Margaret Schell wanted a new website for S.PR, the boutique public relations firm she owns in Los Angeles. The firm already had an attractive, simple site that let visitors find her business address, phone number and client list. But Schell wanted something more dynamic, filled with current press clippings and photos, and more importantly, she wanted to blog. So she hired a web developer who created the website of her dreams.
Until she tried to use it.
"It was so impossible," Schell says of the content management system, or CMS, that was created especially for her business, "we just let it sit there."
Many small-business owners can sympathize. Gone are the days when a basic landing page can serve as your business' sole presence on the web. If you want customers to find you, you need them to to do so while surfing and searching. And the best way to bolster your showing in search engine rankings is to add relevant content to your website on a regular basis.
A CMS is supposed to make it easy to add that vital content--blog posts, e-commerce items, videos and more--without your having to edit every page of your site each time you post. But choosing the right system is daunting. A simple blogging platform might be all your tiny, trendy boutique needs to let people know when you get new merchandise. Or, if you're looking for more horses under the hood, you may want a customizable CMS that will allow you to collect an e-mail address mailing list, sell your goods directly to your customers, serve ads on your site and more.
Throw in other considerations--such as how tech-savvy you are and how much money you can spend--and it's easy to see how entrepreneurs such as Schell can go wrong.
So before you dive in and try to do it yourself or spend thousands on a developer who may put together a site beyond your comprehension, here's what you need to sort through.
"It's all about what you want to accomplish," says Prescott Shibles, CEO of Vital Business Media, an online business-to-business publishing company in New York City.
First, consider what kind of content you plan to post. If the answer includes frequently updated blog posts, videos, articles, photo galleries and reviews, you will need a more powerful (and complex) system. You may want to check out Drupal, a free open-source CMS that allows you to designate each type of content you will post.
Say you own a music store. You can set up a specialized content type--"guitar"--that allows you to easily add a new manufacturer, price and description to that section of your website. You can then regularly update the site as you get new guitars, adding reviews and an e-commerce shopping cart, without changing your site's appearance.
Another popular free, open-source service that focuses on blogging is WordPress. The biggest difference between it and Drupal is Drupal's ability to set up specialized, custom content types. However, WordPress has begun to morph into a more advanced platform, and Shibles and other experts say the gap is closing. But where Drupal starts as a blank slate and turns into a website with the addition of various modules, WordPress is simple enough to be set up by a novice. Well, a novice who's comfortable with technology.
"WordPress is better for the average user--someone who wants to be able to go in there and edit content in the way that you would in Microsoft Word," says Alex Becker, president of Highly Relevant, a Los Angeles marketing firm that builds blogs and manages social media strategies for small businesses. Becker likes WordPress for its vast community of user-contributed plug-ins, which most users can install with a little education, as well as the program's clean, nearly self-explanatory interface.
"The average company isn't going to create tons of new content on its website," he adds. True that. Notables using Drupal include The White House--anything but average, indeed. Becker says that Drupal is ideal for users looking to create an informational site around their business.
"If you have anywhere from 10 to 200 static pages and a blog that you update regularly, WordPress is perfect," he says. "But if the way you make money is by posting one to 10 articles a day, then you should start thinking about Drupal."
Joomla is another free, open-source CMS that is on the same power par as Drupal. But Joomla has a comparatively smaller community of plug-in and module developers, which makes it less popular with techies.
"When most people are making the decision between Drupal and Joomla, it's because one of the geeks who's making it work behind the scenes has a preference for one or the other," Shibles says. He adds that once most small-business owners decide that a more powerful CMS will suit their needs, they pay a developer to make those decisions.
And when it comes to cost, there is no magic number: The price depends on your needs. A basic, well-designed and search-engine friendly WordPress blog might run $1,000. A full-blown site built with Vignette, a powerful commercial CMS used by major corporations, will likely exceed $250,000. Lower-cost developers can be found through elance.com and rentacoder.com, two websites that allow developers to "bid" on your project.
"You can basically offshore your development," Shibles says.
But what if you need to add content on the cheap and want to go the DIY route?
If you have at least a basic understanding of the technology and coding, you can do it--and that includes Drupal and Joomla. Even with WordPress, which is on the easy end of the CMS spectrum and requires little coding to do basic operations, a checklist of plug-ins needs to be activated to transform your site from a hobbyist blog to a business owner's cash cow.
"The average user needs two plug-ins to make WordPress SEO friendly--the all-in-one SEO pack and the XML Google sitemap," Becker says. Each download, which can be found by searching the plug-ins section of the WordPress dashboard, is free.
Another question: Do you plan to integrate other technologies?
For example, if you're a publisher looking to sell ads, you will need to plug in an ad server. If you're a personal trainer, you might have instructional fitness videos that need to be hosted. Sure, different CMSes handle different outside components with varying degrees of ease. But Shibles warns against having too many cooks in the kitchen.
"Don't have 10 different little things running at the same time," he says. "Find something that works reasonably well for 80 percent of the stuff you need to do."
A new, much anticipated entry into the CMS landscape is Drupal Gardens, which is in beta and, for a monthly fee, will give users the power and flexibility of Drupal with a simplified interface similar to WordPress'. The cost of Drupal Gardens, which was started by Drupal founder Dries Buytaert, will be less than $40 a month for sites with as many as 20,000 daily visitors.
It's not a bad trade-off for convenience. But remember, WordPress, Joomla and Drupal's full version are free. To keep costs low, Shibles advises against using more power than you need.
"Don't make it more complex than it has to be," he says. "Start with a blog site to begin with. Start with WordPress, get that under your belt. And then a year later, you can always upgrade to something more robust and powerful. But starting with something powerful that you don't know how to use oftentimes leads to frustration and failure."
And Schell, the publicist ready to rip her hair out over a too-powerful CMS, understands that all too well.
She threw away her custom interface and went with WordPress.
"Can I tell you what a difference it makes?" she says. "All it takes is a little time and focus to learn it initially and then it's up and running."
Erin Weinger is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and publisher of the website Style Section L.A.