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 a 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) that provide web developers with standard functionality to build from, to commercially available e-commerce systems, often working in coordination with standard CMSs (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 pros and cons of several platforms, then discuss the reasons behind the strategy we use at Callis.
Until the mid-2000s, 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.
The modern equivalent of custom-coded websites is custom applications built using programming frameworks. These can offer additional functionality and efficiency over using base programming languages. However, these still typically require more development time and provide less simple options for content management. Building custom applications using a programming framework is best suited for large enterprise websites and applications that need a lot of custom functionality.
Content Management Systems
Naturally, website developers began looking for ways to become more efficient. They began to turn to content management systems (CMSs).
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/open source CMS tools.
Proprietary CMS Platforms
Some developers have chosen to build their own CMS 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 vary by the developer.
While proprietary CMS tools help build and manage sites more efficiently than hand-coding, there can be several 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 requiring that the site is hosted 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. With smaller proprietary solutions, 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 CMS in mind. Unless that new functionality was considered from the outset, it may be difficult to integrate at a later date. For this reason, the CMS developer may choose not to address certain features and functionality at all.
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. This can tie you to an outdated or inefficient solution unless you want to start over from scratch.
Non-Proprietary or Open Source 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 open source and supported by large communities of developers, they tend to be both stable and robust.
Developers on these platforms can usually turn to many free or inexpensive plugins or modules for functionality that extends the CMS’s standard features. Only if those extensions don’t fit the requirement is it necessary for developers to build their own. The ready availability of these tools 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 web server that meets technical and performance 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, typically these CMSs make the transition as simple and efficient as possible.
WordPress, Callis’s default CMS, is one of the most popular currently available platforms1. Accrodign to the folks at BuiltWith, WordPress powers 40% of all U.S. open source websites2 and 29% of open source websites across the entire internet3. WordPress is among the highest market share holders in all these categories. 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 or specific requirements warrant, we are comfortable working with others including Magento, Joomla and more.
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.
Final Notes on Website Platforms
In addition to these web platforms, there are also online services like Wix, Weebly and Squarespace which are aimed at small companies that want to build and maintain a simple website without programming knowledge or 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 would like to learn more about website platforms, feel free to contact us and we would be happy to discuss any specific questions with you.
1 CMS Usage Distribution on the Entire Internet – BuiltWith
2 Open Source Usage Distribution in the United States – BuiltWith
3 Open Source Usage Distribution on the Entire Internet – BuiltWith
Updated for 2019 – Originally posted 2/1/17