What Is a CMS? Basic Guide to Content Management Systems

What Is a CMS? Basic Guide to Content Management Systems

Whether you have an online business, brick-and-mortar locations, or both, it’s essential to keep your website fresh, engaging, informative, and up-to-date. Website creation, management, and modification used to require software programming skills. Today, easy-to-use content management system (CMS) software applications enable practically anyone, including non-technical beginners, to build and maintain a website without coding.

Read on to learn more about:

What is a CMS (Content Management System)?

A CMS is a software application with a set of tools and functions that enable you to create websites and add, delete, modify, and archive digital content without requiring special technical knowledge. What used to take days and required software developer skills can now take a couple of hours using a CMS. Simple changes can take minutes. Even beginners can make a website using a CMS with an intuitive dashboard, pre-made templates, content management and marketing capabilities, and a wide selection of plug-ins.

Every CMS has two main elements: a content management application (CMA) and a content delivery application (CDA). The CMA is a front-end user interface used to easily add, modify, and remove website content in a non-technical manner. Some CMAs are more intuitive than others, making them easier to understand without training. Others require more knowledge about the CMS platform tools and functionality. Once you create digital content via a CMA, the CDA, which acts as the back-end of a website, compiles and then publishes that content to the website for everyone to see.

What can you build with a CMS?

Modern CMS platforms are flexible and feature-rich with built-in capabilities. The user interface typically consists of a toolbar menu with point-and-click, drag-and-drop functionality. Most offer free or fee-based plug-ins (software modules) for expanded features and functionality and a wide selection of pre-packaged themes to choose from. Some themes are modifiable, allowing user customization.

Practically any kind of website can be built and maintained using a CMS, from a basic website with a few pages to complex, high-volume websites with dynamic, adaptive content. Here are a few examples.

  • General website: Every business, from a local dental practice to a prestigious law firm, needs a general website that promotes their brand, product or service, and provides information. Plus, a well-designed, up-to-date website not only makes your business look professional, but it helps build trust and credibility. And, using a CMS with built-in SEO (search engine optimization) tools helps support digital marketing and lead generation.
  • Blogs: It’s estimated there are at least 600 million blogs built on CMS platforms, with more than 29 million blog posts a year in the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of content, and what better way to manage it than by using a CMS? The ability to create and edit blog posts with text formatting, link creation, easy image or video insertion, and more with no HTML skills required helps make blogging a breeze.
  • Ecommerce: Imagine the amount of coding, time, and technical expertise it would take for an e-commerce shop owner to create and maintain an online store. A CMS allows non-technical users to change the look and feel of the online store, add and remove products or services, change page layouts, promote certain products, and much more.
  • Educational courses: Remote learning and web-based training have grown rapidly over the last few years, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. Several education-focused content management systems are available that enable those without technical skills to design and deploy online educational courses and provide a quality online experience for the end-user.
  • Photography portfolio: Photography websites are about pictures of all sizes that need to be uploaded and displayed in searchable galleries. Often, these websites include the ability for users to place selected photos in a lightbox or flag them as favorites. An e-commerce component is typically included so that pictures can be purchased and downloaded as digital files.
  • Video portfolio: Managing video content has unique requirements, including categorizing by content type, publish date, and key topic, to name a few, and some require huge libraries. A specialized CMS that supports video portfolios enables these capabilities and more, streamlining the process without the need for in-depth technical expertise and programming experience.
  • Forums: Forums usually involve registering users, allowing customized profiles, defining user rules, creating communities, boards, and subsections, and supporting discussions and comments posted in real-time or after moderator review. Other features typically include private messaging, marking favorites, group or board notifications, and more. A CMS designed to support forums enables you to spend more time and resources growing your online community versus programming and maintaining your forum website.
  • Membership-based site: Member-based sites require users to select a subscription level and pay to access benefits such as private communities or forums, exclusive content, special discounts, and more. Many CMS platforms have built-in subscription features or permit the installation of a membership plug-in which may be free or available for a fee.

If you need someone to help you create a website using a CMS platform, search for top CMS developers to meet your needs today.

CMS vs. framework vs. WCM

In its most basic form, a CMS is an application built on top of an underlying framework. It provides tools for multiple users to perform functions without needing to code or possess special technical knowledge. CMS applications include the ability to:

  • Collaborate
  • Add, manage, and administrate digital content
  • Control access to data through a common interface
  • Access and use plug-ins and themes

CMS platforms have evolved to include a headless option, where the presentation layer (head) is decoupled from the content repository (body). Since the content in a headless CMS is delivered via APIs, it allows for seamless display across different devices, offering more flexibility, faster editing experiences, easier scalability, and the ability to manage content across multiple channels.

Unlike a CMS, web application frameworks don’t have ready-to-use non-technical tools. Instead, a framework:

  • Is a set of code libraries used to build websites and web applications
  • Allows custom programming so you can build the website exactly the way you want it
  • Requires technical knowledge and coding expertise
  • Developers can use a framework to define unique content management capabilities, user authentication features, administrative tools, and more

The differences between a CMS and a framework are straightforward. Comparing CMS with WCM (web content management) is a little more complicated, exacerbated by platforms that bundle CMS with WCM components.

Simply put, a standard CMS provides features to manage web content, support multiple users and collaboration, and assign ownership to content such as videos, images, and documents. With a WCM, you can use CMS features and extend them to other functions like those below, enabling you to manage the content and elements of the website itself.

  • Document management
  • Digital asset management
  • Workflow or business process management

Why do you need a CMS? (Role and functions of a CMS)

A relevant website that looks professional, reflects your brand, and garners customer trust is essential in our digital world, regardless of your business type or size. And with the right CMS, websites are more affordable because you don’t need to hire a software developer to create and maintain your website.

Below are some of the main functions a CMS offers.

Making changes to copy

There are many reasons to add or change website copy, not just when new products or services are introduced. For example, regularly adding blog posts helps you market your products or services, answer customer questions, and boost your SEO (search engine optimization) ranking. Likewise, monitoring keyword trends and updating content to reflect them helps ensure you’re delivering the most relevant messages and information to your viewers. Also, keep in mind that customer needs shift over time. Your website should offer solutions relevant to current customer pain points.

Adding and organizing new images

Modern culture values high-quality visual experiences and images. Even basic websites benefit from images and graphics that capture the viewer’s attention, improve the user experience, and present information differently. Images and their captions can also improve indexing on search engines.

Suppose you visit two websites for local healthcare providers with similar credentials and services. Which would you be drawn to? One with a series of crisp, clean images highlighting the welcome area, various patient rooms, a friendly, smiling staff, and modern technologies used? Or one with a couple of poor-quality pictures that don’t tell a clear visual story?

Adding and organizing new landing pages

The use of multiple website landing pages is common these days. Customized landing pages help generate leads and track where they come from, boost conversion rates, and improve SEO, among other things. Common uses of unique landing pages include free trials, ebooks, newsletter sign-ups, and how-to guides. Let’s say you’re offering a free trial via social media. Instead of sending a potential customer to your main, catch-all landing page, create a link with a unique UTM parameter that’s directed to a landing page specially designed to promote the free trial and convey related marketing messages.

Developing templated pages

Most CMS platforms include built-in page templates that are free or available for a fee. But what if you can’t find anything that suits your specific requirements? Or, suppose you choose an off-the-shelf template that worked for you at the time, but you need something else as your business grows. One option is to code pages to get a website that meets your needs. Another, which is more efficient and affordable, is choosing a CMS that gives you the flexibility to modify ready-made templates simply and efficiently without coding.

Making global changes to sites

The benefits of making one change across all or selected pages on your website versus updating page by page are significant. Global changes that apply throughout your website can include modifications to menus, links, and copy layout. For instance, let’s say you’re a furniture company that has decided to offer white glove delivery, and you want to mention your new service on certain pages, including unique landing pages you’ve created. A global change easily made via a CMS is smooth, efficient, and helps you avoid making mistakes.

Creating additional website functions

The modern marketplace can shift at a lightning-fast speed. CMS applications enable you to be nimble and responsive, whether it’s updating product copy to make it solution-focused or adding new website functions, such as parallax scrolling to create an illusion of depth on a two-dimensional site. Suppose you have a pet sitting business and want to boost revenue and help pet owners by adding a basic online store offering pet products you’ve personally curated. Many CMS platforms have a built-in e-commerce function or offer plug-ins that enable you to create an online store using a point and click drop-down menu with drag and drop tools and features.

Improving SEO

When someone searches online for a service or product you offer, you want them to find your website on the first search page, ranking as highly as possible. Most CMS platforms include marketing and SEO tools and analytics reports that help you manage SEO and improve your rankings. Some CMS platforms have powerful SEO plug-ins, such as Yoast SEO for WordPress, that help your website get more traffic from Google and Bing, attract more visitors from social media, and increase reader engagement. You can boost the relevance of your content by optimizing it for related keywords and improve internal linking. Other Yoast tools include a readability check, internal linking suggestions, and much more.

Making site speed optimizations

Slow, sluggish websites are frustrating and don’t project quality, which may result in lower conversion rates, resulting in lost revenue. Fortunately, most CMS platforms include site speed data in their built-in reports that provide valuable insights into speeding up your website. These tips include simple things like limiting the use of custom fonts and minimizing animated text. You can also boost the speed of your website via a CMS that supports site speed and optimization plug-ins, caching plug-ins, and other tools, such as JS (JavaScript), HTML, and image optimization.

Creating pop-ups

Pop-ups—small windows that appear over the top of web pages in your internet browser—are used for various purposes, from email sign-ups and surveys for lead generation to product announcements, promotions, and special discounts. In the past, you needed coding skills to create them. Now, many CMS platforms offer pop-up design templates and/or support code-free pop-up plug-ins, making them a breeze to design and implement. You can even test new pop-up designs to determine which one performs best.

Managing comments and forums

Adding a comment or forum feature on your website demonstrates your company is transparent and customer-focused. They’ll help you grow your audience, boost website traffic, increase viewer engagement, and build customer loyalty. You can also boost sales and improve SEO ranking with user-generated content (UGC) from comments. If your CMS doesn’t include built-in comment and forum functionality, chances are it offers plug-ins for this, such as the Disqus Comment System. A WordPress plug-in, Disqus installs quickly and imports your existing comments without a single bit of coding. Plus, it loads asynchronously, which means it won’t affect your website performance. It includes a real-time comments system along with a robust set of engagement and moderation features.

Creating image galleries

Image galleries are required for websites featuring artwork, photographs, and other image-intensive content, such as online stores with multiple images per product. CMS image gallery features typically include batch uploads, sub-galleries, automatic thumbnailing, automated image tagging, and more. Let’s say you have a large photo gallery of classic cars with different features. By image tagging each photo—labeling keywords to make your images more searchable—your visitors can search on classic car terms that apply to cars in different libraries. The trouble is, manually assigning tags to each image is tedious work. Image-tagging software provided via a CMS plug-in that automates the tagging process across image libraries is a huge timesaver.

Leveraging social media extensions

Social media marketing (SMM) is an essential component of a comprehensive digital marketing plan. Look for CMS platforms that make social media integration simple and easy to manage. Does the CMS provide built-in tools and plug-ins that help increase your reach, drive traffic to your website, obtain followers, and optimize content for multiple social media platforms? Does it allow you to create a branded social media feed and embed it on your website? For example, you can display a social wall with a live social media feed where potential customers can discover how other people use your products or services.

How to add a content management system to a new website

There are a series of steps required to establish a new website. You’ll need a domain, a place to host it, tools to create the look, feel, and functionally you desire, and the ability to publish it on the world wide web. Be aware that providers often bundle these services together, offering a one-stop shop, and some hosting services have exclusive agreements with a CMS provider or run their own CMS.

1. Find a hosting provider

Every website is run on a server—the physical home for your website. Unless you’re hosting your website, you’ll need to select a web hosting company that provides this. Hosting providers vary in price, guaranteed uptime availability, scalability, security features, page loading speed, bandwidth, the types of businesses they cater to, and more. Carefully think through the goals and objectives unique to your business, what your website needs on day one, and what may be required from a hosting provider as your website and business evolves and grows.

2. Select a domain name

Anyone can buy a domain that isn’t already registered for a specified duration of time. You may want your domain to match your company name, but have a plan B in mind if your first choice is unavailable. If the domain you want is unavailable, a few available alternatives are usually displayed. You can also use an online domain name generator that suggests names based on keywords you enter.

3. Choose your CMS

CMS platform features and functionality vary. You’ll need to do some research before selecting one. Consider features as well as flexibility, scalability, security, storage options, and what you’ll need from a resource perspective to build and maintain your website. Keep in mind that some CMS platforms are extremely beginner-friendly, while others require familiarity to use them effectively and efficiently. Many are free, open-source platforms and others are fee-based, all-in-one platforms. Some cater to certain types of businesses, such as online stores. It’s a good idea to become familiar with what the top CMS platforms offer, then narrow your selection down to two or three finalists. Dive deeper into each of the finalists to identify the CMS that will best meet your needs today and in the future.

4. Configure your CMS

Use your selected CMS to define how your website will look and function via its user interface. If your CMS offers pre-defined templates—and most do, chances are they are categorized by industry. Browse through templates to get ideas and determine which templates will best meet your needs. Create an image library and upload quality images you’ll be using on your website pages. Always check both the desktop and the mobile views on the CMS, and don’t forget to review your newly built website on real devices, including mobile phones, desktops, laptops, and tablets.

The most popular CMS in 2023

The CMS market is competitive and diverse. Some CMS platforms are tailored to certain website types, such as blogs or e-commerce, and provide solutions for specific businesses, such as e-commerce. Others support a wide range of uses and businesses. Some are designed for scalability, while others are more limited in expansion.

There are three types of CMS applications—open source, proprietary, and software as a service (SaaS). Open-source CMS platforms allow the software to be seen and modified by anyone depending on licensing, and access rights are popular nowadays. A proprietary CMS, which keeps the source code closed to the public.

The good news is that whatever your needs may be, there’s a CMS that’s right for you and your business.

Below are eight of the most popular CMS platforms on the web today.


WordPress is the most popular CMS in the world. It’s versatile and scalable enough for almost any type and size of business. More than 40% of all websites use WordPress and many web hosting providers specialize in WordPress hosting. Due to its vast open-source community, users can choose from around 8,000 themes (hundreds are customizable) and 58,00 plug-ins. Features include built-in site maps and other SEO tools, convenient backlinking and syndication, in-depth statistics and reports, headless options, built-in social sharing, APIs for integration outside resources, and much more.

Disadvantages include vulnerability to hacking (it comes with being the World’s most widely used CMS), especially the plug-ins, and frequent plug-in or theme updates to keep track of.


Drupal is a favorite open-source CMS among businesses with high-traffic sites. Highly scalable and flexible websites for TV and news media, national sports teams, cities, universities, and biopharmaceutical companies, to name a few, use Drupal. Functions include built-in caching for speed, thousands of add-on modules available, headless capabilities, specialized tools for handling a large volume of content such as a flexible taxonomy system, and gives developers the ability to create complex customized designs. It’s also secure, with lockdown capability and other features, which is one of the reasons more than 300 U.S. Government websites rely on Drupal.

Downsides typically revolve around Drupal’s complexity and the requirement to be familiar with the platform to use it. The interface is considered challenging. You’ll usually need a Drupal developer to create a website. If you’re using Drupal and need a developer, hire Drupal developers today.


More than one million businesses use this all-in-one, standalone, cloud-based, hosted platform to promote, sell, and ship physical or digital products.

Features include an intuitive interface, customizable themes, a wide range of third-party apps, various shipping rates, flexible product image editing and display functions, and robust data reports. Additionally, you can create catalogs of unlimited products, sell gift cards, process payment via credit card, and offer discount codes. Security options include SSL certificates for your store that encrypt all data, pass it through a secure connection, and set up and manage various sales channels, including social media, using out-of-the-box functions or third-party plug-ins.

Consider where your business might head in the future and potential changes to your buyer personas before selecting Shopify. Migrating from Shopify to a flexible e-commerce CMS can be time-consuming. For example, suppose you envision using rich content such as videos and carousels (a slideshow of photos or videos that website visitors can swipe through horizontally). In that case, you may want to go with a more flexible e-commerce CMS.


Joomla is a versatile, open-source CMS used to power everything from complex corporate websites to personal homepages. It’s especially good for business, nonprofit, club websites, and those looking to create online forums, a social network, or an e-commerce store. Features include powerful built-in SEO tools and options, easy content editing and publishing, thousands of third-party plug-ins (although many are not free), and templates, as well as template override for custom designs. To improve your website performance and loading speed, you can use tools such as Joomla caching, Gzip page compression, and JCH Optimize.

Disadvantages include a user interface that is slightly complicated to someone unfamiliar with it and backward compatibility issues with some of the templates and extensions. Plus, many of the plug-ins are not free.  


Woocommerce is a free, open-source, customizable plug-in that seamlessly integrates with WordPress as a built-in CMS. It supports everything from physical products and digital downloads to subscriptions, content, and even appointments. Features include unrestricted customization, unlimited products, images, and galleries, myriad themes, built-in blogging, and the ability to assign tags, categories, and attributes to your products and services.  

Downsides include pricing that may not be easy to estimate. Although Woocommerce is free to download and install, some extensions require payment so your site can operate at optimum capacity. Another disadvantage is that sometimes WooCommerce updates don’t always work well with WordPress.


Magento is an open-source, feature-rich, scalable, enterprise-class e-commerce CMS owned by Adobe that offers self-hosting. The company also provides a cloud-based, managed solution called Magento 2 Adobe Commerce. Here, we’re highlighting open-source Magento.

Advantages include an intuitive administration interface, flexible SEO optimization, customizable design using templates, robust catalog management tools, shipping options, one-page checkout, flexible pricing with coupon code options, and powerful marketing and promotional tools. You can also control multiple sites and panels from one administration panel.

One main downside is Magento’s large and complex structure. People with little or no Magento experience can find it challenging, and customization can be time-consuming, driving up costs and hosting expenses.


If you’re seeking a beginner-friendly CMS platform with thousands of themes for your newsletter, blog, or media, Ghost—a not-for-profit company—may offer an ideal solution. You can choose from a managed hosted (Ghost Pro) option with enterprise-grade security and advanced capabilities or a non-hosted option.

Known for its clean, user-friendly interface, speed, and extensive publishing and editing features, Ghost also boasts substantial built-in SEO features, free email marketing, full-screen editing, and a wide range of themes for different categories such as journals, newsletters, magazines, and blogs. Additionally, Ghost offers podcast support, creating custom RSS feeds to submit to popular podcast players such as iTunes.

Disadvantages include lack of flexibility. For instance, if you’re a food blogger and decide to offer products through an online store, Ghost doesn’t have a built-in tool to turn your blog into an e-commerce website. However, it’s possible if you’re using Ghost Pro and integrate a Snipcart with the application.


Wix is an all-in-one solution with user-friendly, intuitive, drag-and-drop building tools. It’s a popular website-building platform for small businesses. Wix offers a vast assortment of professionally designed, customizable templates, excellent support, and various pricing options paid monthly, bi-annually, or annually. It also includes the ability to create an online store from scratch, provides easy-to-use SEO tools and analytics, and provides site security without compromising speed.

Downsides include lack of control. Since Wix is a managed platform, it probably isn’t for you if you want to control every aspect of your website. Also, if you want to change templates, you may have to build a new Wix website if customizing your current template won’t work for you.


Content management system applications enable you to efficiently and affordably create a website and then add and manage digital content without spending lots of time and money on coding. Yet, with so many options, features, and functionality offered by various platforms,  selecting the optimal CMS for your business now and that will most likely support your future needs isn’t as straightforward as it may initially seem.

If you don’t have the available staff or staff with the appropriate expertise to choose a CMS and create your website, Upwork, the world’s work marketplace, enables you to hire freelancers with these skills and more with ease and confidence.

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this section. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.


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