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Choosing a content management system or website framework

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Developers will make decisions as they build your new website or digital project. Use this page to help you understand those decisions.

What’s a content management system?

A content management system (CMS) is software that helps you create, manage and change website content. By using a CMS, you don’t need to write code to keep your website updated.

This page focuses on the three main content management systems that developers supporting community groups and charities use. They are Drupal, Wagtail and WordPress.

You may choose not to use a developer. If you're building your own website using online tools, some of them have a CMS for adding content and others don’t.

Find out more about DIY website building tools.

When you're choosing a digital agency or freelancer to work with, ask them what CMS they'll use. This will help you understand how they'll build the website. Your team will need to use that CMS to keep your website updated.

The best CMS for your organisation will depend on what your needs are. Below are some questions to consider.

  • Who'll be maintaining and editing the website?
  • Who'll be using the website and how will they use it?
  • Who'll be using the website and how will they use it?
  • Does it need to integrate with any other systems you use?

Each of these CMS has different strengths. If you're looking to build a new website for your organisation, you'll need to choose one that’s right for you.

One thing that Drupal, Wagtail and WordPress all have in common is that they're all open source. This means it's free to download their basic elements. There's no license fee, and you're not tied in to a proprietary system that can’t grow with your needs.

You do need to pay for other things.

  • Domain names and hosting costs.
  • Some plugins, extensions or templates and themes (that increase the things you can do).
  • Developer time.

Drupal

Building the website

Drupal works with a ‘core’ functionality. Pre-built blocks called 'extensions' expand that functionality. Some extensions are free, some have a cost. A global community of over 100,000 people develops Drupal and its extensions.

  • It's effective at creating large complex websites.
  • It has great support for multilingual sites.

Limitations

Various developers own the extensions. Those developers have to keep them up to date with the core, which gets updated from time to time. You'll need ongoing developer support to keep your website working when these updates happen.

Adding content

Drupal isn't the best choice for web beginners. You can add content without needing to write any code but you need to understand how websites are put together to make your pages appear in the right place.

Most organisations who use Drupal will have at least one person internally dedicated to looking after their website.

Programming language

PHP, JavaScript

Sites built on Drupal

  • Rotary International
  • Médecines Sans Frontièrs
  • World Vision International

Wagtail

Building the website

Wagtail is a developer framework. Your developers add functionality by building 'packages'. They won’t need to use 'extensions or plugins' that come from outside the Wagtail framework. They can draw from existing open-source packages.

  • It's flexible and allows you to work with developers to test new ideas quickly.
  • It updates regularly and doesn't have the problem of breaking extensions or plugins.
  • It can cope with high volume of visitors
  • It's particularly good for sites that display data or statistics in real time.

Limitations

  • You can’t just choose a 'plugin or extension' to achieve a task. Your developer has to create the functionality.
  • The initial path to getting what you need can use more time and budget so it may not be ideal for smaller projects.
  • Hosting can be more expensive because of the framework used.

Adding content

The Wagtail content editor, StreamField, is excellent.

You can create new pages and use custom content blocks for different display types within a page. You can give permission to lots of different editors. You won’t need to work with a developer to add, edit or manage content.

Programming language

Python (on Django framework)

Sites built on Wagtail

  • NHS
  • GOV.UK
  • Macmillan

WordPress

Building the website

WordPress powers around 30% of all websites. It’s simple, flexible and quick to install.

It works with a core functionality supported by extensions or 'plugins' which can be free or paid for. When you're working with a developer they'll use these plugins. They'll also use templates and might tweak the look and feel of the site (using HTML and CSS coding languages).

WordPress also has an option for self building using no code at all. See our comparison of self build website tools.

  • It’s good for starting small then moving to a bigger more complex solution later
  • You can get useful solutions on a small budget
  • It will offer your developers tried and tested solutions that you can use

Limitations

  • You may need developer support to keep plugins and themes up to date with WordPress
  • Because WordPress is so popular, it is a more frequent target of security hacks
  • Some of the cheaper hosting options can’t support many visitors or other complexities

Adding content

It’s easy to add new posts and pages with WordPress. You can also set different levels of user access in the CMS. This is useful if you have more than one person looking after the website and want to give them different rights.

WordPress uses a familiar interface for adding content. Many people are already familiar with it and feel comfortable using it.

Programming language

PHP

Sites built on WordPress

  • Bectu Trade Union
  • Open Rights Group
  • Habitat for Humanity

Newer ways of building websites

Over the last ten years it has become possible for developers to build websites in two parts and still give lots of editing power to the website-owning organisation. To do this they configure a content management system and connect this to a static website generator (often called jamstack) that they will build. It can be complete or partial separation.

The main reason for this is to have more flexibility about what the website itself can look like and do.

It can also give you:

  • better security because of systems being separated
  • lower running costs
  • better performance - pages load faster
  • ease of testing new features.

It won’t be for everyone.

  • The content editing interfaces will be new and there will be a learning curve for your team.
  • Less flexibility for content editors - you will need developers to make new templates if you want to change the layouts you are using.
  • It can make you reliant on more third-party providers which is a risk.
  • It's most useful when you want something either really complex or very simple.

Some names to look out for:

  • Netlify.cms
  • Contentful
  • Strapi
  • Prismic

Low code or no code website building

Not every website needs to be built by a developer using a traditional framework or content management system. Even if it does, you don’t always need to work with developers who write programming languages to build one.

Online tools for building websites are getting more popular. These are sometimes called low-code or no-code tools. For some organisations, using a mix of small tools and apps might create the best experience for your users. This can be cheaper than a full website build. It may also be more complicated to work out exactly what you need. You may still want to hire an expert to help you configure the tools.

Some of the names to look out for in 2021 if you want to know more about low-code or no-code solutions include:

  • Airtable
  • Webflow
  • Umbraco
  • Xodo
  • Glide

Find out more about Webflow and Glide in our article comparing DIY website building tools.

Last reviewed: 02 March 2021

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 02 March 2021

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