What is a content management system? A content management system (CMS) is an application that helps you create and manage a website via a human-friendly interface rather than needing to work directly with code.
Over the rest of this post, we’ll dig into the question of “what is a content management system” with a more detailed CMS definition and share some examples of the most popular content management systems.
📚 Table of contents:
- How does a content management system work?
- Examples of content management systems: WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Magento, Squarespace, Wix, Ghost
- How to build a website using content management system?
An official CMS definition
CMS definitions vary in their descriptions, but the consensus brings us to this definition:
Although an official CMS definition like that seems rigid, it actually helps cover the broadness of the content management system market, seeing as how so many of them vary in features.
How does a content management system work?
From that CMS definition, all content management systems:
- Are digital. They’re applications used on computers, sometimes offline, but more frequently online. This is true for open source CMS options and website builders with CMS capabilities.
- Help users create, format, edit, and publish content. This may include support for media, written content, or drop quotes based on the CMS, but the core idea is that you can make and publish some sort of content. The best content management system is the one that makes users comfortable when publishing.
- Store the content in a database. Again, the supported database and hosting types vary from CMS to CMS, but the content always gets logged inside a database.
- Give access to multiple users. One CMS may have unique user permissions, while another might allow for specific editor, author, and admin roles.
- Present the content. As mentioned, this usually happens on the frontend of a live website, but some content management systems allow for private or even offline publication, particularly some of the best headless CMS options we’ll explore further in the article.
More details about what a content management system is
When you think about running a website, you might get visions of geeky programmers typing away at code. And yes, the foundation of every single website is code.
However, with a content management system, you’re able to ignore the code and focus on the more creative parts of running a website, like generating content and handling CMS marketing.
So how does it work? While things obviously differ depending on which content management system (open source CMS vs free CMS vs hosted website builder) you choose, you’ll normally get some type of dashboard where you can manage all the important aspects of your site:
For example, let’s say that you want to complete some CMS marketing by adding a blog post. All you need to do is type the blog post in your content management system’s text editor:
Then, any of the best content management system options will handle putting together all the underlying code so that visitors from around the world can read your blog post.
Now that you can answer the question of what is a content management system?, let’s get into some examples of the best free content management system options, along with some paid ones as well.
What to look for in a CMS
When conducting your research on content management systems, we recommend looking for the following features:
- A powerful content editor with both visual and code-based editing options. It’s also nice to see drag-and-drop builders.
- Core CMS functionality like the ability to add, format, and publish content, while also incorporating user roles.
- Access to third-party themes, plugins, and integrations for improving your site.
- CMS marketing features or integrations for things like email marketing, social media, and coupons.
- Ecommerce capabilities to potentially sell products.
- Flexibility with your design. This includes mobile responsiveness and custom code control.
Best free CMS examples (and some paid ones, too)
From open source headless CMS options to hosted DIY website builders, all of these content management systems can help you build a website.
WordPress is by far the most popular content management system. As one of the best free CMS tools, WordPress powers 43.1% of all the websites on the internet (including the Themeisle blog) .
There are a ton of reasons WordPress is so popular. It’s free to download and use, and also easy to learn, flexible, and search engine friendly. Plus, thousands of themes and plugins make it one of the most customizable platforms. That definitely aligns WordPress with our core CMS definition and more!
Moreover, WordPress is easy-to-use for newcomers, while allowing developers enough freedom to play with code through its potentially open source headless CMS interface (possible with some tinkering away from the default settings). Beginners can start at a basic level and pick up skills as they go along. If you ever run into difficulties with WordPress, you can embrace the strong WordPress community to help you troubleshoot. Overall, it’s suitable for almost every type of website. For general website building, ecommerce functionality, and blogging, WordPress is the best free content management system on the market.
If you’d like to get started with WordPress, check out our posts on:
💡 Note. Though the names are similar, WordPress.org (the CMS) is different from WordPress.com (a service built on WordPress that’s hosted and generally not a free CMS software).
Joomla is one of the best free CMS options since it has an impressive set of features baked in, and supports 70+ languages. It’s a good open source CMS for any website that needs comprehensive content management, especially educational sites or complex websites like social networks.
Several front-end and back-end templates are available to help you build a solid foundation. What sets Joomla apart is the extensive user groups and user management options, and many built-in features like search management and free CMS marketing tools. You’ll also be able to collect and manage user consent.
Joomla is developer-friendly. At the same time, it offers a user-friendly interface, making it true to our CMS definition. If you’d like to know how it compares to WordPress, read this comparison.
After WordPress, Drupal is the second most popular free CMS. If you ask tech-savvy folks, “what is a content management system?” they’ll most likely cite Drupal as an example. That’s because it requires the most technical chops out of all the free CMS software we recommend.
Drupal is a free CMS for website building, but you’ll need your own hosting. With an advanced administration panel, it gives complete control of the content presentation and user and permission management. Out of the box, it’s fast loading, secure, and supports 100+ languages. Ready-made templates for different industries like tourism and ecommerce make it one of the best headless CMS options for constructing a website.
While beginners may be better off skipping this free headless CMS, developers should have no trouble building outstanding websites. WordPress or Drupal? Find out in this comparison.
4. Adobe Commerce Powered by Magento
If your sole focus lies in ecommerce, Adobe Commerce (powered by Magento) offers a complete CMS marketing, online store, and content publication solution. It comes in two versions – a free open source CMS (also known as the community version), and the premium service sold by Adobe. What makes it attractive to large businesses is its top-notch speed, security, and scalability. Throw in multisite support, and it can be the best free headless CMS for any business that needs distinct sections, such as chain stores.
The fast checkout and easy integration with major payment solutions will surely delight online store owners. So will the intuitive admin interface, analytics out of the box, themes, and CMS marketing extensions. However, unlike WooCommerce users, Adobe/Magento users may require basic web development knowledge. But that’s really no reason keen learners shouldn’t try it, considering it aligns perfectly with the CMS definition we outlined earlier.
Squarespace is a ready-to-use solution for building just about any kind of website. It’s so simple, anyone can make a website – physical store owners, professionals, bloggers, artists. Besides that, it comes with intuitive social media and CMS marketing integrations, as well as a drag-and-drop builder, beautiful templates, and one of the cleanest dashboards you can find.
Squarespace is not a free CMS for website building; it’s a paid tool with subscription fees. Though you get to choose from a wide range of impressive templates and modules, you’re pretty much stuck with what you get. The templates themselves are optimized to suit all types of websites.
If all that you need is an easy way to build an attractive website, Squarespace is your pick. You’ll not need to worry about technicalities or wonder what is a content management system. Instead, you can focus on content creation and quick, easy CMS marketing.
Unlike the previous tools, Squarespace is a hosted website builder, so you don’t need to purchase your own web hosting. Everything comes packaged in for a small monthly fee. It doesn’t exactly align with our CMS definition (it’s more of an online website builder) but this category of software is evolving to become more of that, anyway.
Wix works the same way as Squarespace. However, it differs from Squarespace because it includes a free CMS plan (even though you must use a Wix subdomain). It also offers a greater number of templates to start with.
Wix’s step-by-step wizard turns website building into a fun activity. The Wix setup guides you through the template selection process, ensuring you get a template that’s appropriate for your website. It also integrates social media and includes blogging features. Nonetheless, you’ll be stuck with a Wix-branded website, unless you’re willing to pay to remove the branding.
If all that you’re looking for is a clean writing experience for both bloggers and readers, try Ghost. It allows you to focus on writing your posts. It’s user-focused, with a minimal interface, and uses Markdown in the Editor. You can choose from dozens of pre-made themes, use the free built-in membership functionality, and manage email newsletters directly from the dashboard.
You can choose between the open source CMS version (free CMS software) or the premium version on Ghost’s servers. For both versions, Ghost takes care of basic social sharing and SEO.
Ghost makes our list of the best free CMS tools because it’s great for publishing a blog, online magazine, newsletter, or for any creator who needs the most powerful integrations and publishing tools. The Ghost user showcase clearly displays that some of the top brands in the world find Ghost exceptional. It’s not perfectly in line with our CMS definition (since it’s somewhat limited in the type of content you can post) but as long as you’re not making an online store or running a standard business website, it should work wonders. For blogging, selling subscriptions, and working in the “creator economy,” Ghost is truly the best content management system you can find.
Content management systems don’t only focus on blogging and content creation. Many of them (like Adobe/Magento listed earlier) offer a well-rounded ecommerce content management environment for building an online store, designing product pages, and including everything else you would want on a website, like a blog, FAQ page, shipping information, and customer support portal. Shopify is just that, offering a complete CMS marketing and ecommerce platform without the need to find your own hosting.
Shopify users sign up for the platform and pay a monthly fee to receive the entire website builder, shopping cart functionality, and website launch necessities like hosting, a domain name, and an app store for expanding upon your design. So, although we consider it one of the best content management system options, it’s not a free headless CMS (but it is a CMS!).
Shopify isn’t strictly for bloggers or creatives, but for individuals and brands interested in selling digital or physical products online. That could very well include bloggers and creatives, but you definitely wouldn’t use Shopify for just posting content like videos or articles. However, it’s by far the best content management system to build a website to sell products, especially for non-developers.
How to get started with your chosen content management system
Except for Squarespace and Wix, all of these content management systems are self-hosted. That means, to get started with one, you’ll need to:
- Purchase web hosting
- Install the free CMS software on your hosting (here’s how to install WordPress)
- Configure the settings to control things like CMS marketing, style, overall functionality.
Still have questions about what is a content management system? Let us know in the comments and we’ll try to help!
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