to. Traditional CMSs and some decoupled CMSs come with pre-designed and customizable built-in templates and themes that you can leverage to build pages more quickly and consistently.
These apply to the frontend presentation that your users will see, and they’re what you can edit in your WYSIWYG editors. So, these are a feature that do not apply to headless CMSs.
Using themes and templates can help you ensure consistency across all pages—especially if your site has multiple content authors. Templates enable you to eliminate inconsistencies in spacing, font, page layouts, and more, ensuring that each page has the same look and feel, even when created by different users.
Another benefit is that, should you ever want to redesign your site, it can be as simple as just selecting a different theme. All pages using that theme will automatically update to the new design, saving you hours, or likely days, that you would’ve spent making the appropriate changes manually.
4. SEO Tools
For your content to rank well in search engine results, it needs to be optimized and structured in an SEO-friendly way. CMSs and SEO go hand in hand—and that reflects in the way that most CMSs come with built-in SEO tools and features.
While CMSs vary, the most basic features that should come built-in include:
- Fast page loading times
- SEO-friendly URLs
- Site maps
- Breadcrumb navigation
- Customizable meta tags
- 301 redirects
To add additional SEO-friendly features to a traditional CMS, you can leverage plugins and extensions.
But a headless CMS works a little differently; it typically doesn’t come with SEO tools built-in, which means that your developers will have to build these tools into your systems before you upload and publish your content. This is one of the reasons that, if you want to go with a headless CMS, you’ll need a few developers on your side.
No CMS platform can arrive out-of-the-box with absolutely every feature that your organization might ever need already installed. That would not only be impractical, but also expensive and difficult to manage.
Luckily, you don’t have to worry if the CMS platform you invest in is missing a certain functionality that you need for your website. Almost every CMS will come with a library of third-party plugins and extensions—both paid and free—that you can easily install as part of your platform.
For example, WordPress offers more than 59,000 plugins, ranging from simple tools to more complex add-ins. Using plugins, you can mix and match and customize your website to your heart’s content—adding in features like SEO analytics, contact forms, e-commerce tools, and search bars.
Just like with any other business application—and personal application too, for that matter—security should be at the forefront of your interactions with your CMS. You use a CMS to create, edit, and delete content—so you really don’t want your login details to fall into the wrong hands, or you might be in for some nasty surprises.
Most CMSs enable you to turn on multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all login attempts, which means that, after you’ve entered your password, you’ll be prompted for further evidence that you are who you say you are. This could be a one-time password sent to your email, or a fingerprint or facial scan using your device’s built-in biometric technology.
But as well as login security, you want to protect your site against all types of external threats. A robust CMS will automatically update and patch any vulnerabilities, as well as protect against Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and more.
7. Role-Based Access
What’s that saying? “Too many cooks spoil the broth”? That’s what springs to mind when we think of large teams of users simultaneously accessing and modifying every area of your website. And yes, it’s great that a CMS will facilitate collaboration between users—but that doesn’t mean that every single user needs the same permissions and levels of access across the site.
This is why role-based access is particularly useful—not only for large teams, but teams of all sizes. This lets you assign different levels of permissions to users depending on their roles. For example, you can limit which pages certain users can or can’t edit, or even block them from being able to adjust the more technical controls that come under your developers’ expertise.
This means that, not only can you limit the number of potential mistakes, but if a bad actor did manage to hack into a user’s account—even despite MFA and any other measures you might implement—only assigning users the permissions that they actually need would limit the damage inflicted if a breach were to occur.
What Type Of Content Management System Do You Need?
As we briefly mentioned earlier, there are three main types of CMS:
To explain the key differences between these, we’re going to have to get a little more technical.
Imagine your webpage is a theatre stage. What we call the “frontend” of the page is frontstage—this is what the audience sees. It’s where your actors perform their lines, sing their duets, and engage with the props and sets. So, the frontend is your visible website that the users will see and interact with—it’s the layout, design, content, CTA buttons, and more.
The “backend” of your webpage is backstage—it’s what your audience doesn’t see. It’s where your actors change outfits and wait in the wings, where your sound engineers and lighting experts work their magic, and where your directors might control the show. So, for a basic website, your backend is typically where you store and arrange content, and it’s also where you’ll find your servers, databases, APIs, and operating systems.
The purpose of the backend is to ensure that the frontend works as efficiently and smoothly as possible—just like how everything going on backstage during the play is to support what’s going on frontstage.
So, how does this relate to how a CMS works? Well, it depends on the type of CMS you decide to invest in.
The Three Types Of Content Management System
Traditionally, CMSs have worked by coupling frontend and backend functions together within the same system. This is what’s referred to as a “coupled” CMS, and it means that users can both manage presentation on the frontend, as well as content and layout on the backend.
This worked well back when CMSs only had one platform on which to present content: web browsers. But with today’s advances in technology and the ever-changing need for software to evolve alongside it, traditional CMS infrastructure doesn’t quite cut it when faced with omnichannel and multi-device demands.
A coupled CMS—because its presentation layer is designed to deliver content on web browsers only—will struggle to convert content so that it’s suitable for mobile apps, tablets, digital assistants, smartwatches, and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Hence, decoupled and headless CMSs were born.
Decoupled simply means that frontend and backend functions exist on separate systems but are linked via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). While headless, on the other hand, is technically a subset of decoupled but lacks frontend functionality. What that means is, it focuses on content alone, so that content has the flexibility to easily appear across multiple channels as and when needed, but it doesn’t include the ability to display content on the frontend.
That can be a lot to take in—but stick with us. Each type of CMS has its advantages and disadvantages—and if you’re trying to decide which is best suited for your organization, then you need to be clued in on what those are.
We’ll break down for you the key features of each type of CMS, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of using them. Let’s start with what’s known as the “traditional” type: the coupled CMS.
A coupled—or, “traditional”—CMS, as we’ve covered, combines the frontend and backend of your website into one system and one application layer. This means that users creating and editing content on the backend are also editing the presentation of the webpage itself on the frontend.
In more technical terms, a traditional CMS infrastructure includes two application layers:
- The content management application (CMA): This is an easy-to-use interface where you can log in and create, edit, manage, and publish content. This is the part of the software that you—the content creator—will interact with, but that your audience won’t see as it’s on the backend.
- The content delivery application (CDA): This is what transforms what you input into the CMA into content that’s visible on the frontend.
Platforms such as WordPress, Wix, and Squarespace are all examples of traditional CMS infrastructure.
Key features: A coupled CMS is generally made up of a content database, a backend where content can be created, an application where you can apply design templates and schemas, and a frontend that displays content on HTML web pages.
Advantages: The key advantage of using a coupled CMS is that users creating and managing content can easily publish webpages on the frontend—as both functions are tied together.
This type of CMS also enables easy collaboration between content managers and developers, as both are using the same system and share the same workspace.
Coupled CMSs also usually mean quick, easy, and hassle-free deployment.
Disadvantages: As we discussed earlier, the key disadvantage of using a coupled CMS lies in its lack of flexibility—that is, the presentation layer is designed specifically for web browsers, making omnichannel and multi-device delivery a chore.
Coupled CMSs are also less scalable, more limited on the programming side, and more difficult to integrate with third parties.
Best suited for: Coupled CMSs are ideal for smaller, more basic websites. They’re also well suited for smaller teams that lack technical support and can make use of built-in templates and designs.
So, if a coupled CMS is a platform that combines frontend and backend functions onto one system, a decoupled CMS—as its name suggests—separates the two into two separate systems. That means you can manage the frontend and backend independently, but any edits you make on the backend need to communicate with the frontend via APIs to deliver the content.
Additionally, for a CMS to truly be classed as decoupled, it needs to be content-first, rather than webpage-first. This means it should prioritize the content in the backend over the presentation in the frontend, and is structured by content-first principles.
Key features: Just like a coupled CMS does, a decoupled CMS generally includes both a content database and a backend where content can be created. But, unlike its predecessor, a decoupled CMS connects to a predetermined frontend via API, and can publish to an array of platforms and devices.
Advantages: Decoupled CMSs are the perfect middle ground between coupled and headless—you get the best of both worlds.
Because you’ve still got frontend functionality, you can choose to use the CMS more traditionally. But, because the frontend and backend are decoupled, you can alternatively use it as more of a content-only CMS, in the same way as you would a headless. The decision is entirely yours as to which way you use it. That’s why you might also see decoupled CMSs referred to as “hybrid”.
Another key advantage is that decoupled CMSs are frontend agnostic—which means that, while they do come with a built-in frontend that you can use for your website, you can also leverage omnichannel delivery if required and distribute your content across all channels and platforms, instead of being restricted to web browsers.
Some other benefits include faster delivery of content, scalability, and easy third-party integrations. Decoupled also CMSs allow more flexibility on the backend for developers and technical teams, while keeping that user-friendly functionality that enables you to easily create and manage content.
Disadvantages: Decoupled CMSs generally are more complicated to use than coupled, as well as more challenging to configure and deploy because of the requirement to use APIs.
Best suited for: Decoupled CMSs best suit websites that want to leverage the flexibility of a decoupled architecture, but that still might need frontend functionality and support. It’s also a good option for websites that need a scalable, reliable, and high-performance tool.
In CMS terminology, you might see the frontend referred to as the “head”, while the backend is the “body”. For an easy way to remember that, think back to our theatre analogy and imagine the “head” as the smiling faces your audience sees performing on stage, while the “body” is everything going on backstage. So, for a CMS to be labeled “headless”, picture your theatre with no frontstage.
But wait—how do you put on a show without a stage? Well, headless architecture is designed so that you can run your show on any stage you want—so long as you’ve connected to it via API. This might sound confusing, but let us explain.
Headless CMSs are content-only platforms, and don’t come with the built-in ability to display content on the frontend. Instead, the content you create and manage sits in the backend as raw data that isn’t tied to any particular structure or format, waiting to be retrieved by API for whichever “head” that’s requested it—whether a browser, app, or device. This is why you might also see headless CMSs referred to as “API-first”.
Key features: A headless CMS is made up of a content database, a backend where you can create and manage content, and an API that connects raw data to all types of devices and channels.
Advantages: The key advantage of using a headless architecture is that it’s the most flexible type of CMS and gives you the most control over your content’s appearance.
Because it only stores raw data on the backend, this same data can be re-used across a multitude of different channels. This makes enabling an omnichannel and multi-device presence a breeze, and means that your content can reach users regardless of how they choose to access it.
Other benefits of using a headless CMS are that your content is consistent, responsive, accessible, interactive, and fast, providing a better experience for your audience. It also offers the highest degree of flexibility for your developers.
Disadvantages: One of the key disadvantages of using a headless CMS is that you’ll need to combine it with additional technologies to serve as the frontend, or “head” for your content.
A disadvantage for those handling the content side of things is that they lose the ability to preview how the content will look on the frontend while they’re editing or creating it. And for developers, a headless architecture means that they face an array of issues for each new client and type of device—these include formatting, permissions, caching, URL handling, missing tree structures, and more.
Another significant issue is that personalizing the customer experience based on previous interactions is no longer possible, since you can’t send data between the frontend and backend in real-time. If this is a big deal for you, we’d recommend avoiding headless CMSs.
Best suited for: Headless CMSs suit organizations that are looking for a high degree of flexibility but have teams of skilled developers available to support the project. This type of architecture also best suits apps or IoT devices, rather than more complex websites.
That was a lot of information—but we’re glad you’re still with us.
If you are seriously considering investing in a CMS, before you go ahead and make your purchase, there are a few things you need to mull over.
Which Vendor Should You Choose?
Only you know your organization’s specific requirements, goals, and pain points, and it’s important that you consider these in depth before making any decisions. It’s worth making a list of all the essential features you need, so you know what to look for when you start your search for a solution.
We also recommend bringing all employees who’ll be using the software into the discussion. After all, if they’re required to use the software it only makes sense to select a solution that works best for them.
To help you narrow it down a little, we’ve put together a list of the Top Content Management Systems.
Coupled Vs Decoupled Vs Headless
We already covered this earlier in the article, but here’s a quick reminder to save you scrolling back up.
Of the three types of CMS we listed earlier, here’s which one you should choose depending on your needs:
Coupled: Choose a coupled CMS if you’re a smaller organization or are running a more basic website, and are looking for an easy-to-use, all-in-one platform that includes frontend functionality.
Decoupled: Choose a hybrid CMS if you need a system that can flex and scale with your website, and if you want to leverage a decoupled architecture but retain the option of adding on frontend functionality.
Headless: Choose a headless CMS if you’re looking for the flexibility to create content that suits apps and other IoT devices too, rather than more complex websites. We’d recommend having a developer or two on hand to support you on this one.
So, there you go. Everything you need to know about CMSs in one article.
From creating and managing content, through to publishing full webpages, CMSs can handle it all. Are you ready to take your content to its next stage?