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In the previous chapter, we covered the basics of content management systems and when one might be right for you. In this chapter, I want to discuss some of the things you'll need to consider when choosing which CMS is right for your needs. As I mentioned before, there are literally hundreds of CMSs on the market today. Most sure seemingly identical feature sets, and all of them seem to make the same claims that they are easy to use, extremely powerful, and that they give you total control over creating your sites. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if you've spent any time at all searching for a CMS you probably became quickly overwhelmed by the amount of choices and features out there.
So I want to help you focus your search and give you a starting point for what to look for when comparing CMSs. First, take time to properly identify the needs of your clients or your organization. I'm going to talk about this in more detail in a moment, but often people are just guilty of saying to themselves, "A CMS sure would make things easier," without really stopping to think about what they need and how a CMS would fit into their culture. Once those needs are clearly defined, it's a lot easier to start comparing systems by focusing on the features that you really need.
Next, don't get caught up in simply ticking off the check boxes. Often, people start comparing CMSs by comparing only feature sets or seeing which CMS has more boxes checked in somebody's arbitrary list. Now this is a bad idea. If you don't take time to properly evaluate a content management system in its entirety, I can promise you that you'll not be happy with your choice in the end. Use feature sets as a way to narrow down your choices; look at them as a starting point, not a decision-making point.
Another good way to narrow down your choice is to start with systems whose focus matches your needs. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, if you're university that needs systems to build online curriculums, you're probably better off starting with a CMS that focuses on e-learning. If you're trying to build a community-based site, explore systems that focus on social networks and collaboration. And of course this is not a hard and fast rule. Many CMSs have capabilities that put them in a multiple categories. Just be sure that the systems that you compare have the same focus that you do.
In addition to comparing features, take the time to compare support communities as well. If you're looking at proprietary, or licensed, systems, research the company's support tools, online forums, and documentation. Read through the forums and pay attention to response time, the type and frequency of problems the user base encounters, and whether support issues are simply left open. See if the CMS is a bug tracker and research how diligent the developers are in closing tickets and resolving issues. If a forum is empty, or people seem to be having the same problems over and over again, this can be a big warning sign.
If you're looking at an open-source CMS, spend a good bit of time looking into the community. Make sure there are lot of ways to communicate with other users and developers. Take a look at the help of the development community, the types or modules of extensions of their building, and whether there is any means to filter through those extensions for quality. If a CMS is an active and engaged community, it's going to be a lot easier to learn how to use it, find modules that are outside the core functionality, and engage a professional developer if you need custom content.
Be sure to read the forums here as well. Reading through the forums will often give you a very unvarnished look at what life is like with a particular CMS. Never ever overlook the value of the CMS community. Finally, don't rush into anything. Often, you feel pressure to make a choice and start building something, especially if you're the one making the decision for an organization or a company. Don't surrender to the temptation to pick the first CMS that seems to be right. Open-source CMSs can be downloaded installed locally or on a test server and tried out for as long as you like.
The developers of proprietary CMSs will almost always be happy to set you up with a demo site and let you try it out. If they won't, that's not always a good sign either. Now look at this way: have you ever bought a car that you didn't test drive first? There's no better way of knowing whether CMS is right for you than actually using it. So make sure you give yourself enough time to properly explore your options and become familiar with your top choices before making a decision.
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