So You Want a New Website—Part I

It looks awful on your phone. The photos are going on a decade old. The navigation is terrible, and the organization makes no sense. There are no social sharing buttons, and even if there were, the only content people could share was written when the iPhone was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye.

It's time for a new website. But instead of relishing the opportunity to sweep out the old and start anew, you're filled with dread—or at least that vaguely uneasy feeling you get when you sense that as much as you know what you want, you’re not sure you’re up on the lingo, or what kinds of questions to ask the people to whom you’re about to pay your hard-earned money.

At Gri5th Media, we specialize in helping people who have other things to do—namely, running their business—get websites that look great and function smoothly. We thought we’d take some time to look back on some of the sites we’ve developed and the learning experiences some of our clients went through, and offer up a few posts on some important things to consider when looking for a web developer.

If you haven't tackled a new website in the last several years, you may be surprised at how much has changed in the world of web design. There are a lot of new terms and concepts with which you should become familiar—and we want you to know about them so you can make more informed decisions about things like designers, coders, hosts, and all the rest of the moving pieces required to produce and maintain a great site. We've already discussed the first thing you need to do—make sure you in fact own your domain name—but there are several more things in the "fundamentals" category you'll need to brush up on.

This is the first of five posts, and we want to begin by talking about a type of software called the CMS.

What’s a “CMS” and Why Do I Need One?

“CMS” stands for "content management system." It is a program that resides on a server, is hooked into a database that stores your content, and lets developers organize and deliver your content in the form of a website

The choice of which CMS runs your site can be a very important one. Exactly how important depends on many things, from the kind of business you're in, to who's going to maintain your site (we'll talk about this in the final post in this series).

Before about 2000 or 2001, most small-business websites were built without content management systems. They were simply static HTML pages, crafted in text editors or programs like Dreamweaver, which attempted (with mixed results, at least back then) to streamline the process. The problem, as developers quickly realized, was not that there weren't good tools to help streamline the process. The problem was the process itself:  What we needed wasn’t an easier way to create content by crafting pages one at a time, but a way for pages to be created automatically, pulling their content from databases and displaying them to the user through the use of visual templates and sets of rules we could define.

 

Along came web-based applications that took a small but important step in that direction. Movable Type was one of the early ones to break out of the pack. It was embraced by thousands of bloggers in the aftermath of 9/11, when people all over America and the rest of the world decided they had things to say about the attacks in particular, and the state of the world in general. Blogspot, soon purchased by Google and re-christened Blogger.Com, followed on its heels, offering a fully-hosted option that offered less design flexibility, but required none of the setup and maintenance Movable Type did.

While Movable Type and Blogger were great platforms for bloggers, they weren't really designed to manage the kinds of web sites that companies wanted. A couple of years later, a CMS called pMachine, later renamed ExpressionEngine, came along and offered more complex and customizable organizational capabilities. The world of CMS’s was expanding its scope to non-blogging applications.

But it was WordPress, started at about the same time, that would become the 800-lb gorilla of content management systems. We won’t sugar-coat this: WordPress was, for its first few years, the butt of many jokes in the web development world, due to its flaky stability and generally "puny" feel. While ExpressionEngine offered a mature, robust CMS years before WordPress did, the strategic path WordPress chose eventually made it by far the most popular CMS in the world.

The problem, as developers quickly realized, was not that there weren't good tools to help streamline the process. The problem was the process itself.

That strategy was to encourage developers and designers to create themes (visual templates) to increase the number of design options people had, and plugins (functional additions) to increase the number of things the core system could do. Today, an estimated 25% of all the world's websites run on WordPress.

WordPress remains free to download and install at WordPress.Org, and they also offer a free, fully-hosted option at WordPress.Com for those who want basic WP functionality and a nice selection of themes, but don't want the hassles of hosting, upgrading, and other technical maintenance.

In the past several years, Joomla and Drupal have emerged as formidable competitors to WordPress, becoming, respectively, the number 2 and number 3 most popular content management systems.

All three systems are free to download and install. All of them feature thousands of themes and plugins. All are written in a language called PHP. WordPress uses only the MySQL database, while Drupal and Joomla can use MySQL as well as other databases.

If you're in the market for a new website, chances are very good that your designer is going to choose from one of those three systems to build your site. Exactly which one is the best fit for you depends on what you want your site to do, and how much involvement you want to have in maintaining it once it's launched.

Generally speaking, if your site is mainly informational—an "online brochure"—then WordPress is going to be your best bet. If your site is heavy on e-commerce, then Drupal is probably a better bet, while social-network sites are likely better served by Joomla.

If your site is a storefront, heavy on inventory and e-commerce, then you'll want a developer who's proficient in Magento, Volusion, or similar e-commerce systems. It's certainly possible to do a very good e-commerce storefront in WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal, but there are other systems designed from the ground up for that task, which your developer needs to have in his or her bag of tricks.

Gri5th Media can help you determine which CMS is best for you. We'll walk you through the pros and cons of each based on what you want your site to accomplish. Just give us a call at 601-506-8700, or drop us a line using our contact page.

Next in this series: We talk about what’s meant by “responsive” and “mobile first”.