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One of the best ways to understand how a CMS works is to explore the basic capabilities that most of these systems share, and how they fit into typical workflows. This will give you a good idea of how using a CMS might fit into your projects or within your organization. First, let's start with an overview of a typical CMS workflow. Content creators, editors, and publishers access the CMS through a client, which is usually browser based. Content is entered into the CMS, edited, approved, and published based on organizational workflow.
This could range from a full team with various roles to a single individual. The content is in store within a relational database, and categories and metadata are used to help the CMS understand the content's relevance. Once it's approved, the content is then added to the site based on its category or the role that's been assigned to it. To assemble pages, the CMS uses templates, published content, and any modules such as calendars, polls, and forms that have been associated with specific pages.
Site navigation is typically built dynamically as pages are added based on content. That's the basic process of most CMSs. Let's take a closer look at some of the more common CMS capabilities and how they might differ from one CMS to another. Delegation is the ability to create multiple user groups and assign privileges based on group types. Controls vary from allowing you to set up complex group permissions containing authors, editors, administrators, and publishers, to only allowing one or two privilege levels.
Almost all CMSs allow you to limit privileges to some degree, so it's important to find one that has a group structure that fits your organization. Some CMSs also allow you to control the approval process through managed workflows that define the process of authoring, reviewing, and publishing content. Content editing is typically handled through forms, or a WYSIWYG, or What You See Is What You Get, editor. Most WYSIWYG editors resemble word processors and allow you to format text in a similar fashion.
Some CMSs allow in-line editing which allows users to edit the content directly on the page itself. And this option is particularly useful for non-technical users needing to make quick changes. How the CMS structures the content is a vital part of its functionality. Most systems will have an initial structure of sections and categories. In publishing terms, you can think of sections as pages and categories as identifying tags that explain the content's relevance. Many CMSs allow you to create section in category hierarchies allow you to extend the basic content structure into a more complex model.
Others limit you to a flat structure or limit the amount of categories you can use per unit of content. Although they often have different names based on the CMS you choose, templates serve the same purpose from system to system, no matter what they're called. And typically, these are basic HTML structures that serve as placeholders for your content and come with associated CSS files that control the presentation. The degree of template customization allowed varies widely from CMS to CMS. And some have fully exposed HTML and CSS that you can customize or even allow you to use your own pages.
Others have tightly controlled templates that are difficult to customize to one degree or another. A very common approach to creating pages is to assemble discrete page regions into a finished page rather than using a full-page template. This flexible approach makes it easy to build pages by swapping out regions such as headers, footers, and sidebars as needed, but can make customization more difficult as it can be hard to visualize how these elements work together in the final page. Another common capability for CMSs is the ability to add modules to your pages.
Here the terms vary widely, but whether the CMS is talking about plug-ins, extensions, or modules, they're usually referring to self-contained applications that extend the functionality of your site. These could be event calendars, polls and quizzes, forms, or ties into external services such as Google Maps. The power, abilities, and functionality of these modules vary widely from one CMS to another and often rely on the strength of the developer community in an open-source system. Finally, most CMSs feature some type of menu generation control.
Usually, they allow you to structure sections or pages in a way similar to building a site map. This structure will be used to generate menus that are placed on the page based on your settings or the temple structure. Now whether or not the menu's presentation and functionality can be customized varies largely based on the CMS itself. Some will allow you to build your own menus and will then update them automatically for you, while others restrict you to the system's default generated menus. Well, that's a brief look into some of the core features of most content management systems.
We'll take a closer look at some of those capabilities a little bit later on, as well as discuss the impact of these features might have in choosing a CMS for yourself.
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