What Exactly is a Content Management System?

A Brief History

Back in the dark ages of the Internet, when I started designing websites, I hand-coded everything using HTML (hypertext markup language). This “language” told the browser how to display the page. In order to display columns, or anything more interesting than a never-ending page, we created tables. It was all very slow and cumbersome.

Then along came some WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editors that did all the coding. Whoopee! Unfortunately, they were usually buggy, so after setting up a page in the editor, I’d have to go back and look at the code and change it by hand anyway. Saved a little time, but not much.

Next in the evolutionary process was CSS (cascading style sheets). This was a completely different way of instructing the browser how to display the page, and it did away with tables and some of the other methods designers had been using to get stuff to stay in the right place.

For a few years, web design became the domain (pun intended!) of programmers. Words like “PHP” and “mySQL” were bandied about, then XML, XTML, and even more acronyms. Websites started doing more, and the programmers created ways to automate a lot of the time-consuming tasks.

For example, back when I started designing websites, if the page banner changed because a new category was added, I had to go to each and every page in the site and replace the banner. But thanks to some of the new programming tricks, the banner isn’t actually on the page any more! Instead, it’s a component which the browser “serves” when the page loads. Now when I change the banner, it’s changed for each and every page, automatically.

That process has now evolved to become the Content Management System, or CMS. Essentially, the CMS consists of programming which tells your browser how to “serve” the website to you. CMS offers huge advantages for the user and the creator.


A CMS website is far more flexible than a static site. A user can navigate the site in many different ways:

  • clicking on menu buttons and links
  • entering a term in a search box
  • selecting articles or posts from a specific category or with a certain tag

For a creator, a CMS site is also more flexible. The same post can be written once, but show up on many different pages within the website. This post, when I’m finished with it, will have the tags, “WordPress,” “CMS” and “Content Management System.” If you search for “CMS” anywhere on this site, this article will show up, along with every other article with the “CMS” tag.

Easier to Search

Back in the good old days of website design, searching the site was slow and not terribly accurate. Now, with CMS, searching is much faster and you get better results.

Easier to Change

Sometimes you want to change the look of your site for a short time, then revert to its regular look. We’ve all seen the little graphics Google adds for holidays — that’s one example. Or perhaps you are running a contest, or a special offer that’s time sensitive. With a CMS, you can set up those changes, tell the system when to implement them, and when to stop them. Voila! Leprechauns or sale banners with the click of a button!

Easier to Collaborate

With a CMS, each member of your team can create and upload his or her own content — you don’t need to hire a specialist to update the site. In fact, you don’t have to learn any design or coding at all — if you can use a text editor, you can use a CMS.