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Open Source CMS solutions: the pitfalls of perceived low-cost

by Tim Rimington | December 6, 2012

A few months back a friend asked me to evaluate his Open Source-powered website (a sport-related website launched to promote sports training for children). He wated me to look out for any missed SEO opportunities and to provide him with a broad overview of how the site could be improved. The site was just 12 months old and already had a large volume of quality, original content, including original video.

As part of the evaluation I was given the site’s log-in details so that I could look around the “back end” and identify areas where page META data could be improved, page HTML tidied up, and so on. The website’s SEO opportunities were excellent but it was obvious that there was a lot of work to be done; most pages had little or no META information and the content (such as heading tags, etc.) needed lots of tidying up. Hundreds of pages!

Back in 2007 I was introduced to the Open Source CMS, Drupal. Around the same time, I investigated other Open Source content management systems such as Joomlah! and Expression Engine. Frankly speaking, they were also my very first exposure to content management systems, period.

Around the same time, I began building sites in Drupal and became comfortable with building relatively complex sites with plenty of end-user functionality. The power of these Open Source CMSs, I thought at the time, was quite extraordinary.

Over time, however, the plug-in modules that provided additional functionality for the sites I was building, sometimes behaved erratically which necessitated long hours of research to track down suitable solutions. Such is the broad community of Open Source users, sometimes I found solutions forthcoming, other times I didn’t. I quickly learned that Open Source, at least within the context of what I was doing, was very much a “hogwash” of contributed code that sometimes “played nicely with others”, and at other times flatly refused. Often the result was a website that had limited cylinders firing (and although my PHP coding knowledge often got me out of trouble, I’d waste hours hacking and rewriting code). Surprisingly I’m still a ‘Drupal’ fan but you could describe it more as a “love hate” relationship!

Over the past 4 years I’ve built an intimate working knowledge of the SiteSuite CMS, especially from an end-user perspective by assisting SiteSuite clients with their content creation and overall site management and online campaigning. Compared to Open Source CMS options, SiteSuite CMS is a breeze to navigate; it’s also intuitive, making it relatively quick to pick up especially for newcomers to website content management systems. For business owners launching a new website, being able to “hit the ground running” can be crucial to their business’ productivity.

But back to my friend with the 12 month old Joomlah!-based website…

I’d poked around inside the Joomlah! CMS before and even then I wasn’t impressed. But navigating my way around my friend’s Joomla! website I couldn’t understand how non-tech-savvy users could possibly work in the environment productively. I spent more time trying to locate an actual web page than was necessary, and any form of reference to site structure wasn’t evident. With the incredible volume of content within the site, I was left scratching my head as to how a business could manage a site of this magnitude using this style of CMS. When questioned, my friend simply shrugs and offers, “I’m used to it”.

This blog isn’t an Open Source bashing exercise or necessarily a promotion either. But as someone who’s worked within Open Source CMS environments, I can tell you that there’s nothing more satisfying than using an interface that’s both intuitive and “a pleasure to drive”. If you’re considering Open Source for your business’ next web project, stop and think before you leap into Open Source. Open Source CMS solutions, as powerful as they may be, are not necessarily the best path and this is especially true if your organisation has staff who need to be trained in how to maintain your website (although that’s just one consideration among many). With an intuitive interface that requires minimal training, you’re bound to be more productive, and much sooner, than if you had to rely on an Open Source alternative. Cheaper perhaps in the short-term as far as development goes but certainly not long-term, as my friend is now discovering.

I could provide a long list of arguments as to why proprietary CMS solutions are the better path than their Open Source cousins, but ask yourself this, should you entrust someone to manage your site’s CMS if they weren’t the ones who designed it in the first place? Intuitive interface issues aside, we hear Open Source horror stories all too often - just ask us!

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