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Questions To Ask A CMS Implementer


Questions to ask your CMS implementer

Installing a CMS is a big move for a website owner. In a way it is inevitable for many businesses, since 90% or more of enterprise websites will be CMS-based eventually. The disadvantages of a standard hand-coded site are so numerous compared to a content management system that most business sites will change to CMS.

Choosing the right one is important. Just as important is ensuring that your chosen implementer does the job correctly. It's possible for a poor implementer to wreck a good CMS, so this stage is vital.

What are the issues involved? What sort of questions should you be asking your implementers? What should a CMS contract contain? These and other questions need answering before you move forward.

Specifying a CMS

To decide on a CMS to install, you need to evaluate the contenders in your chosen area of functionality. If open-source, several applications can be installed and trialled. If commercial, access needs to be provided on a test system.

There follows a trial period in which you assess two factors:
  • User performance validation: does the CMS do what we need now, and will it do what we may need in the future?
  • The tech validation phase: closely examining all aspects of operation to ensure that the solution is of good quality and performs as expected.

CMS budget

All web installation decisions hinge on budget. Therefore you will have chosen a content management system that fits your budget in 6 areas:

a. Software licence cost
b. Implementation cost
c. Hosting costs
d. Plugin and custom extension costs
e. Future upgrade cost
f. Webmaster and management costs
Therefore we now know that Item 1 must cover the cost issues:

Item 1. Are the full costs of ownership laid out completely in the pre-sale documentation - or are there any other possible costs?
Cost of ownership must be foreseeable. Year 1 costs are fairly easy to work out - but Year 2 can bring some surprises unless the costs are fully detailed beforehand. An alternative though is a Hosted CMS, where you pay monthly and all costs are absorbed by the managing agency. As yet this is not the most common choice, so you will need to ask your implementers:

CMS quality

No matter what the budget, the first, last, and most important factors to examine are the quality of the software and the quality of the implementers.

From an outsider's perspective it is hard to evaluate quality. A website's front page tends to look efficient and businesslike, if that is its purpose, even if expert investigation reveals poor quality, with legal issues and faulty code. It is even harder to ignore the powerful marketing and purple prose of the big operators, who will convince you that their product is the one and only.

In the real world, we ignore all such claims and simply test. The principal areas that quality issues will affect are legal compliance and search success. So our Item #2 is the quality issue:

Item 2. How do the implementers propose to measure and guarantee the quality of the installed solution? Will all pages validate 100% correctly with the W3C online validator on handover? (See: http://validator.w3.org ). How will the implementers comply with legal requirements for accessibility?

A web publishing application has to comply with the law and with accepted standards before it can start to be assessed for other quality factors. If there are legal issues and the authors cannot write correct code, then we should look no further. Luckily these things are easy to check at a basic level and are therefore the first things we look at. Both the authors' portfolio of CMS websites and that of the implementers must pass these basic checks. If they do, then we can proceed, and include these factors in our topic list for discussion with the implementers.

The validator must report a Pass, with the green icon, with no Errors and no Warnings. Tested pages must be fully complete with all likely types of content probably including text, images, Flash, videos and music clips for this test. Any page that fails this test must be rebuilt by the implementer. New pages must be able to be built rapidly by the site owner, to include all types of content, and must validate immediately. Assistance may be given in order to load the content correctly, initially. Documentation must of course be provided for this purpose.

Item 3. A paid-for Accessibility test must be carried out on several pages. These pages, of mixed content types, must pass to single-A (Level 1) accessibility. Is this part of the implementation process?
Some installations, with a higher budget, may need a pass at AA (Level 2).

These tests cover basic legal compliance and simple quality issues. Severe failure in these most basic of areas indicates a lack of competence by the authors and/or the implementers. In this case, it is inevitable that there will be issues in other areas.

Some websites with high visibility in certain markets / operational areas may even need an AAA / Level 3 accessibility pass. Because of the implications here, this will be your primary choice factor both for the software authors and the implementation. Your first stop will be your web legal advisors because they will need to provide you with a fact-based specification. Be advised that the majority of CMS either cannot reach this level of quality, or can only do so if substantially rebuilt and therefore at greatly extended cost. Some open-source solutions are suitable, such as Plone and surprisingly, you might think - until you know the issues involved - Joomla, which can be built to AAA, though not at minimal cost.
Be aware that many commercial CMS applications cannot be built to Level 3 / AAA accessibility because their quality is just too poor. If you validate the index page of the implementer's own website and it fails at the W3C validator with multiple code errors, you are probably looking at the wrong contractors.

CMS functionality

The chosen CMS should comply fully with the enterprise's requirements for functionality and features. 'Functions' are major working factors that are core to the CMS's operation. Such things would include ACL, versioning, and ecommerce support. 'Features' are the add-on ability to handle different publishing tasks that are not vital to the core system, but add necessary capabilities. Such things would include video display modules, Flash slideshows, search modules and so on.

So let's add that to the list:

Item 4. The agreed functions of the CMS must be present and working correctly. Future functionality that is core to the viability of the system must be available and function correctly when implemented. This provision must have an agreed extended time limitation such as one year.

Item 5. Where custom functionality will be required, costs must be prearranged in outline at the time of CMS implementation. A situation where required functions cannot be implemented except at elevated and unforeseen cost is not acceptable.

CMS Plugins

A CMS performs many tasks, some of which will be used by some owners and some won't. All will require online content editing and an easy backup facility that includes both the database and the webroot files. Again, all will require addition of plugins, which are part of the raison d'etre of a CMS - the easy, quick and cheap addition of features, without requiring any development work. Some features apply across the board as they are basic publishing requirements - such as an image rotator - and some are less commonly used, like an Ajax search module for example. So we can add:

Item 6. The agreed features of the CMS must be present and working correctly. Future feature additions must be available and work correctly when implemented. Features must be available as plugins to be added at minimum cost, requiring no development work.
If someone tells you that a fairly normal website feature is not available either in the core app or as a plugin, then you are not looking at a normal CMS and might be better walking away.

CMS upgrades

All web applications are subject to continual improvement - or should be. In addition, as new security threats arise, improvements in defence are made. For these reasons there is no such thing as a CMS that is not under development. As upgrades become available, they must be applied. Therefore a clear path and costs must be arranged. An application that is 'dead' should not be purchased. To outline this:

Item 7. A clear upgrade path must be available, at agreed cost levels.

CMS webmastering

Many owners don't factor this in. Someone has to be responsible for running a CMS, and the fact is that site owners or staff are hardly likely to be capable of doing this. Basic tasks are fine of course - adding pages, editing content, creating a new category, creating menu items or even menus. But we are not talking about this - we are talking about who will set up cron jobs, or install a new component (a major function plugin), or resolve an issue on the CMS. This will not be the owner and it has to be pre-arranged.

Item 8.  A webmaster must be arranged to handle technical tasks that the owner is not qualified to work on. Costs must be arranged per year or per hour.

CMS hosting

How and where to host your CMS is a question that has to be resolved. Implementers often want to host the site themselves but this may not be the best option. You will always need the application hosted in your main country of business; with a dedicated IP; and with PHP and MySQL installed on the server so that you can use a full range of ancillary software such as web analytics, forums and so on (and these must of course be the branded versions, not generic replacements). There are no exceptions to these rules.

After this, you need the best deal you can get allied to the best service. Unfortunately it is not the case that the most expensive hosting is the best - in fact we found that some of the worst hosting we have ever seen was the most expensive.
You are advised to treat this point as one of the most crucial in this list.

Item 9. What hosting packages are available - and what are the pros and cons for each?

An icommerce advisor

Technical matters aside, who will advise you on web business matters? For example: what information are you legally required to display on a website in your country? How should an About Us page be written? Should you have several different websites with .com, .net, .org., .us, .ca, .co.uk domains? Should you have five or six different sites all promoting your products, in order to get maximum impact? What use is an SSL Certificate, and what are the advantages or disadvantages of the differing price levels and different suppliers of these seals?

There will be a huge number of questions that you just won't know the answer to. Worse - you won't even know the questions exist in the first place, and that situation will be very clear from your website.

Item 10. Locate an icommerce advisor.

CMS project management

Unless you are extremely knowledgeable about modern CMS and icommerce (Internet business), you risk making a big mistake if you don't engage an independent project manager who is not connected in any way with the implementers or software authors, to oversee the CMS installation. Such an advisor can potentially save you a huge amount of grief. So item #11 on our list is just for you:

Item 11. Engage an independent project advisor who knows about different CMS, icommerce, SEO for CMS, hosting and contracts - or risk buying into a lemon, installed by incompetents, hosted at great cost by the uncaring, and of a quality commensurate with its index page validation results at the W3C: Failed with 40 Errors.
Commercial reality
What we are actually discussing here is commercial reality. The problem is that management teams don't really understand the fact that technical staff solve technical problems, they don't solve business problems. In fact they don't understand those problems in the first place.
From this background information you should be able to judge the sort of things you need to ask a CMS implementer. You can also see some of the associated issues that will arise. The itemised list is of question topics for your implementers - it is not a list of contract terms, which are often similar but phrased in a different way.

At present, for some reason CMS buyers tend not to think about SEO - ie quality factors that influence a website's commercial success - until the application is purchased, installed and hosted. At this stage, they then start to wonder how they will actually earn revenue from the website. If the purpose of the site is to earn revenues, then perhaps this process should include the advice of an expert on revenue creation at an earlier stage. It certainly helps, if you wish to avoid nasty surprises.

Web Business Managers