Content Management Systems: What They Do, How They Work, and Why You Need One

By Patrice Meadows — Thursday, August 10th, 2017 at 11:00am

The early 90s marked the beginning of the Digital Age when the Internet gained popularity both as a source of information and a means of expression. Increased Internet use meant more websites, more content, and more need for new and easy ways to manage websites. Content management systems (CMSs) emerged to address this need and quickly became the preferred way for companies and individuals to manage web content.

In the beginning, several systems facilitated web updates, some proprietary, others open source. AOL’s Remote Automated Information Manager (RAINMAN), for example, was a proprietary application that allowed users to create, edit, upload and remove files on AOL. Vignette, a now-defunct arm of CNET, sold StoryServer, a website production platform with many features associated with contemporary CMSs. Although there’s disagreement about which of these (or other) early solutions count as the first official CMS, there’s no denying how much the CMS application changed content management online.

Today, CMSs are ubiquitous and help companies, large and small, manage information. By one count, there are at least 166 different brands of CMSs, supported by just as many companies all around the world. Many are available both as premise-hosted applications and cloud-deployed solutions, making for even more options for organizations and individuals to choose from.

What do CMSs do?

CMSs tell content where to go and how to look on websites so users don’t have to code everything themselves. Recurring elements like headers, text blocks, pictures and more, are programmed into CMS solutions so web managers, content contributors and more can focus on customization and content creation, instead of maintenance and updates.

At companies, CMSs function alongside several other digital applications to maintain and support an individual or organization’s online presence. For individuals, CMSs often present as do-it-yourself website creation platforms that make creating and maintaining sophisticated sites simple. In fact, simplicity is common among contemporary CMSs, many of which were designed to be accessible to non-technical users. Earlier versions of CMS software heavily relied on admins, programmers or developers, creating bottlenecks for content contributors looking to update site information. The trend towards usability favors easy access to avoid delays and help organizations keep sites fresh.  

Typically, CMSs fall into one of the following categories; coupled, decoupled, headless or hybrid. Each category has different capabilities that impact site performance and republishing capabilities. For more on the distinct features of coupled and decoupled systems, read this blog post comparing the two.

How do CMSs work?

Coupled: site content is drawn from databases, funneled through the system, sent to servers and ultimately users.

Decoupled: site content is aggregated and sent to servers as flat files in web neutral formats.

Headless: stores site content in a flexible format and send it to various destinations for viewing. Headless CMSs lack a built-in viewing mechanism for site content.

Hybrid: Combines the flexibility of a headless system with the practicality of the more traditional approach (coupled or decoupled system), so users get the benefit of deploying information to various organizations and the publishing capability built specifically for their site.

Why do you need one?

The amount of digital content created, managed, or stored online has grown exponentially since CMSs were introduced. Publishing new and engaging content regularly has become essential to compete for audience attention online. Quality CMSs make adding, updating or removing content simple, so you and your team can focus on creating experiences that matter. To learn more about CMSs and find out which one suits your organization, check out this list of top CMSs as voted by users.

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What are the top features you look for in a CMS? Share your answers below or tweet us @hannon_hill

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