A CMS, or Content Management System, is one of the most common ways to run a website nowadays. Nearly 50% of websites use a CMS, according to W3Techs.com. These expansive programs provide an easy way for you to control every aspect of your site, from broad page design down to individual images.
There are dozens of CMS options available on the market. Every one of their home pages tend to make broad, generic assurances and avoid talking about their pitfalls like they’re trying to impress on a first date. There are zealous fans out there who will tell you that one of these programs is the be-all and end-all, and that using any other is a waste of your time.
I’m not one of those fans. None of these systems is the definitive “best.” Every CMS has its benefits, its drawbacks, and its anticipated users. But there may be a best CMS for your website. These top three free CMS platforms are a good place to start.
You’d be hard pressed to bring up a discussion about content management systems without hearing about WordPress. With over 25% of the entire Internet using WordPress, they steadily hold more than 50% of the CMS market share. But popularity doesn’t guarantee a good fit.
Perfect for: Bloggers. Every default setting in WordPress is set to accommodate running a blog. If you’re running any type of blog, from a high-end photography showcase to a family newsletter, WordPress was originally built with you in mind.
Good for: Lightweight websites. WordPress is great for accommodating lightweight sites that want to load fast and don’t rely on tons of fancy effects or animations. The general ease of use for WordPress makes it great for beginners while also offering deep customization for pros.
If you do need a few extra features, there are over 45,000 plugins to choose from. Being the most popular CMS on the market also comes with some nice benefits. In particular—hundreds of thousands of developers are regularly building plugins and updating the platform, and there’s a huge support community if you ever run into any problems.
Bad for: Complex or heavy websites. One of the most common issues on WordPress websites is plugin bloat. While a list of ten plugins isn’t necessarily bad, any more than that can potentially start to cause problems.
Every plugin adds extra code that must be fetched and loaded, adding to your website’s load time
Old plugins aren’t purged from the directory, meaning it’s easy to accidentally install an out of date plugin that could break your site. Even supposedly up to date plugins still add an unknown element, and have the potential to break or crash your website
Plugins release updates regularly, doubling down on the risk of breaking your site. And if you don’t update them, you’re opening yourself to security risks and the potential of the plugin itself no longer working
In short, if you’re running a website that requires lots of extra functionality, WordPress probably isn’t your best bet.
Drupal is commonly touted as one of the most versatile free CMS platforms available. However, that versatility requires a more advanced knowledge of code, and comes with a steep learning curve.
Perfect for: Heavy websites. Drupal offers the type of functionality right out of the box that would require dozens of WordPress plugins. Extensive support for polls, podcasts, user management, discussion boards, and more comes included. Even industry standards like text, images, and videos get extra love.
Good for: Code monkeys. If you have a more advanced knowledge of at least HTML, CSS, and PHP, you can create complex page designs and manage your content in a way that simpler programs like WordPress simply can’t match. The user interface takes getting used to, and you’ll find you need to do more work on extra functionality on your own (Drupal has around one third the number of plugins as WordPress). But Drupal also allows you to filter plugins so you only see add-ons that are under active development, or create your own web apps.
Bad for: Novices. The largest complaint lodged against Drupal is that it’s straight up hard to use. Those unfamiliar with content management systems and coding will have a hard time accomplishing much of anything in this program.
Even if you hire somebody out to develop your site in this CMS, you’ll have a harder time finding support if something goes wrong. Drupal only has about 5% of the CMS market, so you won’t find the same level of community that WordPress boasts.
The free CMS middle child, Joomla offers more advanced features than WordPress, but noticeably less than Drupal. Most descriptions of Joomla’s features tend to be a comparison between the other two largest CMS platforms. Though when in the right hands, Joomla is an effective content management tool.
Perfect for: Those who want a bit more out of WordPress. Joomla comes with some built in features that would start to slow WordPress down if you wanted to add them with plugins. SEO tracking is built right in, and it’s very easy to build high quality templates. The development community isn’t as large as WordPress, so you won’t find as many plugin additions, but the added versatility can help alleviate that.
Good for: Those intimidated by Drupal. Joomla’s interface takes some getting used to, but there are far less complaints about ease of use compared to Drupal. You can’t do as much as you could in Drupal, but for those without more advanced coding knowledge, the tradeoff may be worth it.
Bad for: Those who want the best of both worlds. Joomla usually comes across as the jack of all trades, but master of none. You can stretch Joomla’s functionality with plugins, but not nearly as far as you can stretch WordPress. As the second most popular CMS, there’s certainly a large community, but again, not to the extent of WordPress. On the other end of the spectrum, Drupal outperforms Joomla in numerous categories. Joomla’s more of a middleweight – strong enough to support some heavier websites, but not strong enough to support the most complex ones.
WordPress is best for bloggers and decent for light websites, but starts to cause problems for anything else.
Drupal offers a high level of control over complicated websites, but requires prior knowledge and a commitment to learn.
Joomla is a good middle ground if WordPress and/or Drupal don’t quite cut if for you.
Of course, you’re not restricted to these three free CMS platforms, either. A quick search for “CMS” in the search bar in the top right can help you find tutorials for a wide variety of open-source content management systems. There are also paid options, but that’s a topic for another post.