One of the terms that many struggle to understand in the Web content management space is “page based CMS.” If you search for “page based CMS” on Google, you get a range of different answers, and much confusion.
In this article, I will try to explain the background for the term “page based CMS” and look at the main characteristics. I’ll also compare pros and cons and talk briefly about the alternative classifications of Web content management systems.
To understand the background for the term, it is important to look back on the history of content management systems and websites. In the beginning, before we had content management systems and database driven websites, you created websites by editing html pages stored in folders in the file system. It was a simple system, and it worked, but it also had a number of problems, the main ones that it was hard to maintain and difficult to edit.
The first Web CMS’s mainly automated the manual html page creation process. You created virtual pages and folders in the CMS (usually stored in a database, but quite a few of the early systems used XML or other file-based solutions).
In these early Web CMSs, you normally edited either the whole page, or large parts of the page in one WYSIWYG editor. Few systems supported creating different page types / content classes. The pages were stored in a virtual tree structure resembling a file system, with folders and files.
The limitations of the early page-based solutions quickly became apparent. Gradually most solutions have added support for creating page types that can split a page into different fields or properties. This makes it easier for editors to edit the content, as they don’t have to spend time on layout and design as most of it is handled by the template.
Defining Page Based CMS
Creating a clear and precise definition of what defines a page based CMS isn’t easy, as it isn’t a yes or no answer. It’s more like a sliding scale of how page based a Web CMS is. It’s not one particular feature that determines if a CMS is page based or not. It is more about the general characteristics and architecture behind the CMS that determines whether it’s page based or not.
The main characteristics of a page based Web CMS are:
Focus on creating web pages
The first response I usually get to this is “Aren’t all Web CMSs focused on creating web pages?” Eventually all CMSs create web pages. But in page based CMSs, each piece of content is more closely tied to the published web page than in other types of Web content management systems. In other types of CMSs, the published web page is often a composite of different pieces of content or a generated view of the content model.
The focus on creating web pages often results in a number of similar traits between page based CMSs. Content modeling in a page based CMS is often closely tied to the page philosophy. The focus is on supporting content models that the system needs, in order to output web pages, rather than modeling content in a more general way.
One of the fundamental traits of a page based CMS is the tree structure where all, or most of the content is stored.
Excels at handling simple content
Page based CMSs usually excels at handling content that fits nicely with the content tree, and the relatively simple content modeling capabilities. Articles, blog posts and similar content is perfectly suited for a page based CMS.
Close coupling between content and presentation
Since you create pages in a page based solution and the output is a web page, most page based solutions have few abstractions between the two.
Specialized query options
This point is a bit technical, but page based CMSs tend to have query systems that are tied to the hierarchical nature of the content in the system.
Benefits Of Page Based CMSs
There is a range of benefits of using a page based CMS. The most obvious benefit is that it is an easy conceptual model to understand for editors. This is both due to the simplicity of the model itself, but also because it uses terminology and concepts most users already understand from general computer usage (Tree structure, folders).
Another benefit is that the majority of websites have relatively simple content that is well suited to a page based CMS.
Drawbacks of Page Based CMSs
The simplified conceptual model means that the natural structure of content is lost when it’s stored in a page based CMS. By simplifying the content to fit the hierarchical page model, the reuse value of the content decreases significantly.
Since the content model in a page based CMS is simple, the query capabilities are usually very limited, which can limit what you can do with your data.
As the importance of the web as a business channel constantly grows, more and more people are turning parts of their websites into web applications. Due to the limitations in content modeling and querying, a page based CMS is not a good fit for those types of websites.
All Rules Have Exceptions
While the concepts above talk about the general concepts of a page based CMS, many CMSs on the market have evolved over time to borrow features from other types of Web CMSs.
For example, many page based CMSs are adding features that improve content modeling and content reuse capabilities, while non-page based CMSs often borrow ideas from page based CMSs to make them easier to use. This is why I think the overall idea and architecture behind a Web CMS should be the deciding factor when classifying them, and not just one of the characteristics above.
Alternatives to Page Based CMS
There are many terms to describe Web content management systems that aren’t page based. The most common alternative Web CMS types are:
Item based CMS / Object based CMS
Item based and object based CMSs differ from a page based CMS by having a clear separation between a page and the content itself. Pages are containers for one or many different content items/objects. This allows the reuse of content items in different pages, as well as more freedom over the layout of the page.
The main drawbacks are the additional work of connecting the items/objects to the pages, and that they are limited by the hierarchical tree structure of the published pages.
Content based CMS
A content based CMS is a type of Web CMS more focused on modeling content in a way that isn’t tied to a hierarchical tree structure or the pages themselves. Web pages are different “views” of the content model.
It can be a simple view where one content object is one page, but it can also be a generated view using content from dozens of content objects. The flexible data model means content-based CMSs are suitable for more than just publishing pages.
To take advantage of the flexible content model, content based CMSs often have more powerful query options. The most obvious drawback is that the conceptual model can be more difficult for editors to understand.
A semantic CMS is a special type of content based CMS, allowing you to model content in a way that maintains the semantics in the content. Content relations plays an important part in maintaining the semantic structure of content. Improved content reuse and multichannel publishing are some of the benefits.
Does it Matter?
Yes, it matters. A good implementation partner can make most CMSs sort of work for most websites. However, if the Web CMS is not suited for the project, it might end up being very expensive, take a lot of time, be cumbersome to work with and involve a lot of customization of the CMS.
So choosing the correct Web CMS that fits your project is important. Categorizing the CMSs on your shortlist can give you a better understanding of what their underlying strengths and weaknesses are, and help you make the right choice. It’s a valuable indicator on how suitable a Web CMS is for your needs.
Hopefully this will give you another tool to help you choose the right solution for your needs. Any thought on the subject is appreciated!
Editor's Note: Interested in reading more about Web CMS? Try Felipe Rubim's Web Content Management Systems, Reinvented