Should you build your own CMS? Or should you use a content management system that already exists, like WordPress or Drupal? If you manage a website of any kind, these are questions you will likely ask yourself sooner or later. A CMS is a crucial tool these days for managing online content, even on a small scale.
If you're struggling to decide whether to build your own CMS or use a prebuilt option, keep reading. This articles weighs the pros and cons of each approach.
What Is a CMS?
As the term "content management system" implies, a CMS is any type of platform that helps you manage content online. A CMS typically includes features that systematize and automate the processes of creating, publishing and organizing online content, such as Web pages. (Some CMS platforms are designed for managing content other than on the Web, but when most people talk about a CMS today, they’re thinking of online content.)
Once upon a time, it was possible to manage websites by hand, with so-called "web masters" keeping track of static HTML files and using them to publish new pages. The masters of the web would also manage content layout and style by editing files by hand.
Today, that practice is obsolete in most cases. Whether you have a handful of web pages to manage or many thousands, a CMS helps avoid much of the tedium of maintaining a website. It can also help lower the technical bar required to manage a site by eliminating the need to work with code.
There are many prebuilt CMS options to choose from, but there may be good reason to build your own CMS from scratch.
Stating the Obvious
Before delving into the more complex considerations regarding whether to build your own CMS, let's state the obvious ones.
First, to build your own CMS takes time. It's faster to use a prebuilt CMS.
Second, building your own CMS provides more flexibility and customizability, although the extensive plugin ecosystems that come with some popular CMS platforms may offset this advantage to a large degree.
Third, a CMS that you build yourself doesn't have licensing fees. Of course, your developers' time is worth money, so whether a homemade CMS is less costly overall will depend on how much staff time it takes to build and maintain it. Plus, there are good ready-made CMS platforms out there that are free of cost.
Less Obvious Considerations
You've probably already thought of the issues just discussed. Here are some factors that you might not think to weigh.
If you create a CMS yourself, it's your responsibility build it in a secure manner and to maintain security over time. When you use a pre-built CMS, you still bear some responsibility for securing it. For example, you must deploy it securely and apply security patches regularly. However, third-party developers will take the lead in keeping the code itself secure. This doesn’t mean security problems can’t crop up--they can and will--but, in general, a prebuilt CMS can be easier to manage from a security perspective.
On the other hand, keep in mind that a custom CMS is less likely to be targeted by attackers. A known exploit in a popular CMS like WordPress is sure to be exploited quickly if left unpatched. But security flaws in a CMS that you build yourself are less likely to become known to attackers. And attackers are less likely to spend time trying to find security holes in your custom CMS because the payoff for them will be smaller (unless, of course, they are specifically targeting your organization).
The effort associated with a custom CMS is not limited to the time it takes to design and build it. You also have to maintain the codebase on a continual basis. You'll need to keep the system compatible with new deployment environments, ensure that it can scale up as needed, revisit its design as new best practices or preferences emerge, and so on.
If you don't have the in-house developers required to perform this maintenance work, building your own CMS is probably a bad idea. You don't want to hire developers temporarily to build something that you can't maintain. If you use a CMS built by someone else, you avoid this pitfall because the original developers will maintain it. Of course, there is a risk that the original developers will stop supporting a CMS, but, in the case of open source CMSes, the risk is minimal since new developers can take over.
A good CMS requires a range of technical expertise. You need skilled back-end developers to ensure that the CMS performs fast and efficiently. You need good front-end developers to implement compatibility with a wide range of end user environments. You also need experienced designers to build a great user experience.
Before you decide to build your own CMS, make sure your development resources can meet all of these requirements. If your developers are good in one area but not the others, you're likely to end up with a CMS that doesn't come close to meeting your needs. In that case, you'd be better off using a pre-built CMS.
If driving traffic to your website is important, you'll want a CMS that is designed with search engine optimization, or SEO, in mind. SEO is another specialized skillset that not all organizations have.
This is not to say that prebuilt CMS platforms are perfect for SEO, despite what some of them claim. SEO is a delicate art, and getting it right for your site is a lot harder than simply enabling an SEO plugin or following recommendations.
Still, if you have no strong SEO skills to draw on within your own development team, a prebuilt CMS is likely to help you more on the SEO front than one you create yourself.
The exception is if your content has unusual SEO needs. This might be the case if, for example, your content is written in an unusual language that standard SEO tools were not designed to support. In that case, you'll probably need to build your own SEO architecture.
There are several good reasons to build your own CMS, and several more to opt for a prebuilt CMS platform like WordPress or Drupal. There's really no one right answer for everyone. However, by considering factors like CMS security, your developers' skillsets and your SEO needs, you'll put yourself in a position to make the right CMS decision for you.