Earlier in the year, I wrote a column on Parish Websites and promised I would write some follow-up articles. 

As discussed in the previous column, Websites are fundamentally a collection of documents on a server running a program to use a set of defined technology protocols to make the documents available for display on a remote, but network-connected computer.  The motivation behind the original technology was to create an easier way to share academic research within the academic community and focused on text documents.  Over time, the enabling technologies have been expanded and evolved so that now, website technologies are what drive everything from online banking and online shopping to social media to remote control of your house’s air-conditioning and lighting.  Today, a “standard”, bread and butter website would use server-based software called a Content Management System (CMS) and build the site out of a collection of components that contain content and display that content in different ways.

When Tim Berners-Lee developed the Web in 1989, he envisaged a system where authoring content was very simple and could be done but virtually anyone with access to a computer and a text editor.  The content was simply typed in and formatting was applied using Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML).  The result may not look particularly flashy by today’s standards; however, was quite adequate for the original purpose of sharing academic research.  In principle, one can still produce websites in this way, but the Digital Natives who have grown up with the web will probably tell us the result is not worth the effort.  This may be ok for some purposes, but if part of the reason for a website is engaging with and being attractive to the site’s audience, then it’s probably not a good idea.  The reality is, to use modern display methods and techniques with text files is virtually impossible; and where it is possible requires the author to have a lot of technical knowledge.  Thus, Content Management Systems were born.

CMS have a broader context than just websites but for this column, we will ignore that and are really only thinking about Web CMS.  Web content includes text and embedded graphics, photos, video, audio, maps, other media and program code (e.g., for applications) that displays content or interacts with the user.  The primary advantages CMS provide for websites are;

  • Reduced need to code from scratch
  • Easy to create a unified and consistent look and feel
  • Version control
  • Edit permission management (control of who can edit / delete what content)
  • Preloaded content can be automatically published and/or taken down to a schedule

It’s not all roses though.  The key disadvantages of CMS are;

  • Limited or no ability to create functionality not envisioned in the CMS (e.g., layouts, web apps, etc.).  Basically translated, this means that imagination is always better than computers.
  • Increased need for special expertise and training for content authors.

Choosing which CMS to use (or which web service to use) can make a huge difference to how easy your website becomes to maintain a website.  Things to be considered include;

  • Features – does the system let you do the things that are important to your site.  An important feature to look for is whether there is separation between how your website looks (style) and the content that delivers your message.  Usually, you want content providers to just worry about content, and the looks get set by a template or specific
  • Flexibility – supports features like templates and add-ins that make it easy to change a whole website or add a new feature.  Having said this, too much flexibility actually adds complexity and potentially makes things harder.
  • Support – how easy is it to get technical assistance, trained and experienced contractors and things like templates and add-ins?
  • Price – yes, money matters.  However, there are a lot of free and/or cheap products available. 

Choosing a CMS

In the real world, there are hundreds of CMS to choose from.  Here is my take on a few important ones.

WordPress is the most popular web CMS in the world, usually reported as being used by about 30% of active websites worldwide.  In the past, I hated WordPress with a passion – I thought it was too hard to use and it had an abysmal user interface.  However, the releases over the last 10 or so years have made major improvements and I’m quite happy with it now.  Being popular means that there is a wealth of resources available to support WordPress use, though this wealth adds some complexity.  Try and minimise the number of add-ins you require.

Methodist.org.nz is powered by Acclipse.  There are not a lot of good things to say about Acclipse.  Another Methodist website, kiwiconnexion.nz is powered by Mahara.  Mahara extends the concept of a CMS by adding specific features relevant to education providers and is actually a class of software known as Learning Management Systems (LMS).

At the end of the day, though, it is not usually the technical bits of a website that make it good or bad.  What matters is the impact the site’s content has on the community it is intended for.  But that is a column for another issue.

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