What is a CMS?

Written by Richard Badley on 29th March 2012

(Last updated 11th March 2016)

What is a CMS?

CMS, great, another acronym to add to the ever-growing pile of acronyms that towers over the web newcomer. 

FTP, HTML, SEO, the world wide web (WWW, there's another one) has a language all of its own that appears to have been made-up by super-geeks trying to scare off any normal person from even considering building themselves a web site.  But these days, absolutely everyone who runs a business or sells a product needs some sort of web presence and if there's one acronym to learn then it's CMS.

CMS stands for Content Management System.  It's a system that manages your content.

People tend to think of a web site as a set of pages like a book, and back in the infancy of the internet this was true.  Each page was it's own entity, a bunch of code displaying a logo, a title, some text, a few images maybe, and this linked to another page with a logo, a title and more text.  But a site growing beyond a handful of pages would quickly turn into an unmanageable mess.

Years ago I used to work on a film web site.  This involved adding new reviews every week and I'd go through each one, create a new page, paste in the text, add images and then have to link to it from the home page and the reviews section.  But as more and more reviews went on the site we had to have an A-Z index which involved creating a page for each letter of the alphabet, so each new review also needed a link adding to the archive.  I went round in circles as the site got bigger and bigger until someone said “Yeah, the content's great but I don't like the layout.”  Because the valuable content, the text, was embedded forever in each page, this  meant starting again – sad face.

Luckily Content Management Systems came along to save everyone a hell of a lot of time, and their sanity.

Now people don't have to think about a site as a vast collection of pages but as what it really is; pure, simple content.  Content is an article, a news story, a video, an image.  Content is king (if you want one catchphrase to learn along with the acronym then that's it).  What surrounds content when it appears on the web is merely there to make it as easy to digest as possible.  Content has to be kept flexible and ready to leap into action in different places on your site. 

A CMS is simply a database that stores content for a web site so that the site is really just a shell, a template which surrounds whatever content is pulled into a particular page.   A particular page might pull in the latest news stories.  So all you need to do is keep adding news stories and the CMS handles where the stories appear, saving everyone a big headache.  And if you don't like the way the site looks, fine, chuck the template in the bin.  Your content is still there, standing by for a whole new lease of life.

The next step is to decide which CMS is suited to a particular web site.  There are many different variations out there; Wordpress, Joomla, Typo3, Magento.  Some are free while some cost thousands, and each one has their way of adding content and manipulating it, but at a basic level they all do the same thing; saving everyone from the drudgery of coding tiny change after tiny change.  Instead, everyone is free to concentrate on the most important part of their site – the content!

Richard Badley

by Richard Badley