Content management systems (CMS) are a dime a dozen and selecting the right solution for your next website can be challenging. They have become a commodity and being able to objectively evaluate one versus another is hard. All of them do the same thing and when you’re done you will have a fully functional website that will hopefully serve your needs. What sets them apart are their processes. Specifically, how they empower you and your team to build and maintain your website. It’s these differences like licensing, installation, front-end coding, content construction, user management, extension and maintenance that you should focus on when comparing one system with another.

In this post we’ll use these factors to investigate the differences between two popular content management systems on the market today: ExpressionEngine and WordPress.

Before wading in to the features and how-to’s of each system you first need to look at their licensing. Are they open source or propriety? If open source, what license do they use? Any commercial limitations? If proprietary, do you have access to the source code? Are there ongoing expenses beyond the initial licensing fee? How much does it cost? It’s important to answer these questions first and make sure the answers jive with your organizations’ rules and regulations before deciding to move ahead with any particular system. You have access to the full source code and there are no ongoing licensing costs or restrictions.

WordPress is one of the most, if not the most, popular CMSs on the market today due in large part to its open source license. Users are free to use and/or modify WordPress for any personal or commercial project without restriction. ExpressionEngine is built on LAMP technologies, just like WordPress, but is closed source and propriety. Users can purchase it for a one-time fee but will need to ensure they continue to use it within any requisite license restrictions.

Before you can start using either CMS you first need to install them on your server and run any necessary updates. WordPress and ExpressionEngine are both very straightforward and simple to install. WordPress has its famous “5-minute install” process as well as plenty of automated install options offered by hosting providers. ExpressionEngine’s install process doesn’t get as much hype, or have as many automated options, but it is equally straightforward to get up and running. The primary difference is that WordPress requires less IT support and resources where ExpressionEngine will likely require a helping hand from IT to get up and running.

Front-end Coding
When it comes to writing the HTML, CSS and JavaScript of your site, content management systems offer two clear options: those that are theme based and those that are template based. Theme based CMSs, like WordPress, are more plug-and-play and modularized. You can easily purchase pre-made designs and be up and running in a matter of minutes. Template based CMSs, like ExpressionEngine, provide developers with easier workflows and lower learning curves but are not as modular, making it more difficult to find available plug-and-play front-end components. This is important to consider when determining what kinds of internal technology resources you will have to work on your project. It is important to ask yourself which will they be more comfortable working with?

Content Construction
How does the CMS manage the content? All systems tend to work off a content categorization concept that closely resembles the information architecture of your website. Meaning that if your site has a news section, you will likely have a news content type or category where all content matching that footprint should be placed. Out of the box, WordPress provides two content types: posts and pages. Posts are meant for “dynamic content” or content where content will be added or changed often and pages are for “static content” which doesn’t change. ExpressionEngine provides a different set-up out of the box, allowing administrators to create their own completely custom content types in the admin area which tends to keep things a little more organized and straightforward for website managers.

It’s worth mentioning that WordPress allows for the creation of custom post types, which creates a very similar kind of workflow to ExpressionEngines. However, this functionality needs to either be defined within the theme (by a developer) for each post type or enabled by installing a plug-in which allows administrators to create custom post types and fields through the control panel.

User Management
Will visitors be able to register for an account on your website? Manage a profile or configure account settings? These are common features on a lot of websites today and using a CMS that provides a framework for this out of the box can save time and money. Both WordPress and ExpressionEngine have user registration capabilities but offer different levels of configuration. WordPress’ approach is limited out of the box requiring users to use the CMS log-in screen, not providing much in the way of user profiles or other capabilities. ExpressionEngines user management functionality is extensive and highly customizable, allowing administrators to create custom profile fields, custom log-in pages/workflows and additional advanced features.

Your website is unique and as such will likely require whatever CMS you choose to be modified slightly to fit your needs. Can this be done easily or will developers have to hack in to the core code of the system causing all sorts of headaches in the future? Both WordPress and ExpressionEngine provide robust extension options empowering developers to modify both front-end and control panel look, feed and functionality. WordPress plug-ins can be written to change everything from the CMS log-in process to how content is passed to the front-end of your site independently from the core code. Same for ExpressionEngine, where developers have the option of developing modules, plug-ins, extensions, accessories or field types without interfering with the core system code.

You should always be keeping the concept of maintenance, as in “how much will this solution cost to maintain?”, in the back of your mind. Beyond the strictly financial cost there is also staff time and required skill level to consider as well. It’s very important that your CMS be updated and maintained on a regular basis to keep your website secure and ensure everything is working correctly. WordPress has the clear upper hand when it comes to updates and maintenance as it’s largely automated. The system will, from time to time, automatically install minor updates to ensure your install remains current. But other major updates can be completed with one click and little to no IT intervention. ExpressionEngines update process is much more traditional and requires IT intervention throughout.

Picking a content management system today is hard. Trying to filter through the marketing lingo and hype to find the right solution for your organization is difficult but extremely important. The next time you find yourself in the CMS isle of the Internet superstore try using some of the above criteria to help you choose the right software for your project.

Need help with a content management or other digital marketing project. Please contact us.