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Content Management Systems have become one of the most powerful web development tools on the internet since PHP. In a market where websites need to be built faster and more easily, many developers are turning to open source CMS solutions to get the job done. Many already know all about CMS, but many more haven’t yet heard of them. If you’re in the latter group, pay close attention. This article will explain what a Content Management System is, review important things to look for when choosing one, and list some recommended systems.

Open Source CMS – What Are They?

A Content Management System (CMS) is essentially a web application that uses a database (usually MySQL) or other methods to create, edit, and store HTML (or other) web content in an easy-to-manage way. Content is created and edited for the web through an administrative portion of the web application (referred to as the Backend) and this content is then displayed to viewers on the regular website (referred to as the Frontend).
Almost all Content Management Systems out there offer methods of extending their functionality through the use of extra code, usually referred to as plugins, modules, or extensions. These can offer extra functionality to your website without any major effort on your part.
Many CMS also offer themes. Themes are effectively ‘clothes’ for your CMS. They determine the look and feel of your website. Every CMS has a different structure for themes, but they usually include several .php files and a few .css files that are used in conjunction with the core system to produce the look and feel of your site.
Now, what about the ‘open source’ part? Boiled down to what probably matters to most people, open source means it’s FREE! But there’s actually so much more to it than that. open source means that the source code of the project is free to download, change, and use. Often developers will make their product open source to allow countless other developers to use and improve on their design. These improvements then are incorporated into future versions of the “code” to help the project to flourish and grow. So an open source CMS is one that anyone can use or improve on, for free.

What can a CMS do for me?

There’s a lot a CMS can do for you. While specific functionality varies based on which system you choose to work with, there are several features you should find with almost every CMS, either as standard functionality or through some additional plugin or module.

  • Blogging Capabilities
  • Media Publishing
  • User Registration
  • Contact Form Creation
  • Newsletter Management
  • Calendar System
  • Event Management
  • Online Form Creation
  • Forum Capabilities

And the list goes on and on. Now, here’s the real reason you should be interested in using a CMS. That Administrative backend we talked about earlier allows you to control and install all of these features on your website without being a programmer! How great is that?

What to look for in choosing a CMS?

As already mentioned, there are countless open source CMS options out there from which to choose. When I first discovered the power of open source CMS I was like a kid who just received a key to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – I had no idea where to start and I wanted to try it all! Well, I quickly learned not all CMS are created equal. Each have different strengths and weaknesses. Here are some basic guidelines to help you select a CMS to use:
Step 1: Make a list of requirements.
First things first: you should know what kind of site you want to build. Make a list describing the functionality you need. Do you want a forum? A contact form? User registration? Determine what you want before ever choosing a CMS.
Step 2: Do research… lot’s and lot’s of research.
This is the most important step. Here’s where you discover if a particular CMS can provide you what you need. (I skipped this step once…not a good experience.) Use list created in step one and start researching online. Most CMS have their own website where you can test out their system to see how the administrative interface works. If you’re having a tough time and it’s proving difficult, that might not be the system for you.
Step 3: Check for available extensions.
Be sure to look into the plugins or modules that any potential CMS has to offer to ensure you can get the right functionality out of your site. Be careful to not be convinced by any one extension. If you can’t find good extensions for everything on your list, excitement over that CMS will fade fast.
Step 4: Investigate design options.
Stunning website design doesn’t always translate into significant traffic (e.g. craigslist), but a clean looking, user friendly website is definitely NOTgoing to hurt your chances. When looking into a CMS, investigate the availability of themes. Some CMS offer free high quality themes and even premium versions for a small one-time fee. WordPress is the king of this right now and their wide selection of available premium and free themes is a major asset to that platform.
If you are planning on creating a custom theme. Explore what free theme frameworks are available. There are many powerful, responsive frameworks now being released for some of the major CMS systems.
Step 5: Dive in.
Ok, now that you’ve made your list, researched, verified available extensions, and are satisfied with your theme options, it’s time to take the plunge! Try setting up your own site with the system. Add your desired extensions and get your content moving. Then build your theme or buy a premium theme to work with.

What’s Next?

Now you know the basics about content management systems. Remember to carefully choose the option that best fits your needs. Do a LOT of research before committing too much time to any one CMS. There are many countless other options (many we’ll soon review here on the bluehost blog) so make sure to do your research and you’ll be set for success with a powerful website in no time!
Bluehost Tip: You can install as many websites on your Bluehost web hosting account as you wish. Our 1-click SimpleScripts installer makes it easy to get different CMS up and running, so experiment to your heart’s content with different CMS options. SimpleScripts is located in your Bluehost cPanel under ‘Software/Services’.
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