When in need of a new website, one of the first decisions you have to make is what content management system (CMS) to choose.
There are, generally, three paths you can consider – a custom CMS, a proprietary CMS, or an open-source CMS. Which one you opt for depends largely on your business needs and budget.
Sounds simple enough, right?
However, nowadays, with the advancement of the web development industry, the multiple agencies available, and the improvement in the functionalities of open-source platforms, choosing a course of action has become a complicated task.
In this article, we talk about the pros and cons of open source CMS vs. proprietary CMS vs. custom CMS, shed light on possible alternatives, and suggest how to choose the best platform for your business.
Read on to learn more!
What Is a Content Management System?
A content management system, or CMS, is a tool that allows you to manage the information on a website without having to write or operate code.
In other words, the CMS makes it possible for non-tech-savvy users to manage a website and upload content such as text, images, videos, and so on.
In order for the management team to run the site easier, companies should consider the following aspects of the CMS:
Based on these, we can compare the three most commonly considered CMS options – open source, proprietary, and custom.
Custom CMS Vs. Open-Source CMS Vs. Proprietary CMS
Open-source, custom, and proprietary CMS platforms offer different approaches towards the same goal. The end result in all three cases is a website that the client can operate and manage without much difficulty.
However, there are vital differences.
Let’s have a look:
The custom CMS is also called proprietary, because the code belongs to (or is the property of) the development company that builds it, as opposed to the open-source CMS where the code is freely available and accessible to everyone.
When a business hires a company to create a CMS for them, they describe exactly what they need and the provider builds it. This includes all the functionalities of the website, the design, the interface, and whatever else the client desires.
Once the website is ready, the client has full access to it, and often continues communication and cooperation with the development company for further needs. These may involve additional functions, redesigns, maintenance, new employee onboarding, etc.
Let’s have a look at the most important factors we mentioned earlier:
- Functionality. The website will have the exact functions you need, and be implemented the way you want it to be.
- Customization. You can take, practically, any idea and customize it to your needs. The final result is tailored to your preferences.
- User-friendliness. This one depends entirely on the skills of the development team and how clear you have been about what you want.
- Security. If properly built, custom CMS platforms are usually as secure as they come. The developers implement the necessary safeguards to protect the site and the rest is left up to the online security culture of the website management team.
- Speed. As custom solutions don’t have anything unnecessary in the code (or at least they shouldn’t if they are of high quality), they, more often than not, are fast and aren’t prone to loading issues.
- SEO. The development company can implement all the necessary technical SEO features and provide instructions (as per your contract) on how to manage on-page SEO. This means that SEO is, generally, not an issue.
- Maintenance. The website can be maintained by the company that built it or by an in-house developer or development team.
Pros: The key benefit of a custom CMS is that, if you have a large enough budget, the end result can be, practically, anything that you want. Furthermore, a lot of the issues that you may come across in open-source solutions are not present here, because the developers have full control over every detail.
Cons: Creating a completely new CMS from scratch can be expensive. And if it’s not, this may mean that the quality that you receive at the end may not live up to your expectations.
Therefore, you are highly dependent on the skills of the developer or team that you hire.
In addition, depending on your needs and how well the provider understands them, the admin panel and the different functionalities may be complicated and difficult to operate. As a result, it may be challenging to onboard new employees, as they will have to learn a completely new interface, and way to do work.
Furthermore, the most important issue with custom CMS solutions is that, depending on the contract the client has signed with the development company, the code may belong to the company and not to the client.
This means that, if a moment comes when you are not pleased with their services, you can’t simply break up, walk away, and turn to another provider.
Well, you can. But, to do that, the new team or an agency will need to learn the code base, as each project is unique. Or you will need to build an entirely new website from scratch.
Proprietary CMS systems are built by a developer or company that owns the source code and has the legal rights to it. Clients can buy, rent, or use it for free, a license to create websites using the platform, but the code remains the property of the developer and is not available to the public.
Some examples of proprietary solutions are Adobe Experience Manager, Sitefinity, and Jadu.
Popular SaaS CMS platforms, such as Wix or Squarespace also fall in the category of proprietary software
- Functionality. The functionality of your website is confined to the capacity of the platform and its pre-built capabilities.
- Customization. Implementing customization and additional functions based on your business needs is not always possible – it depends on the platform and your plan. It may also be very expensive if it is an option.
- User-friendliness. This depends on the design of the platform. However, generally, if you choose a CMS that is robust and fits your needs, it should be quite user-friendly.
- Security. With these kinds of platforms, there is a special team keeping them up and running. As a result, security, more often than not, is not an issue. Also, with the code being private, there are less opportunities for ill-intentioned rogue devs to find vulnerabilities. That said, as with every platform, how secure it depends largely on the code and its quality.
- Speed. The system’s technical capabilities, including the speed, depend on the quality of the platform and the frequency of checks and updates.
- SEO. Similarly to the previous point, SEO shouldn’t be an issue for CMS platforms that are regularly updated and that keep up with the latest technical standards. However, if this is not the case, your website’s search engine performance may struggle.
- Maintenance. The development team is fully responsible for the maintenance of proprietary CMS websites. The software is (or at least it should be) updated regularly, and, after every update, a notification is issued to the clients, informing them of any changes that may affect its functionality and experience.
Pros: The foremost benefit of proprietary CMS software is that there is an entire team that deals with the development of the platform. This means that they can ensure the quality of the code, monitor performance, and implement improvements.
Furthermore, as mentioned, clients don’t need to worry about the development, updates, and maintenance of their websites. The provider takes care of everything. It’s a well-known fact that this is something many open-source users see as an inconvenience, so if you are one of them, propriety can really save you the trouble.
When it comes to security, a key advantage here is that any weak points and/or issues remain hidden to the public. If your developer identifies and handles them swiftly, it is less likely that the clients will experience any inconvenience.
Cons: The main disadvantage of proprietary CMS is that the client has almost no legal rights over their website. Depending on the contract, they may own the content and the design, but this is not nearly enough if you decide you want to change your provider and migrate to another platform.
In a nutshell, you might end up trapped in a relationship that may be quite difficult to leave.
Also, not all proprietary systems are the same. There are many different providers out there, and, to be successful, you need to be very careful when choosing the right one for your business.
As changes and customizations can be very difficult (and expensive) to implement, you need to be sure that the product is exactly what you need, and fully lives up to your business needs and user-experience expectations.
Furthermore, you need to be sure that the development company is reliable and will continue to actively work on the development of their products. Otherwise, you risk that, overtime, your website starts falling behind on SEO, security, and technical performance.
As mentioned, the key difference between open-source CMS platforms and custom and proprietary solutions is who owns the code. A community of programmers from around the world develop, upgrade, and improve open-source CMS. Thus, anyone can contribute with their input on errors, bugs, issues, and so forth.
Furthermore, the nature of contemporary open-source CMS platforms makes creating a website easy even without a programming background or minimal coding knowledge and technical skills. They are based on themes and plugins, and the client can mix and match them to create their own website.
Open-source CMS platforms have democratized web development. They made it possible for everyone, including startups, aspiring entrepreneurs, small business owners, mom-and-pop businesses, and average Joes, to build websites, take their operations online, and start their digital presence.
As a result, over the years, these solutions have become widely popular, and have taken the internet by storm.
There are multiple open-source CMS platforms, the most commonly used ones being WordPress (43%), Joomla! (1.7%), and Drupal (1.3%). The percentages in the brackets show how much of all the websites online are powered by the respective platform. As you can see, WordPress is the most popular one, and, of course, our personal favorite.
Just FYI, whenever people are talking about how awesome open-source CMS is, they are usually talking about WordPress.
What makes it so loved and popular is its scalability, flexibility, and ease of use.
With thousands of developers from all around the world working on it, WordPress has grown and evolved from a simple blog-building tool into a complex web development environment.
This evolution has made it possible that, in the right hands, it is more than capable of handling the needs of the mid-market and large enterprises as well.
- Functionality. When building a web solution with an open-source CMS platform, the user picks a theme (or has one custom-built for them) that defines the general outlook, functionalities, and layouts of the website. However, they can add practically any additional properties to it by installing plugins.
- Customization. In the hands of a professional developer or an agency, open-source CMS is almost completely customizable. In the hands of a non-tech-savvy user, though, there are considerable limitations, as stacking up too many plugins can result in a number of issues.
- User-friendliness. The admin panel of most platforms is easy to use and understand by regular users. Also, millions of people worldwide use CMS like WordPress. So, chances are that new employees may already be familiar with the interface and functionality.
- Security. Security is one of the most commonly addressed issues when it comes to open-source. As the code is accessible by practically anyone with internet access, it is easily susceptible to hack attacks and malware.
However, these issues are, more often than not, preventable by backing up and updating the CMS.
- Speed. Speed often comes up as another pressing issue. When using free and low-cost themes and plugins, there’s no guarantee of the quality of the code. This means that the website may be prone to loading slowly because of messy coding and bad implementation.
In addition, if the user carelessly installs multiple plugins, and neglects updates, this may further slow the pages down.
- SEO. The technical search engine optimization of open-source solutions is usually taken care of by plugins that manage the metadata, schema markup, sitemaps, etc.
However, your website may be in need of additional optimization.
- Maintenance. Unlike custom-made CMS websites, open-source ones need to constant monitoring, updates, and maintenance. Small-scale websites can easily operate no matter if users have basic technical knowledge.
However, business solutions, more often than not, need a professional touch.
Pros: With open-source CMS, anyone can build a website on a budget. The software is free to use by anyone who wants to, and, as mentioned, requires little additional skills.
However, when businesses have any particular preferences that they are unable to implement in-house, there are multiple professional agencies that deal specifically with open-source platforms. And usually, whether the client tries to build themselves or with professional development services affects scalability.
Furthermore, platforms such as WordPress are highly customizable and can cater to practically any business need.
As for security, even though the code is public, having an open-source platform is actually a good thing. There is a large community of people all over the world who are keeping watch and helping to improve security. This reduces the risk, unlike a platform with an in-house team to rely on.
Cons: Open-source platforms need active maintenance and updates, or else your data may fall victim to hack-attacks.
Don’t forget – despite the abundance of themes and plugins, they are not always compatible with each other. Also, this large variety makes it difficult to know who to trust. Dysfunctional code and irregular updates pose security risks.
While custom WordPress development eliminates these issues, it doesn’t come cheap. The same goes for Joomla! and Drupal as well.
What’s Best for Your Business?
As you can see, choosing the best CMS for your website is not an easy task.
So what’s best for your business?
In our professional opinion, it depends.
If you are a small business owner or just someone who wants to go digital and needs a simple solution, you can try building a WordPress website yourself and see how it goes. There are many decent tutorials available that can help you get started.
However, if you are a mid-market company or a large enterprise, your website will require higher technical standards. To that end, you may need a custom solution, or a high-end proprietary one.
Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean that investing a fortune in one of these is your only option.
As a matter of fact, WordPress is actually the best customizable CMS you can get for your money.
A professional WordPress agency will address your individual business needs. This way, you can rely on expert advice, high code quality, reliable support, and top-level maintenance.
Furthermore, if you are not content, seek another provider. Don’t worry – this doesn’t mean building an entirely new website from scratch.
This, among multiple other reasons, is why the platform is trusted by major brands such as Time Magazine, Variety, Mercedes Benz, Vogue, the Walt Disney Company, and numerous others. Even the website of the White House is powered by WordPress!
Choosing between a custom CMS, a proprietary one, or an open-source platform is a decision that you shouldn’t take lightly. After all, your whole digital presence and reputation may depend on it.
Take into account the risks, the financial investment, the functionality, and overall quality of the final result.
Furthermore, if you are a large company, consider scalability and growth, and how your website can facilitate those.
Still not sure what CMS is the best for your business? Don’t hesitate to give us a call, we’ll help you sort it out!