What is a Content Management System?
A Content Management System (CMS) is a third party software application which allows web site administrators to add, update or delete content, photos, and documents to their web site in “real time”. Many web sites are modified using these web-based tools as they require little to no knowledge of HTML or web scripting languages. CMS programs make it easy for a webmaster or site owner who does not know HTML or have access to a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) HTML Editor, such as Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, to update their site.
In today’s high paced web world, a good CMS is integral to the efficient operation of a web site. Many webmasters and web site developers are building database driven, or dynamic web sites, which require a third party solution, such as a Content Management System, to update the content that lives in the database. In addition, a CMS allows the web site owner to outsource content development remotely to contract copywriters and other willing contributors. With built in access level hierarchies, webmasters can allow various users to register as authors and start submitting articles and news to be published on their site.
How do Content Management Systems Work?
Content Management Systems create a dynamic web site environment, where all the content is stored in a database or XML file. Using a web-based interface, the webmaster can select which page they want to update and then can modify the web content in a text editor, with many of the familiar formatting keys that can be found in a word processing program. Once the content has been updated, with the simple click of a button, the CMS will turn their text into HTML code and publish the content to the web site.
Problems Between Search Engines and Content Management Systems:
Historically, search engines have had difficulty indexing dynamic pages. While their ability to index and rank dynamic pages has improved dramatically, there are some basic things to avoid. One of the greatest enemies of search engines is URL strings that contain many URL parameters. URL parameters are variables that are passed to the CMS through the URL, which tell it what information to retrieve from the database. URLs with too many parameters generally make little logical sense to the average user and may also scare off search spiders. For example see:
It is suggested to limit the number of URL parameters to two or three per URL to ensure that that search spiders will not have difficulty indexing pages deep within the web site.
Certain URL parameter names may automatically flag a filter on the search engine. One example is the URL parameter names that contain ‘ID’, such as ‘sessionid’, ‘sid’ or ‘userid’. Historically, search engines detect the term “ID” and assume it is associated with a session dependant variable. As a result, search engines have learned to flag these parameter names and it can cause problems with page indexing. Passing session dependant variables through the URL is a problem for search engines because the spider essentially sees a unique URL each time they visit the site because the session dependent variables change with each visit. For example, on one visit to the site, a page URL may be http://www.mysite.com/page.asp?sessionid=12345. The next time the spider visits the page, the URL may be http://www.mysite.com/page.asp?sessionid=56789. This creates a situation where a spider may think that there are multiple URLs with duplicate content, resulting in penalties which will negatively impact search rankings.
Based on the above, it is imperative to employ a CMS that does not pass session dependent data, such as session variables, through a URL string. Doing so will not only create potential usability issues for the end user, but will also result in indexing problems for the search engine spiders.
Finding a Search Engine Friendly CMS that will Work for You:
Now that we have explored many of the potential problems with Content Management Systems, lets look at how to go about finding one that will be both search engine friendly and suit your specific needs. First you will need to determine what server platform you will be using. Many Content Management Systems use scripting languages and databases that are platform dependant. If you are married to a particular platform, it may limit your CMS options. Ideally, you will want to find a CMS that is platform independent, which can run on any server.
There are many search engine friendly CMS’s that will allow the web site owner to generate a URL structure that is both meaningful to their users and digestible by search engine spiders. Instead of having a URL that is packed with parameters, you can create a URL structure that looks like this: http://www.mysite.com/children/hats/prodid/121576. Your next step is to check whether your CMS builds HTML pages to the latest standards established by the W3C. Most CMS providers will be able to tell you if their solution generates valid code. If they can’t, then ask for a sample page and run it through the W3C Code Validator. In order to rank effectively in organic results of the search engines, it is imperative that your CMS allows you to update your title tags, meta data and alt tags on a page-by-page basis.
The most important aspects of a good CMS are the ease of use and richness of content formatting features. This one is a no-brainer because the very reason that you are looking for a CMS is that YOU DON’T WANT TO CODE. Any good CMS should provide an editing stage that is similar in feature and function to a standard word processing program, such as Microsoft Word. The technical term for this is a WYSIWYG Editor or a Rich Text Editor. This important feature will allow you to type and format your content using standard buttons and keyboard shortcuts. When you publish the content to the live web site, the CMS will write the HTML, CSS and scripting to display your content as it was formatted during the editing stage. Many Content Management Systems are offering additional technologies, such as RSS feed, shopping cart solutions, forums and live chat integration, which can really enhance the functionality of your web site. The key is to find a CMS that will suit your core needs and then determine what add-ons would be beneficial. The ends result will be a web site that is easy to manage and usable for both your customers and the search engines.