Pretty much every business needs a website from the corner store right up to the multinational. A website provides a window into the business, a way to communicate with customers and potential customers and it may well provide a sales channel if not the sales channel.
But the question arises as to how best to invest in a website that is appropriate to the functional requirements, scale and size of the business in question. For large corporations this question is not too difficult to answer - large corporations, particularly those that depend on the web for much of their business, airlines for example, will opt for a custom built site, latterly running on a sophisticated Content Management System (CMS). The business imperatives here are availability and reliability as well as making the purchasing process simple and easy for the end user.
There has been a recent trend to incorporate so called marketing optimisation into such systems. This allows the business to test out subtle changes perhaps in the way a page is laid out or the choice of colour and to see how these affect and ultimately improve their business. Companies such as these, especially where their business depends on the web, whether it is B2B or B2C, will usually have an internal IT department and expertise to operate and maintain the website in-house. For them the CMS is a way to devolve some of the responsibility for maintaining certain aspects of the site to other, more appropriate, people. Content can then be created and published directly by the marketing department without the need to use the geeks in IT as copy typists. For these types of company, the big name CMSs like Adobe, Sitecore, Episerver and latterly Kentico are a must.
At the other end of the scale, there are no departments, no IT, no marketing. In a small business there may be the owner and a handful of employees who are generally directly concerned with the operation of the business itself and are not IT specialists. At this end of the scale, what is important is to deskill the process of creating and maintaining a website so that the mere mortals who own and run the business can do so effectively. This has led to a number of so-called tailored solutions aimed at serving vertical markets. These exist, for example for lawyers, small garages, retail outlets such as shops, insurance providers (Quotall for example). Generally, these are out of the box solutions which the business can “brand” to look like a full blown website. Sometimes even the branding is omitted, for example with ebay shops, which make no pretence to be anything other than a hosted SaaS solution.
WordPress, which is the world’s most popular CMS, sits at this end of the market. It is not a tailored solution, in that it is not tailored to meet the needs of any particular vertical market, and it is sold both as a service or as an on-premises solution. Wordpress is built on top of a simple metaphor, in this case the metaphor is that of a magazine publisher. The basic unit of content is the blog post, which is analogous to a magazine article and this is viewed through a homepage which is effectively the contents page or the front page of the “magazine”. The system maintains an archive, much like the back issues of a magazine and can support multiple authors.
Wordpress is, however, very flexible, particularly in the way that the appearance of the pages can be altered to meet specific needs. It supports a wide range of themes, which are out-of-the-box page layouts and designs. It is also relatively easy to produce your own themes, or to have an agency do that for you. Escaping the magazine metaphor is a little more difficult but not impossible. For example, as well as blog posts, content can be presented as pages and there is a limited capability for adding forms.
Wordpress also supports a rich set of add-ons or plug-ins and these include things like online shops. The problem here is that once you start to configure a Wordpress site with a collection of such plug-ins, you are starting to get into some more serious development and it begs the question as to whether Wordpress is the most appropriate vehicle on which to run your website.
Wordpress itself can be free to license but as soon as you want to have meaningful URLs (a must for any business application), to change a theme or want to integrate plugins, then there are costs involved.
One rung up the ladder from Wordpress would be another open source CMS such as Drupal in the PHP domain or Umbraco in the .NET domain. Once again, there are themes and plug-ins and a number of providers who will offer to host the solution as well as develop the site in the first place. Again, there is the illusion that these systems are cost-effective because they do not incur license costs. However, plug-ins are often licensed and they need to be integrated, all of which costs money and may not then be the most cost-effective solution.
Licensed software products offer an alternative and are the chosen solution for most SMEs. The advantages are that all of the features are already integrated into a single cohesive product and that there is a single point of contact for support and maintenance. There is still the issue of designing and developing the website, once again themes can be useful and most themes that are available can be adapted to work with licensed software just as well as open source software.
It is important to remember that operating a website is a process and not an event. It is not just a question of building the site and leaving it to work autonomously, it needs ongoing management. An eShop for example will require stock updates, new products and price adjustments throughout the life of the site. Choosing the right CMS is all about making that management process more convenient and straightforward, cost-effective in other words, throughout the lifetime of the site and not just about getting the site online as cheaply as possible.