Web design and development, an activity once reserved to the most tech-savvy of workers, is becoming easier than ever to perform without any knowledge of programming languages and coding skills. Many platforms that allow the average joe to build a website easily and quickly are available free of charge, with the number of options out there constantly increasing. These platforms and tools, of whatever kind they may be, are all categorized under the umbrella term of Content Management Systems, or CMS.
What is a CMS?
Shortly explained, a Content Management System is a web application that enables you to publish, control and maintain articles, webpages, images videos or any other type of content, and to control every aspect of your website. without the need for a software engineer or web developer. You are the boss. You are in control.
In order to understand the concept of CMS better, and why it is such a game-changer phenomena for developers, businesses, bloggers and private individuals, we first have to shortly examine some history points out of which the need for such systems arose.
The difference between a Dynamic Website and a Static Website
There is a major difference between a dynamic website and a static website.
In the previous generation of the internet, what’s known as “Web 1.0” (or simply “Web”), the webmaster construction your website was also in charge of its content and its regular maintenance. Website owners and bloggers were unable to manage their content and materials independently without the need for a developer (“programmer”). This caused quite a lot of friction and delays and proved very inefficient over time.
The lack of a website chassis
Another issue at the time was the lack of a unified “skeleton” for websites. What I mean by that, is that while the majority of websites did not require or need any special features and elements within them, and were quite similar in their building-foundations, the basic process of building a webpage always had to be started from scratch. There was no easy large-scale distributed setup-and-launch system that allowed people to quickly install a basic website, and then start building and customizing its various elements according to their needs and objectives. Everything had to be built from the ground up.
Web 2.0, and the emergence of Content Management Systems
Then came the new generation of the WWW, what we know as “Web 2.0”, a stage of the internet in which a major shift took place, from the use of static HTML pages to webpages that are dynamic and provide an interactive experience. The Web 2.0 brought about a lot of open-source scripts that were available for download and easily installed on most web-servers, without much or any need of coding skills. You could used PHP softwares such as phpBB or vBulletin to launch your own forums website and start building a community within minutes. LimeSurvey, first available in 2003, made it extremely easy for you to create and manage online-surveys, while others, such as PhpWiki, allowed you to start your own Wiki site with minimal effort.
The common feature of all of these was the provision of a foundation, on top of which you can easily customize and build whatever it is you want to build. This revolution changed the face of the internet, and allowed the web to grow and spread at a pace that none of its creators could have predicted.
It Worked in Manufacturing Industries. It Works Online.
Think of the early days of the automotive industry. Companies such as Ford had to build their cars in-house, completely from scratch, A to Z. This required a lot of extra time, effort and highly-specific know-how of all the cars components. Today, Ford is outsourcing the production and provision of nearly 80% of its cars’ parts to external manufacturers. One is providing the door hinges and arms, another the starter assemblies and sliding sunroofs, and a variety of companies are providing it with airbags.
The Ford engineers, while probably holding some knowledge in how each part works, do not need to know exactly how to build each of these components themselves – they merely need to know how to put them together and customize them to specifics of each car once they have been manufactured and delivered.
This is what Content Management Systems did, and are doing, to the world of web design and development.
What are the common features of a CMS?
Following up on the example of the Ford car manufacturing process, with a CMS you do not need a specific technical know-how in order to create a website. Major CMSs, such as WordPress or Joomla, are provided free-of-charge, and are completely open-source. Meaning, you can download, change, delete, add and use them however way you want.
Quick & Easy Installation
The process of installing such a system used to require at least a little bit of technical knowledge, such as how to upload these systems to your web server, or installing them using a MySQL database. This would take you about 5 minutes to figure out using a Google search (or by reading my article “how to install WordPress on your web server”), but for the complete non-techies, life has been made even easier.
Most web hosting services today come with a pre-installed software, such as Softaculous, that comes with hundreds or pre-built applications and scripts, among them many CMSs, and enables you to deploy any of these on your web server at a push of a button, hassle-free. Using these services, you can install almost any open-source application available online in 30 seconds, without dealing with any of the technical aspects taking place in the background.
In addition, many web hosting providers today are offering plans for “Managed WordPress Hosting”, in which the most popular CMS
, WordPress, comes pre-installed and requires no coding-skills on your side to start working.
Complete control of all your website’s elements and features
Typically, all Content Management Systems will provide you with an easy-to-use administrative panel (called “back-end”), that will allow you to tweak and control all aspects of your website – from its visual appearance and SEO settings, to the organization of menus and users management. This enables you to fully customize the basic website installation into the well-designed and unique website that you are aiming to take live.
Think of your personal devices – you do not need any programming skills in order to change the time and date on your computer, or to change the password for your laptop user. Apple is providing you with the “System Preferences” window, and Microsoft has the Windows “Control Panel”. The same concept works here. All the code is already in place, all you have to do is tweak the settings to your desire.
Infinite number of pre-coded modules
Using the Ford example once again, should Ford decide to add a new media center device to their cars, the Ford engineers would not need to acquire the knowledge of how to build such a media center – they would simply need to get in touch with a manufacturer who is building such devices, find one that suits their needs, and order a certain quantity.
Most CMSs, and especially the most popular ones such as WordPress or Joomla, work the same way – the system is not only customizable in regards to the settings and options that come with its basic installation. You can download and install hundreds of thousands of modules that have been built specifically to be integrated onto these systems.
You need a contact form on your site? News feed that draws posts from your social media accounts and present them on your homepage? Easily make your website multilingual? All of these are available and can be deployed and integrated onto your website in under 60 seconds. Pretty much any feature that you can think of that you might need, someone has created a module for it. Just google it and see – in WordPress, these modules are called “Plugins”, and in Joomla we call them “Extensions”.
Most of the plugins and extensions you will find are available free of charge, and are produced by the community of developers, literally out of kindness and desire to contribute to the community. Some of these free modules will have premium features that require purchasing of a paid-version, but for most things you are looking to achieve, you will not need to pay for anything other than your web hosting service. Sounds too good to be true. But it is. It’s true.
Of course, there are many of such plugins and extensions which are developed by for-profit companies and freelancers, and will require you purchasing them. But, considering how much you would have to pay a web engineer to build these features specifically for you, the prices for most modules are a joke – most are available for a few bucks, with the most professional ones reaching around $100. Buying these modules, however, would get you direct support for their use and installation from the company or team in charge of their development, and the module will receive regular updates to improve its features, security and usability.
An easy-to-use templating element
One of the most important aspects of your website will obviously be its design. You want a webpage that looks and feel a certain way. Same as when you develop a brand identity, and take your time in deciding on your company’s corporate colors, logos, presentation of products and delivery of visual content, you want to make sure that you are satisfied with how your web-presence looks like, and its usability for your website’s visitors.
Most CMSs come with a basic design that looks the same on all of its installations at their primary state. What they do for you, however, is allow you to easily customize almost any element of your website’s visuals. You can change colors, elements positions, fonts, sizes, menus, logos and content. You can choose to apply these changes website-wide, or for specific areas or pages.
However, the most amazing of it all is the fact that you will probably not find yourself dealing with these pin-point changes to bring your website to looking how you want it to be – similar to what I mentioned in regards to the pre-coded modules, the majority of CMSs come with an infinite number of pre-designed templates.
You have the option of using one of the many free templates available online (and in some CMSs, you can install many of these templates directly from within your admin panel), or purchase a premium template – one that was created by a team of developers and designers, or a group of freelancers, who will then provide you with installation support, customization, and regular updates to the design and its features.
Another option that is currently on the rise, is the use of pre-designed themes that come with customization superpowers. These themes, such as the one from Divi, or Elementor, enable you to build your own design using highly advanced options for customizing all aspects of your site down to the letter, even more so than what the basic CMSs installations allow you to doץ
Whichever way you choose to go, make sure that the template that you are using is properly licensed – it’s easier free and available to download from a reputable library online, or it is a premium one for which you have to pay. Many websites online will provide you with “hacked” versions of premium plugins, which you can download for free, but these versions, known as “nulled”, carry high risks for security, and will usually have malicious code implemented into their files, which can have dire consequences for your site.
The CMS Revolution – Summary
Content Management Systems are one of the most exciting developments since the introduction of the WWW, and will enable any internet-newbie to easily and quickly create useable webpages. The communities and support standing behind these applications are enormous, and while there are always some technical aspects to be considered (such as finding the right web host, choosing the most suitable CMS for your needs, and making sure your webpages are responsive and adaptable to any device), in a world where such platforms are available at the push of a button, no one should fear getting hands-on with creating websites completely alone.