Illustration of a man standing next to a big screen showing a website being built

What is a content management system?

Posted on: August 5, 2022

The internet is full of content. From visual content in the form of photographs and video to written content, how we display and share digital content is facilitated by content management systems and platforms. 

A content management system (CMS) is essentially a website building tool such as Squarespace, Wix, or WordPress with a focus on content. In fact, WordPress was originally a blogging site in 2003 when it launched. It grew to offer more sophisticated options for customising site templates and themes as users other than bloggers started to use it to build their own websites. 

Publishing platforms such as Substack, favoured by writers, have now risen in popularity, breathing new life into blogging via the newsletter format (without the need for the full suite of a CMS platform’s functionality). However, WordPress continues to be the most popular CMS across the planet.

What is meant by content management systems?

Building a website from scratch is usually the domain of coders and programmers. With the rise of online stores though, and the use of the internet as a space for content creation in general, it soon became apparent that platforms were needed that could offer more intuitive website builders for those without coding knowledge. CMS software was created and its popularity changed the landscape of the internet, allowing the layperson to create their own website, whether as a portfolio for their work or as a digital shopfront.

With the rise of ecommerce, most small business websites have been built by their owners using a content management system. The user interfaces of popular content management systems such as Squarespace and Wix are fairly similar and user-friendly, providing simple functionality for building content such as drag-and-drop modules for example. Sometimes referred to as a WYSIWYG editor (what you see is what you get) these are great for ease of use and their basic step-by-step instructions can be understood by absolute beginners.

Some CMSs like Drupal require a little more technical expertise. Drupal is generally considered to be slightly more complex than WordPress or Joomla, for instance, because it was created by developers for developers. If simply used to update written content as text, a user can get by with basic HTML knowledge, but may need support from a developer to update the website.

The benefits of the open-source software of WordPress and Drupal means that the more coding knowledge an end user has, the more they can customise their web pages beyond the basic content editor options. To create unique themes or plugins such as APIs in WordPress, some knowledge is required of coding languages like HTML, PHP, SQL, and CSS. But WordPress is equally known for its out-of-the-box offering that makes it easy for anyone to get started building a site with pre-designed templates and themes.

What is the difference between a content management system and a web content management system?

There is continued debate over what actually constitutes a WCMS (or WCM) and what constitutes a CMS exactly because the functionality of most modern hybrid CMSs today, and their ease of use, has surpassed the clunkiness of previous web management systems. The term “web content management system” is less commonly used because CMS platforms have offered a much simpler way of managing and updating content in real-time and are more well known to end users.

The terms “content management system” and “web content management system” are often used interchangeably, even by developers, because a CMS often shares some of the same functions of a WCMS. This makes it difficult to define what exactly the difference is because it varies depending on who you ask.

A CMS offers features primarily for managing content, while a WCMS takes those features and extends them into different areas, including:

  • Collaboration
  • Digital asset management
  • Workflow management
  • Web content management
  • Knowledge management
  • Document imaging
  • Document management
  • Records management

A WCMS often provides in-built support with search engine optimisation (SEO). It also offers more security around permissions and defining user roles because of the way the features are grouped in different areas. However, CMSs tend to have more solid overall security due to the integrated offering. A WCMS needs dedicated developer support to ensure a high level of security across the system.

What is a decoupled CMS and what is a headless CMS?

There is also the question of decoupled and headless CMSs. Once again, these terms are often used interchangeably when they are slightly different. The difference between headless and decoupled CMSs is whether the presentation layer (the front end or the “head”) is truly detached from the body (the back-end system). So for example, using WordPress for content management in the back end of a custom-made site is not technically headless, as WordPress does offer front-end presentation if you need it. A headless CMS (a content-only data source) is a subset of a decoupled CMS and generally, the interface is connected through an API.

With a decoupled CMS, you can control the look and feel of a website or app without necessarily changing the content. Decoupled WordPress enables content writers to work using an interface that they’re familiar with while offering flexibility to the developers of the website to use any front-end technology stack. This could be because using WordPress to build the whole site doesn’t offer exactly what the owner of the site wants or the complexity needed, so developers may then build a more bespoke option that fulfils requirements, which requires technical expertise. For example, many news sites use WordPress as an app on a custom-built CMS, which writers can access via the back end to file their reports. As the original PHP blogging platform, WordPress is well-suited to being used as a decoupled CMS for reportage. A decoupled CMS also improves scalability as articles can be shared more easily.

WordPress can be a slow platform for large brands to use for professional uses because of all the added plugins and oversaturated databases and codebases. Large images, copy-heavy pages, and unreliable web hosting can also impact website speed. This is the advantage of a custom-built HTML front end, especially if download speed is crucial to a website such as the homepage of a newspaper.

Learn more about site building and CMS integrations with a master’s

Content management systems are key to building websites that invite collaboration and optimising the process of updating sites across organisations. Understand the best ways to build upon them and so much more with an online MSc Computer Science from the University of Wolverhampton. 

This 100% online Master’s degree can help you sharpen your skills while you continue to work, applying what you learn in real time and improving your career prospects. Find out more about how to register your interest today.

No. 1 Ranked in the UK For Teaching first generation students
85% of research 'world-leading' or 'internationally important' (latest REF)
Online Psychology Master’s accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS)
22,000 A university of 22,000 students
1827 Providing education and opportunity since 1827