Key Features to Evaluate When Selecting a Web Content Management System

Aaron Branson
May 27, 2010
Web Strategy , Web Development

In the last 8+ years of designing and developing WCM (or CMS, choose your favorite acronym) -based websites, we at Roundedcube have seen an evolving theme of key features to evaluate to make the best choice for your organization. I want to point out some of these features and explain the various options you may encounter when comparing WCM software. Hopefully, you'll find this as a helpful starting point if you are in the early stages of considering a new WCM for your organization.

Content Structure and Presentation Separation

Just starting with the basics, you'll find a wide-range of capabilities and approaches to achieving the ability to "manage content". Keeping in mind the underlying objective of choosing a WCM is to share control of the website with business users, a key component is how does the WCM structure the content and separate it from the presentation (or design code) of the website. You'll discover that some systems at one end of the spectrum just provide a nice user interface to creating and editing content on a page-by-page basis. Beware of these types of solutions as you'll find that your editors will have to re-create the same content over and over per page leading to inconsistencies; and they'll also still have to maintain the proper design and layout of the content. As a result, what you have is a nice editing tool, but not necessarily a WCM.

On the other end of the spectrum you'll find systems that "structure" the content into refined components and allow editors to deal strictly with the content and also avoid having to modify and worry about design consistency. In addition, the same content components are in turn re-used over and over without having to duplicate content. This scenario is truly "managing the content". Depending on the size and needs of your organization, you can choose the WCM that provides the appropriate level of control.


Another factor that can vary from one WCM to the next is the concept of publishing. Again, taking two extremes, with one WCM there may be no publishing process - meaning what you edit and save, is what the rest of the world visiting your website will see. However, a typical organization requires some level of control in determining when content is "in-progress" and when it is "live". In terms of publishing, look for a WCM that offers the ability to preview how your site will actually look "if" published and also gives you the ability to schedule publishing by specifying ahead of time when a piece of content should go live and when it should be retired.

Workflow/Approvals/Quality Control

Whichever term makes most sense to you, essentially we're talking about the capability to tailor the WCM publishing process to the process and structure of your organization. A WCM should facilitate your ability to have content reviewed and rejected or approved. A typical organization can get by with a simple "submit for approval" and "approve/reject" option. However, larger, more complex organizations that also incorporate partners and even translation providers may need more complex workflow. Look for a WCM that can provide the level of flexibility you will require - keeping in mind the foreseen growth of your website.

Web and WCM User Security

This is a broad topic. It includes simply being able to restrict pages to anonymous versus authenticated users. It also includes users and roles amongst the WCM users, which permeates the entire system such as securing who can see, edit, approve, publish various pieces of content. Each WCM has a varying degree of granularity and flexibility in terms of security - some much more powerful than others. In terms of security, consider how restrictive your organization needs to be. Will you need to limit the capabilities of your WCM users to specific functions or content areas? Or will it be pretty much wide open and trust that users will use the system as you intended? And in terms of your audience, do you have registered users? What system are they stored in and should they be stored in the WCM.


This is a very commone feature to any website of course. Some systems have a built-in search mechanism and some prefer to rely on 3rd party search tools and simply provide the hooks necessary for integration. Explore what each WCM has available to determine that their search solutions match up with the requirements and importance of search to your website.

Bonus Features!

Now keep in mind that the 5 features above is not a comprehensive list. And they're meant to really represent "core" WCM features. This is a solid start to your evaluation process. In addition, aside from core WCM features many systems now incorporate web marketing aspects - e-newsletters, analytics, personalization, campaign management, forms, etc. Managing your website entirely includes more than content management so if you find a WCM that does a good job of handling these other requirements, that is very valuable. Anytime you can reduce complexity in terms of the shear number of disparate systems you have to deal with, that is definitely a plus. If the system doesn't natively handle these marketing-centric requirements, make sure that they are open to integration via a solid API.

Where to Go Now?

As you know, choosing the right WCM is a crucial decision. I hope this helps get you started in the right direction, but I know its not the end-all be-all for sure. So what's next? I recommend you check out the whitepaper from Sitecore titled "Choosing the Best Web CMS". It goes beyond the 5 features I mention above and digs into issues concerning IT, business users, developers, marketing - everyone involved in the process. Also, CMS Watch is a great source for the latest research and vendor evaluations. I'd like to know your findings as well if you've already gone through this process of choosing a web content management system.

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