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Content Managed Websites

These days most websites are likely to use some form of content management. This article provides an introduction to how they work. I offer three options for content managed sites:

What is a content managed website

Content managed websites (also known as dynamic sites) work with a database. The database holds most of the information displayed on the site. Unlike a static website, where each pages exists as an HTML document, a dynamic site only has one 'page'. The page uses scripting (programming) to construct the page that is actually displayed to the visitor. To do this scripting retrieves information from the database according to parameters sent by the visitor's browser.

Benefits of content managed websites

The major benefit of content managed websites is that they can be managed online using a standard web browser but there is more to it than that. Static HTML sites quickly become unwieldy. For example, keeping menus up to date on each page rapidly becomes a major, error prone, exercise. Content managed site enable data can be organised programmatically - this should mean no broken links in menus. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Once a webpage can communicate with a database the door is opened to all sorts of user-interaction. So, content managed websites move beyond providing information to actually delivering services.

Modules, components and plugins

Content managed sites are web based software applications. On any system there are core tasks which need to be done: storing and retrieving data, providing a structure to manage the data, interpreting browser requests and compiling the page appropriately. However, a site might want to do more than this - for example provide a news service or calendar of events. Content management systems generally do this by providing a core system which can be extended by small programmes that do specific tasks, they may be called different things but they play the same role:

  • Drupal calls them modules
  • Wordpress uses plugins
  • Joomla prefers components

This modular approach makes content managed sites very flexible. Firstly, a calendar of events may not be a core task but will certainly be quite widely used - so there is likely to be at least one module that offers this functionallity. Secondly, if a module doesn't already exist it is possible to put together a bespoke module.

Site design - Themes

Another way in which content managed sites provide efficiency is in styling - or theming. As the data is held in a database it is independent of any particular look. Content managed sites use page templates, with the templates being populated with required data in response to each request to view a page. This ensures a consitent look across a site. In addition, it also means a site can be given a complete new look by simply amending the page templates - or changing the theme.

Costs of Content Management

For any sites other than the smallest ones it is likely that costs of content managed sites will be outweighed by the benefits. However, there are costs that it can be useful to bear in mind.

Flexibility and Structure - Content managed sites are inherently highly structured. In general this is a good thing and works well with a template approach to design - ensuring a consistent look and feel across a site. This consistency not only gives a professional look but also helps users intuitively find their way around. But at times it can be restrictive.

Processing Power - Off the shelf systems such as Drupal and Wordpress are increasingly complex applications, all that processing takes up server resources.

Modules - bespoke programming can be time-consuming and therefore costly. Using off the shelf modules provides the benefit of reducing those costs. But, if that benefit is going to be realised, it may mean some compromise. A module may do 95% of the task, or 100% of it but not quite the way initially envisaged. Bespoke or modified modules may need upating as a core system is updated, or modules they rely on develop.