Simon Willison’s Weblog

Simpler content managment

Perls of wisdom in a sea of site mismanagement, via the ever-excellent Column Two:

The great surprise of the past five years of content management is that, despite all the hundreds of systems, no clear winners have emerged. Instead, there’s a growing dissatisfaction with the ongoing technical burden that such systems impose.

Some influential voices are starting to argue that many sites should, in effect, wait out this immature phase of website management. For the moment, they should content themselves with limited automation.

The article concludes with the idea that many sites can do perfectly well with a few simple Perl scripts and maybe a relational database on the back end, rather than investing in an expensive super-package that claims to be able to do anything you could possibly want. This is very sound advice. The simple fact of the matter is that many sites really don’t need a complex content management platform with support for templating, user logins, workflow, versioning and a dozen other high end features. Most sites just need someone to be able to easily update them, when necessary. This is why Macromedia Contribute has been such a success—people want the ability to hit “Edit This Page”, make a few changes and publish straight to their site.

I’ve worked on my fair share of content management systems (in fact I’m helping develop one at the moment) and out of all of the ones I’ve been involved in, the one I got the biggest kick out of took the shortest time to develop. It was based on Tavi Wiki, and consisted of a password protected Tavi install for the back end and a slightly modified separate install for the front end. Both installs pointed to the same database, but the front end was altered to disable all editing features and make the site look less like a Wiki. You can see the end result here.

All in all, the CMS took less than an hour to put together from start to finish. It made it easy enough for contributors with no previous knowledge of HTML to update the site (using Wiki markup) and provided us with full versioning on all content contained within the project. The final site gives very few clues that the underlying engine is a Wiki, and thanks to Tavi’s ease of customisation the site design can be easily changed to look even less wiki-like. It’s close to the simplest thing that could possibly work and it works just fine.

Of course, if you don’t have a competent server-side programmer to hand your only option is to buy a pre-made solution, but with a half-decent programmer and a good set of tools a simple home built CMS customised to fit your needs could be a much better investment than some $100,000 one-size-fits all monstrosity.

This is Simpler content managment by Simon Willison, posted on 5th December 2003.

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