17 October 2012

What’s the least you should expect from a modern web CMS?

When you’re selecting a CMS it makes sense to try focus on core content functionality, but what features should you reasonably expect from a modern web CMS?

Many CMS selection exercises fall into the trap of specifying too many requirements in order to avoid leaving something out. Others fail to grasp the complexity of web publishing and underestimate the benefits that a web CMS can bring, even going so far as being tempted to develop their own.

CMS platforms have to work hard to differentiate themselves in a fragmented market which can help to further obfuscate their core benefits behind marketing jargon. The following is a quick breakdown of the features that you should reasonably expect from a well-established and mature web CMS.

Separation of content and presentation

The ability to separate the meaning of content from the way it looks underpins web accessibility. A CMS should support the model where you publish web pages based on structured semantic mark-up that is styled by CSS. Not only does this provide for more accessible content, but it makes it easier to tailor the presentation of content between different audiences.

Support for multi-screen publishing

If you can separate content and presentation then it follows that you should be able to publish the same content in more than one context. With the increasing proliferation of devices you should have the tools available to offer tailored experiences for mobile, tablet and desktop.

Localisation and multi-lingual content

Content localisation is more of a process challenge than a technology problem. Will you want to translate all the site content, or just parts of it? What happens if a page has not been translated – will you fall back to another language or just no display it? How will you manage the creation and translation of multi-lingual content? A good CMS should have experience of encountering these issues before and provide features and tools that help you to solve them.

Workflow and audit

Even the smallest sites need some kind of process for controlling content creation. A CMS should provide workflow features that assert an approval process over content to ensure that it is reviewed appropriately. You will also need some support for content audit to review anything that has been changed or is so old that it needs to change.

A content API

A CMS is rarely used in isolation and you may want to draw content into your site from a diverse range of sources such as CRM systems. You will also want to push content out by publishing feeds or exposing services. All this can only be supported so long as you have a decent content API to hook into. This will give you programmatic access to all your content so you can create integrations and content automations.

Access control lists

A CMS should be able to provide a flexible role-based security system that allows you to assert control over who should access content. The more sophisticated a system gets, the more granular your control over security will be so that you can tailor access to both content and functionality towards your different audiences.

Rich tools for editors and content creators

One of the main advantages of a CMS is that it can free content editors to create and organise content without having to rely on developers. Given this it is surprising that the content production environment is so often overlooked. Editors should be able to create web content with all the ease of a Word document. Layouts, graphics, interactions and text should all be easy to manipulate in an interface that allows for some degree of creativity.

Support for search engine optimisation

A CMS won’t be able to deliver your SEO strategy, but it shouldn’t be getting in the way. You will, at the very least, need full control over your URL structure so you can craft short and meaningful URLs for content. You should also be able to optimise the meta-tags and links on all your pages.


In this post Google world, you’d be surprised how many users navigate around a website using the search functionality rather than a menu system. A decent search engine is an important part of your web publishing – if your CMS can’t provide it then you should be looking to a third party solution that can.

Experience and interaction

Many CMS platforms are starting to branch out from their traditional remit of managing web pages by incorporating related marketing services such as analytics, campaign management and customer relationship management. This web experience management has yet to solidify into a consistent expectation, but it is reasonable to expect a higher-end CMS to provide a richer experience for users through some form of content personalisation.

Filed under CMS, Strategy.