1. The CMS you choose should be really good at whatever the main function of your website is.
What do you want your website to do? Is it going to be primarily a static website, like an online brochure? Or is it going to be a fully-functioning ecommerce site? Or maybe it’s going to be really media-heavy with tons of videos, photos, and audio files. Or is a blog going to be the primary focus?
Whatever your site’s primary function is going to be, you need to define it and then find a CMS that does that particular thing really, really well. If blogging is the main focus of the site, then use a blog platform. If images and video are the main focus, then you need to find a CMS that either has great support for media built-in or has great plugins for enabling those functions. If your site is going to focus on an online store, then the platform you choose needs to be able to seamlessly integrate that online store without a ton of extra work.
2. A CMS needs to work intuitively.
When you average user opens up the backend of the site, they should be able to figure out how to do basic functions without too much instruction. Different elements of the site should be clearly labeled. The basics of posting a new page, editing a page, and even changing themes or sidebar elements should all be relatively simple to figure out for the average computer user.
3. The backend needs to be standardized.
Things should all work basically the same way in the backend of the site. A good CMS should have a standardized format for each section of the backend. If one section uses a drop-down menu for selecting something, then all of the other sections should use the same type of menu for similar options—not radio buttons or some other selector.
The same goes for the way things are named or otherwise referred to. If something is called a “page” in one place and a “post” in another, that’s going to get confusing (plus, most people consider those two different things). If it’s a “sidebar” in one place and a “second column” somewhere else, that’s going to confuse your average user.
4. The backend needs to be logical and well-organized.
Things should be laid out logically in the backend. This means that all of the functions related to editing, or sidebars, or themes, or creating new content, should be grouped somehow or otherwise function the same. Alternatively, some CMSs put all of the things related to pages in one place, sidebars in another, plugins in another, etc. Either way, they’re laid out logically and once you know the basic architecture, it’s easy enough to figure out where things are supposed to be.
5. The right CMS shouldn’t have a ton of extra functionality you’ll never use.
This is a completely personal choice. Some sites will make use of tons of advanced functionality. Other sites won’t. If you’re never going to have an online store, why do you need a CMS that focuses on ecommerce? If you never plan to do anything beyond posting photos to your site, why have a CMS that does that plus a hundred other things? Instead, find a CMS that does the one thing you want to do really well and forget about the other features.
6. The right CMS should be easy for non-geeks to use.
Web designers and developers are very good at using web-based applications and pretty much anything else computer-related. A lot of their clients, on the other hand, probably aren’t. While most of the end-users of any CMS are going to have at least basic computer knowledge, they’re probably not super tech savvy. While you might love a particular CMS and think it’s the best thing since solid-state hard drives, your clients might find it confusing, hard to use, and overly complicated.
The question I always ask myself when considering this is, “Could my mother use this?” My mother is your typical business computer user. She can do spreadsheets, word processing, and email, but she’s definitely not a techy. If I’m confident that I could easily explain a CMS to her and she’d then be able to use it with a minimum of later support, then I know it’s going to be appropriate for 90% of other likely users.
7. It needs to include a WYSIWYG editor.
WYSIWYG editors make life easier for your clients. Most clients don’t know HTML and don’t care to learn. But they want to be able to use bold or italic text or use header tags to create sections within their pages. A WYSIWYG editor makes that all possible for non-tech-savvy users.
8. The pages it creates should be fast-loading and have simple code.
One of the major advantages of a CMS is that it simplifies the updating and management of a website. So the pages it produces should also be simple. There shouldn’t be a lot of extra code or provisions for unused functionality in the final page code. All that serves to do is slow the load times for the page and increase the likelihood that something will render wrong or throw an error.
9. The template engine should allow you complete creative control.
Some CMSs have very set ideas about what a website should look like. There needs to be a sidebar for navigation. You shouldn’t use navigation dropdowns. The content has to be arranged in nice, neat columns. Who’s the designer here? Whatever CMS you choose should let you design pages the way you want and should work around your needs.
10. The right CMS should have adequate support and documentation.
In all likelihood, you’re going to run into some sort of problems with any CMS you choose. Whether this is caused by add-ons or in the course of customizing some bit of code, or whether the CMs is doing something unexpected, having somewhere you can turn to to get advice on how to fix the problem is invaluable.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be some expensive tech support phone number or other paid support. Sometimes you can get quicker and better responses from a user community. Does the CMS you’re considering have support forums frequented both by other users and by those involved in the project? Are there other, off-site forums dedicated to that particular CMS? The people who visit these forums can be a wealth of information for doing just about anything with your CMS of choice.
Thorough documentation for the CMS is also valuable. It should provide information on everything from basic use of the CMS to customizations and advanced functionality.