Most lawyers focus on the tangible elements of a website, usually the parts they can see, when making a website purchasing decision. They pore over web designer portfolios and look at things such as the overall look of the designs, the color schemes, the photos used, etc. Now don’t get me wrong, these elements are critically important. However, much further down a typical lawyer’s priority scale is the platform or Content Management System (CMS) the website is built on. It is very important that you understand the type of CMS you are getting and how it impacts the marketing, ongoing maintenance, and ownership of your firm’s website.
What Is A Content Management System (CMS)?
Modern day websites are built on content management systems. A content management system is basically a backend for your website that you can login to via your browser in order to add pages, blog posts, update text on a page, add photos and videos, etc. While there are many variations, most work almost like a Word editor so that you can make changes to your website and publish the changes live on the web without having to write code.
The Two Main “Buckets” For Content Management Systems
There are many different content management systems out there, but for the most part I put content management systems for law firm websites into two main “buckets”. The first bucket contains content management systems that are proprietary and the second are open source. Let’s break down some of the differences.
Proprietary Content Management Systems
This “bucket” contains platforms that are created, modified, or owned by the company you are purchasing your website from. While the systems themselves can take many different forms and have a wide-range of functionality, the most important thing to understand is whether or not you have ownership of the CMS after you purchase the website. In other words, will you still have access to your CMS in the event that you separate from the web designer or marketing company that built your website.
With websites built on proprietary systems, often times you will own the design of your site and the content but not the CMS. In this case, it’s important to understand that if you were to move on from the company that built your website, you will most likely receive your website files but lose the backend access. In other words, you will get a copy of your website in its current form, but you will not be able to login and make changes to the site. In this case you will either have to hard code changes moving forward (not very likely) or you’ll have to pay to have the site rebuilt on another platform. In a sense, with this type of setup you are paying for a website design and possibly the content, but you are “renting” the use of the proprietary content management system.
Another thing you want to be cognizant of with a proprietary system is what types of access and add-ons the system provides. Will you or your marketing agency be able to access and/or change important elements of the site such as your page titles, url structure, meta descriptions, etc.? Also, does the site provide added functionality for things like adding a blog, tracking code, newsletter signup, social media components, etc.? It’s important that the website CMS has some level of flexibility so it can adjust with your firm’s needs today as well as down the road.
One benefit of proprietary systems is that often times they are less vulnerable to widespread hacking efforts since they are not as widely used as the open source systems.
Open Source Content Management Systems
Open source content management systems are not “owned” by any single company. With these types of systems, the use of the CMS is free for anyone. Examples of open source content management systems include WordPress, Drupal, & Joomla. Although the systems are “free to use”, it will still take a certain level of technical and design skills to setup and launch an effective website on an open source system.
There are a few advantages with open source systems:
- There are many different developers that work on open source systems such as the ones mentioned above. The advantage is that there are a wide array of choices you have regarding who you work with on your website. You are not locked into working with one firm for the life of your website.
- Many of the most popular open source systems have thriving developer communities that build additional functionality for the systems in the form of add-ons or plugins. These work similar to the way you can download an App for your iPhone or iPad that enable the device to perform various functions. These plugins or add-ons are little pieces of software that enable your content management system to do different things. This makes these systems very flexible and adaptable to your needs.
- You will have ownership of the CMS. You don’t have to worry about a situation where you separate from your law firm web design or marketing company and you no longer have login access to your website. No “renting” in this situation.
- Most of the popular open source CMS systems enable access to elements of your website that are important for search marketing such as title tags, url structure, meta descriptions, etc. This can be a big problem from a search marketing perspective if a CMS you are using does not offer access to these parts of your site.
One downside to open source systems is that due to their popularity, they are a bigger target for hackers. If you take the necessary security precautions, you shouldn’t have much to worry about. However, this is something to consider when choosing your website platform.
Which Type of System Do I Recommend?
The truth is that there is no “right” answer with this one. All things being equal, I advocate using an open source system because I believe that ownership, unlimited access, and flexibility with your website are very important. That being said, there are situations where a proprietary CMS would be a better fit with a firm’s needs and strategy.
The most important point to all of this is educating yourself with the advantages and disadvantages of the systems available to you. When you have the knowledge and proper expectations about the type of website system you are using, you will be able to make an intelligent purchasing decision that fits with your firm’s goals.