What platform is your website built on? Not sure? You’re not alone. Yet deciding the answer to this question should be an important aspect of your next site build, because it is a decision that will impact your organization for years to come.
A website platform is the set of foundational tools upon which the website is built. These platforms range from simple online tools designed to allow a small business to build their own website without knowledge of HTML programming, to content management systems (CMS’s) that provide web developers with standard functionality to build from, to commercially available eCommerce systems, often working in coordination with standard CMS’s (and sometimes with manufacturing or accounting software as well) to deliver a shopping experience that is optimized for both the shopper and the seller.
Each website platform strategy has its own strengths and weaknesses. We’ll take a look at the plusses and minuses of several platforms, then discuss the reasons behind the strategy we use at Callis.
Until the mid-2000’s, most websites were coded directly in HTML, using scripting and database languages like PHP and SQL to add sophisticated functions. Today, few sites are built from the ground up, because this strategy doesn’t provide the flexibility that developers need and site owners demand. Developers need to manage large volumes of frequently changing content in a stable, orderly manner, while site owners want to be able to add to the site and even release new versions of the site rapidly and cost-effectively.
Content Management Systems
After a few years of building completely hand-coded sites, website developers began looking for ways to become more efficient. They began to turn to content management systems (CMS’s) – or developing their own proprietary systems.
CMS tools separate the content of the site from the site layout, so that edits to the overall layout can be done at a site-wide level (for example) instead of on a page-by-page basis. Sites built in a CMS can be updated much more efficiently than hand-coded sites. Various approaches to utilizing content management systems can generally be categorized as either being built on proprietary technology or built using commonly available CMS tools.
Proprietary CMS Platforms
Some developers have chosen to build their own CMS’s from scratch. By reusing all or a portion of the CMS for multiple clients, they gain coding efficiency. Often, they can modify modules built to add features to one site for use on other sites as well. The size and complexity of these proprietary solutions varies by developer. In some cases, the site must be housed on the developer’s specific servers in order to access the needed widgets and accompanying support files and processes.
While proprietary CMS tools help build and manage sites more efficiently than hand-coding, there are several inherent weaknesses to this approach. Companies with high-volume web traffic, specialized requirements, and a large in-house web development team often take this proprietary approach. But if your web development team is small or you rely on an outside development agency, it can limit your ability to hand the website off to a different developer in the future. Site hosting options may also be limited, with the developer often needing to host the site on a server that houses their proprietary CMS.
In a very real sense, with these sites, like hand-coded sites, you get what you pay for – and nothing more. Most aspects of the site are either developed from scratch or borrowed from a limited number of other sites. As new capabilities are needed, tools to provide that functionality must be developed with the unique characteristics of the current site in mind. Unless that new functionality was considered from the outset, it may be difficult to integrate at a later date.
Because proper search engine optimization requires certain structural elements to be in place, it is particularly important to set SEO expectations from the beginning for sites built with proprietary technology. When best practices aren’t implemented from the outset, it can be very difficult to retrofit the site for enhanced SEO.
Finally, while a similar amount of time may be required to build out a site in a proprietary CMS in comparison with other available CMS tools, proprietary CMS-based sites typically require more time during the site maintenance phase. And when the site has come to its end-of-life, it can be difficult and time-consuming to extract the content from that site for use in a new site.
Non-Proprietary CMS Platforms
While some developers build out proprietary solutions as described above, others (including Callis) turn to widely used, non-proprietary CMS platforms. Because these CMS platforms are supported by large communities of developers, they tend to be both stable and robust.
Developers on these platforms can turn to many free or inexpensive plugins for functionality that extends the CMS’s standard features. Only if those plugins don’t fit the requirement is it necessary for developers to build their own. The ready availability of these plugins lets agencies invest their time in delivering the best overall solution to their client instead of hand-coding each site element.
Sites developed on non-proprietary CMS platforms also keep options open for the site owner. Hosting can generally be set up on any webserver that meets technical and traffic volume requirements. Also, with many developers who are very familiar with these CMS platforms, it’s easy to bring in a new developer or agency should the need arise. And when it’s time to transition to a brand new version of the current website, these CMS’s make the transition as simple and efficient as possible.
WordPress, Callis’s CMS platform of choice, is by far the most popular currently available CMS, powering over 55% of all U.S. websites (and 30% of the top million websites worldwide), according to the folks at Builtwith. Such a high rate of adoption leads to wide-ranging benefits – from a stable product to large numbers of developers who are fluent in WordPress.
However, we don’t limit ourselves to WordPress alone. Every CMS has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some tie into other systems (eCommerce solutions, for example) better than others. Some provide exceptional revision and editing control designed for large teams of writers and editors. At Callis, we take a pragmatic approach to web development platforms: WordPress is our go-to CMS, but as the situation warrants, we are comfortable working with others like Joomla and Drupal.
So what platform will you choose for your next website? In the absence of a compelling reason to choose another option, we recommend that you give strong consideration to WordPress or one of the other readily-available, robust CMS platforms that have been widely adopted. A strategic decision will serve you well both now and in the future.
[Note: It’s worth noting that in addition to these web platforms, there are also online services like Wix, Weebly and SquareSpace which are aimed squarely at small companies that want to build and maintain a simple website without programming knowledge or a significant cash investment. While these platforms provide simple building blocks to accomplish basic goals, they are generally without key features that larger organizations will want to leverage. They may lack the flexibility for all but the most modest of customizations, full control of elements essential to strong search engine optimization (SEO). Speaking of which, SEO decisions are often left to the site builder. Even when free platforms provide the ability to SEO a website, the sites often fall short of SEO hopes and expectations when the person developing the site isn’t sure how to optimize the site for SEO.]
If you have questions about developing a new site, we’d love to hear from you and help you through the process. Contact Cliff Callis today at firstname.lastname@example.org or 660-826-2822.