CMS vs. Custom-Built Websites:

Content Management Systems, CMS, are database-driven software tools for creating and maintaining websites. Most (though not all, by any means) CMS-driven websites use a SQL database and are coded using PHP, along with HTML and CSS. Custom-built non-database-driven websites, on the other hand, are simply “static” pages coded in HTML, CSS, and can also use PHP and other coding methods. (Yes, there are custom-built database-driven websites, but let’s not complicate the current discussion…)

WordPress is one such CMS tool; Joomla and Drupal are two of the other most popular CMS options — and there are many more. CMS Made Simple, another popular CMS,  defines a CMS as “a web application you run on your web server to help facilitate creating a website. A good CMS should be flexible, unobtrusive and help you to make a great site. It should provide you with tools to help the layman keep track of content, while letting more experienced webmasters handle look and feel. It should also provide tools to make repetitive things less repetitive, for example, News/blog entries.”

There are many opinions about which CMS is best, but a review of many websites reveals the following consensus opinions:

  • WordPress is by far the easiest CMS to learn and to use. This makes it an excellent choice for regular non-geek people.
  • Joomla is more powerful but has a much steeper learning curve. Drupal is comparable to Joomla but even more difficult to learn and to use.
  • All CMS tools — because they are scripted database-driven tools — have potential security risks, making it imperative that people run all available updates on a regular basis, to minimize such risks!

Like most things in technology (and life), there are always trade-offs with choosing one strategy over another. For many people, the crucial factor that makes using a CMS the best choice, is the ease of using a CMS when you do not know code but want to be able to manage and maintain your own website!

Here are a few of the trade-offs to consider:

CMS Custom-Built
  • Every element of the website (pages, posts, images, etc.) is a distinct “entity” that can be rearranged quickly and easily by the CMS.
  • A great deal of the coding is done for you by the CMS
  • Most have an easy-to-learn easy-to-use WYSIWYG interface, making it possible for people who don’t know code to add/update content.
  • Greater control over the overall design of the website.
  • Not locked into one design motif (called “themes” in most CMS tools), so that different pages or sections of a website can have very different designs.
  • Less control over design, layout, etc.
  • A bit trickier to have a front page or any page that is significantly different from the rest of the website.
  • No WYSIWYG interface; someone needs to know at least some code to be able to add/update content.
  • Changes to design, layout, navigation are more complex to make.
Best for:
  • Large sites with many pages
  • Sites in which you want to have a “blog” of regularly added articles
  • Sites in which you want people who do not know code (html, css, php) to be adding/updating content
  • Smaller websites, with only a few pages
  • “Brochure” websites, in which content is not likely to be changing frequently
  • Websites for which you want a really creative “different” sort of layout or design