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Hosted CMS

Hosted CMS

What are the disadvantages of a hosted CMS / managed CMS solution - if any?

A 'hosted CMS' is a website content management system that is owned and operated by the software authors or a management agency on your behalf. They host it; they own the software; and they will arrange any work required. You pay an annual fee, usually by the month, for the facility - instead of buying the software and arranging all the ancillary services required.

The question of possible negatives arises because occasionally clients ask if it might be disadvantageous in some way to lease their CMS rather than owning outright. Are there advantages or disadvantages? Leasing - as this essentially is - is a standard business procedure, and there are good reasons to employ it.

It provides a one-stop solution for all supply issues, with a single contact instead of several; it removes the necessity for staff at your end (with the exception of content providers); and it means that you only need to worry about marketing issues instead of owning and running a web presence.

Let's look at some areas of potential advantage or disadvantage with leased website CMS solutions.
This is an extended investigation into all the pros and cons.

Domain name
Firstly, some general issues, starting with domains. You own your domain name so it isn't really an issue. Your host sets it all up so that your domain works on their server - just the same as any other host. You should always keep your domains with a separate domain registrar and there are no exceptions to this, in any case. You  just point the DNS at your host's nameservers, from within your registrar's control panel. It couldn't be simpler. In this way you can change hosts almost instantly, which is probably why some hosts aren't keen on you holding your domains.

If you don't have a domains control panel, you aren't with a real domain registrar. If you are unsure about this, then ask the advice of an experienced webmaster or web professional - but not your hosts as domains are best kept independently, for several very good reasons.

An ethical managing agency might set up a domain registrar's account for you, in your name, to which you both have access. This is what we do for our clients; you can then easily move at any time, and we can also carry out any technical work within the domain account such as DNS changes.

Whatever sort of hosting arrangement you have, your IP is more or less fixed at any given host, whether it is a shared one on a multi-user box, or a dedicated IP. You can't take it with you, and it stays with the host if you move. It's not an issue because the domain is the important part, moving between IPs isn't really a factor unless you display an inordinate amount of mobility for some reason.

Even then, it wouldn't necessarily be a problem unless there were other reasons why a search engine's staff were closely examining your site.

The CMS software
You don't own it and you can't take it with you. If you were ever to move, you lose the lot - but it's only a website of course, not the domain, which is the critical thing.

However all your custom work on the CMS will be lost; you'll have data migration issues; and all the fun of starting over. It's always possible that you could do a DB dump and import it to your new site, running the same CMS; but let's assume you're moving because you don't like any part of the arrangement. In this case you start over.

However, if your Hosted CMS providers use a well-supported system, it is possible that you could transfer out with all the assets.

Your point of view here relates directly to whether you are interested in a big CMS with a big price tag, a medium enterprise solution, or an economy solution.

If you are in the economy market, a leased solution would only make sense if the bill is low and you can absorb the cost.

Medium-scale solutions are an attractive way to get an enterprise online with a good design and the necessary functionality. A hosted solution means that no time needs to be spent on the web side of the business, possibly at a busy time for staff. It makes even more sense when all possible services are built-in, including SEO.

With a big CMS in the corporate enterprise market, there are two ways to look at this: a big CMS is likely to be expensive, so leasing it could be an advantage, and perhaps the only way you could join this club.

On the other hand, there are big CMS available in open-source (ie free) - so you'd need to have some solid reasons not to go OSS. Perhaps some specific functions not easily available via this route. Or perhaps your enterprise will only deal with other commercial enterprises -  a common requirement, and not unreasonable since a one-stop-shop for software, support, training, extensions and development, and a place where the buck stops, is an attractive idea. Support is undoubtedly an issue in OSS.

Is leasing a CMS going to be cost effective in the long run? For a short term arrangement, it's a winner; in the long term, you need to be able to write the cost off against tax, in order to obtain some kind of advantage. However, given that, it makes a lot of sense for some buyers - especially those who don't have a hands-on approach, or without the right staff to manage a web presence effectively.

In fact to do the job properly, a fair amount of staff time needs to be allocated to it. If this can be avoided by leasing, it can make a lot of sense. It means the company pays a monthly set figure for leased services, rather than occasional larger sums together with staff costs.

Cost range
Costs range upward from the cheapest reliable arrangement we know, at £90 per month hosted in the UK, or $150 per month hosted USA. This is for an online brochure CMS with integral basic SEO. Costs rise according to CMS size and complexity and the degree of integral SEO required, so that £400 per month ($600) equates to a small CMS with full SEO in a niche market. A large enterprise site runs £800 ($1,200) and up. If full SEO is included then persistent results must be guaranteed.

Hosted CMS SEO
This is important as there are only two ways to generate orders from your website or improve its visibility - SEO (the search optimising process) and advertising such as PPC. Of these, SEO is at least ten times more efficient; though it requires much more skill in order to be both effective and safe.

In addition, SEO for CMS is a specialist field and there will always be a shortage of specialists in this area. This is only to be expected, as many SEO consultants are essentially marketers and not technical people, and this is confirmed by the large percentage of SEO firms advertising as search marketing agencies (ie majoring on paid promotion). The requirements for an appreciation of CMS / SEO issues are for a technically-oriented advisor who has years of experience in both web technology and SEO, and such people are not numerous. There is also a common misconception that some developers might fit the bill here; but they tend to be the least-qualified of all, for various reasons. The expensive errors we've seen made by developers are quite amusing, as long as you're not paying.

An SEO consultant is a website developer in a specialist field. He needs full and free access to the site in order to develop it - you can't work on a site if you can't access it. Therefore, if there is any hint that consultants could not access all areas of the site freely and make whatever changes were necessary, then the hosting arrangement cannot be advantageous. In some cases server configurations are not optimal for SEO and changes must be made.

Elevated costs and elevated language in the advertising make no difference to this scenario: some of the worst-run servers we've seen have been among the most expensive and eloquently advertised.

Hosted CMS contract
Just as when leasing a company vehicle, the contract is important. If it goes wrong you need fast, no-questions resolution of the problem - or a get-out.

You should be looking at the tie-in period, freedoms versus restrictions, get-outs in case of the seller under-performing, and so on. A managed CMS contract should not be biased heavily in favour of the seller while restricting the buyer too much. Any penalties should be inspected closely. You should be given a sample copy of the contract to inspect at leisure, before the sign-up stage.

The ideal contract simply lays out the duties of both parties, in a reasonable manner. It states the ground rules so that both know where they stand, and have a reference if something unexpected happens.

When it starts to show a bias toward one or other, it becomes less of a contract and more of a liability. When we receive contracts, whether it be for a large new CMS or a photocopier, we often rewrite them or refuse to sign them as presented, due to too much bias.

The amazing things we see on a regular basis in these contracts include that the buyer must pay in full before they even receive the goods, which are unseen and untested; that the seller has no liability even if the goods don't work; that the seller retains all rights in the goods (including intellectual properties such as copyright); and so forth. Caveat emptor as they used to say. When we insist such contracts are altered, we don't get refused as the seller needs the business, and is no doubt aware that some of the terms of the contract are ridiculous anyway.

More people should consider doing this since if the seller wants the business, and wishes to appear fair, they will find it hard to refuse. Competition being what it is, one might otherwise look for a seller with a more reasonable contract.

Your contract
It would seem eminently advisable for you to exchange contracts here and not simply sign up to the other side's. You should specify all the items within this guide that you feel important. We might list them again here, but no doubt the point has been made clearly enough - you have a right to demand certain standards. By default, you will only get what the law can define you have a right to - which is (a) probably very little, and (b) will cost you a lot to obtain by that stage in any case. The sensible thing to do would be to engage an independent professional to assist your legal department. Such a person would be one who is used to the shortfalls that may occur within CMS provision.

Managed CMS factors

The managing agency is critical; if the people running your online business are not efficient in one of the many areas that combine to make up successful commercial CMS website management, the experience might not be so good.

If they are really good, on the other hand, a hosted CMS solution can be a winner. If you have people who can organise a painless life for you, and fix everything including the organic SEO (the hardest part of the equation to get right), and
if you can write off the cost against tax, this is a win-win situation.

A large part of a commercial website's success is the revenue it generates. Some might say all - but business reputation and
brand strength are important considerations too. The managing agency have a crucial role here, and it would be unwise to discount it. Website income comes primarily - for most sites - from search visibility. It's probably fair to say that most managing agencies either aren't involved in your income-generating process, or don't have skills in that area in any case. Because of this, you will need to rely on outside consultants. Sometimes there can be a clash of interests, or perhaps difficulties of cooperation.

If the services are mostly in-house, though, this could be a better arrangement. If your people can get you on page 1 of the search results, they deserve your custom. Don't accept excuses and let them get you customers exclusively via PPC and other paid-for methods, this is an expensive way to get business. Traffic needs to be based firstly on organic search results - it's low-cost, after the set-up is paid for. Additional customers can be generated by PPC - but that should be strictly additional.

SEO for CMS tends to be the forgotten factor in this equation. However, since online commercial success is founded on it, it is one of the most important factors in any commercial website management arrangement. It would seem wise to have some form of results-based clause in your contract, for this reason.

Agency-run websites are notorious for poor commercial results, bolstered by expensive advertising spend.

Advantages of a wholly-owned solution
It's yours, you can do what you like with it. You can paint it any colour you like. Anything you invest in your CMS - time, money, design, extensions - you specify and own.
When you move (most sites have at least one move in their lives), you take it with you lock, stock and barrel.

Of course, you might well make the wrong choice first time round, so it's true a low-cost solution doesn't hurt for the first year; it's a sensible option, and is one reason why open-source CMS are so popular. Some never leave there, after all, as the quality and performance are not an issue - only specialist functionality and support.

Advantages of a Hosted CMS solution
You don't have to worry about locating five or six contractors and synchronising their efforts; one monthly payment fixes it. No searching for the right CMS, the best host, a good designer, a good developer (programmer) to get it working the way you want, finding a good webmaster (surprisingly difficult, at any rate cheaply), and sorting out the SEO / SEM consultants. All these are taken care of. The CMS management agency will also have their preferred contractors for further improvements in each area.

CMS advantages
A CMS is often used in the first place because it's very much easier for owners to edit their website content - text edits and image swaps or additions are done in a matter of minutes, online. And changing the site structure or functionality is achieved with plugins, not expensive development. It is unlikely that page edits will be free, if expedited by the managing agency; but in any case it isn't really necessary for them to do this work, the owner's staff can easily do it - it's just like editing a Word document, but online. No doubt the agency will do so if required, and bill for it.

In order for the site owner / staff to do their own page additions and edits, some basic training will be required. Therefore something in this line is required, plus appropriate documentation.

Contract tie-in period
All hosted CMS solutions will have a minimum contract period, usually between one and two years. This is because the cost of providing and setting up the software together with additional services is considerable and would result in a substantial loss if a customer withdrew early. This period is called the lock-in or tie-in period and refers to the minimum time that you cannot withdraw without penalty.

In some cases there may be an advance fee payable, to mitigate or remove this tie-in penalty; if you pay a lump sum in advance as a set-up fee, then there should be no opt-out penalty. On the other hand a penalty fee can normally be paid if you need to leave.

Various conditions may be attached to your leaving the agency. You may, for instance, not be allowed to take the website design. The more open the contract, the better.

Who will a hosted CMS suit?

A hosted CMS would suit four groups of people:

1. Firstly, those dipping a toe in the water, and not sure where their own web future lies. Assuming that you own your domain name and hold it separately (as you should), then you are just risking the more temporary aspects of the business. You can move and start again - and you'll have a wish-list for next time.

2. Secondly, those convinced they have found the right CMS and agency, and have the tax structure to negate the extra long term costs. With the right people, you have a good long-term foundation.

A third group are enterprises who don't wish to become heavily involved with the website at present, since they realise that concentrating on key business areas is more efficient. Website management, even at a distance, requires knowledge and experience (and time), and not all enterprises have staff who could take this on. Even if web income is a major part of the enterprise's revenue, a hosted solution can make sense.

4. Lastly, those who don't source their main income from the web and who do not wish to become the least involved with the technical side of their web property, are regular customers for hosted CMS solutions. It's easy to get going: pay the monthly fee and you've got a powerful site. This class of website will most likely be of the online brochure type, and could be large or small. It can be fairly static, or regularly edited - staff can edit the pages quickly and easily, without becoming involved with the technicalities.

Medium-size enterprises are the best fit because small organisations may find the cost too high, and large organisations can afford to run their own web department (which is not the IT department, since there are few common skills).

Who will a hosted CMS not suit?

Actually, not that many buyers at all.

1. Sole traders on a minimalist budget. They would be able to shave costs by choosing open-source products and organising everything themselves, perhaps by offshore outsourcing and so on.

2. Enterprises with staff available and a hands-on attitude to all Internet-related tasks may be better off with a self-managed CMS. This tends to work best where the staff are new media aware and look on their web property as a core part of the organisation's existence. In contrast, where the average IT department run things, below-average performance is all too common. Personnel management and property management are not related to fixing broken PCs and networks.
Neither is web management.

3. Large organisations with a large IT staff could run the operation in-house. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't; we know of one or two with websites that are infamous within their fields for poor performance. Only the senior management seem unaware of their poor reputation. It is likely to work better when a specialist web team exist, since their skills are very different from the usual IT computer and LAN networking job spec. A website usability specialist couldn't fix a SATA RAID problem on a PC, and a PC specialist wouldn't have a clue about web usability. It may look similar to an outsider, but that's probably where the trouble lies.

Quality issues
You should be very careful about quality issues when signing up with an agency. Unfortunately, quality means different things to different people, and  the only loser is likely to be you. Quality factors are very closely tied in with standards compliance, legal compliance, accessibility issues and search-friendliness. Here are some of the issues that are crucial to a quality solution:

1. Is the CMS you will be using a fully standards-compliant solution? Is it based on modern or obsolete coding?
- A large number of CMS still use old technologies and do not comply with recognised standards as laid out by the W3C. If the pagecode is based on cells or tables for positioning, or JavaScript for functionality, you may have accessibility issues, search negatives, and therefore income issues. Web pages now should be based on layers and CSS (cells and tables were obsolete around 2002); and 3rd-party scripting must be absolutely minimised. This has now become a legal issue, and should be considered of vital importance for enterprises in the public eye.

2. Do all web pages validate 100% on going live?
- All web pages must validate with no code errors at the W3C validator, on hand-over to the client. Pages with errors must be rebuilt and fixed. Your CMS must not have faulty, error-filled code or you have not been dealt with fairly. Check one or two reference sites at the W3C, before you sign up:  http://validator.w3.org

3. Accessibility issues will become a major problem for many websites.
- You should ensure that your proposed solution passes to at least Level 1 / single A. Level 2 or AA is tougher and means a much higher-quality site. Few CMS can conform to Level 3 / AAA, though that will no doubt be required for Government sites in time. Laws are in place now in the UK and USA to enforce web standards on public service sites; this will extend to many more websites soon. As an example, a website selling airline tickets is specifically mentioned as the sort of site that must comply. At early 2008 these laws are not enforced rigorously because Government sites cannot, in the main, comply fully; but this is certain to change. Legal compliance should be taken seriously, and it is an important quality factor.

4. SEO potential.
- A commercial website, of whatever type, needs to create revenue. This starts with setting it up correctly for maximum visibility, traffic and visitor conversion. The process continues with making the site a respected resource, strengthening the brand, and nurturing business reputation. Long-term, persistent results are required from the website. In order to accord with these requirements, the website must comply with modern web standards, which comprises partly of complying at least with minimum accessibility and usability levels. These factors are all part of the remit of your SEO consultants, whose job it is to ensure the website performs in all areas - but they cannot perform miracles, a CMS must be of good quality first. All these quality factors are closely related, and a CMS needs to be of high quality in the first place; and managed by people who are devoted to results - which can only be achieved with attention to quality.

These points - and several others - are quality issues that will affect your website's earning capacity. Since you only have a commercial website in order to earn a living, it would seem to make sense to prioritise that ability. More than in any other area of public technology, website constructors are often years behind modern convention and standards. This substantially affects the quality of the product. A site may look pretty but that's hardly the point - it needs to perform. A fully-standards compliant CMS is the best way to achieve that.

There is a strange dichotomy between the perception people have of a website, and commercial reality. A website is often seen as some kind of modern sales tool that can be designed and run by the art department combined with someone from IT on their day off, together with a marketing person if they can be spared. In reality it is anything but that. The fact that websites are often built by people who don't have a clue about web standards compliance or legal compliance seems to escape many buyers. You are advised to have a cast-iron contract drawn up by your legal department, in concert with independent professional advisors who can tell you what is really needed.

Will a hosted CMS scale with enterprise expansion?

Can a hosted cms grow with the firm's needs? That depends on two things: the WCMS chosen and the people running it. If you have chosen an enterprise-level application in the first place, that should be covered. You'll need advice on which is what, in this area. There are over 2,000 WCMS now so it's not a simple question.

Only you can decide if the agency will cope with a heavier load. Assuming they know what they are doing this shouldn't present a problem: as workload grows, you take on more staff. Reputation is a factor here; and you could perhaps investigate other clients' perceptions.

There are specific groups of people whom a hosted solution might suit. By far the largest of these are enterprises who don't major on web performance and who have an advantageous tax regime. It can't hurt to try out a hosted solution for a couple of years or so, to see if CMS suits you, and to work up a wishlist for your next CMS - and contractors.

On the other hand if your proposed CMS management agency provide top-level SEO support, and therefore website income is guaranteed to a certain extent (before any advertising), then a hosted CMS looks attractive even when the Net is your main source of income.

The biggest negative in any hosted CMS scenario is when the agency cannot deliver web income guarantees. Most agencies would argue this isn't their responsibility; but a commercial site is there to make money and that requirement needs to be built in from Day 1 - and no excuses. Server, site code, and SEO quality issues have a big role to play here; and if your agency can't sort that out, you'd be better off elsewhere. We have seen instances where the managing agency effectively prevented the CMS from delivering the results needed. Poor servers, faulty work practices and staff shortages are factors here.

Only the results count in the end - and that means sales and orders, preferably achieved without extensive advertising costs.

A CMS depends far more than an ecommerce solution on plugins. In some cases the CMS is the plugins. Here, the work done on extending the CMS would be lost if you moved. And that's assuming that extensions are possible anyway, because some hosted CMS solution providers don't allow other developers to work on the site, or other developer's plugins to be used.

You need to be careful in this area because hosted CMS agencies often restrict customers in one or more ways, for example regarding 3rd-party CMS plugins. It is an entirely acceptable stance for a managed CMS host to take, of course, but it locks you down hard if you have any kind of aspirations that they cannot expedite for you.

There is also the supremely important factor of who is running the business. If the servers are poor; or restrictions exist on what you can and can't do; or the site's search results, traffic and sales are poor even though you pay for SEO, it cannot be considered a good arrangement.

Open-source hosted CMS
A hosted CMS solution is a practical alternative to an open-source CMS, especially at the beginning of an enterprise's experience with CMS - and of course, the CMS may be an open-source one in any case. It can be a good arrangement if the provider has a good reputation for service and support, with the features you need. In the long term it might be expensive if you don't get some tax advantage to defray costs. It will probably not give you the freedom you would have as an independent, but you may not need or want that in any case.

A hosted open-source CMS solution might well provide the best of both worlds: costs should be very affordable; you get the reliable support and service which is so hard to find in the open-source world; the CMS can be widely supported, so that if you move, you can even run the same software elsewhere; on moving you could take a very large percentage of the site with you; and the SEO level of many open-source products can be better than commercial rivals.

In the end, it may simply depend on who's managing it for you. If they know what they're doing, and can give you the deal you want at the price you want, a hosted CMS might be just the ticket.

Hosted CMS checklist

Here are some points you could check before you sign up.
  • Commercial or open-source.
  • Exactly what is included.
  • Annual or monthly fee.
  • Length of tie-in period; withdrawal penalties.
  • Does the CMS do exactly what you need, and can it be extended to allow for future expansion.
  • Cost of extensions (plugins).
  • Is a dedicated IP available (all commercial websites need this).
  • Can you install your choice of web analytics on the server, using the standard PHP and MySQL software that all well-run servers have. (Only reseller hosting, on some Windows servers, cannot offer this - and they are best avoided.)
  • Ask for 'portfolio' URLs of other sites using the service. Contact them to check up on the important points.
  • Ask your accountants what the pros and cons are.
  • If SEO and therefore search results, traffic and sales conversions are in the mix, then exactly what is offered within the basic cost, and what is additional (a full SEO service will cost more).
  • Can your outside consultants access the server, inspect configurations, and make changes to on-site code.
  • Is it possible to have a list of the server set-up configs in advance: what software versions the server is running; what security is in place; what are the arrangements for ecommerce if required.
  • Assuming your staff can edit the pages and other content (which is part of the raison d'etre of a CMS anyway), then some basic training and documentation will be required. Check this is supplied.
  • What additional services are available, and at what cost per instance or hourly rate.
  • Check out the proposed contract - make sure it suits your purposes.

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The initial theme of this article is "disadvantages to a hosted cms", only because that is how people usually phrase the question. For some buyers there are distinct advantages.

As with any other technology investment, research pays off. Undoubtedly, a hosted CMS will suit some but not others. We hope this guide has given you some ideas to assist in your enquiries.
Web Business Managers