Is WordPress a CMS? Hardly? Barely?

The perennial “what is a CMS” debate broke out this week, with a fairly innocuous tweet from Dirk Shaw, “I am sorry but wordpress is hardly a web content management system.” that many of our CMS community waded into and included this post on CMS Myth arguing in favour and just about everyone arguing against… and crikey I might  not be standing next to my on-line friends on this – now Dirk knows what he’s talking about, as a Vignette alumnus and blogger, maybe the key to the phrase he used is the word ‘hardly’ – could I suggest we should say ‘barely”?

Now I agree we need to draw the line somewhere, you describe ‘content’ and ‘management’ loose enough and suddenly every RDBMS could consider itself a CMS – especially if your pet part time geek has slapped a PHP front end that adds rows – I quite like this from Robert Rose, in his post – Why every CMS fails:

Wikipedia defines content management as “a collection of procedures used to manage workflow in a collaborative environment.” Put simply, a CMS is a process meant to grease the workflow skids for managing web content. It doesn’t matter if it is a million dollar software tool or some dude named Sergei FTPing files from Dreamweaver, every organization that updates a website has a CMS.

I am going to skate over the academic discussion over what we ought to consider a Content Management System to be, by hiding behind the excuse of brevity and not having the room here or to presume that you the reader has the time to indulge me.

I am just going to say that I am not sure that we can define it, it’s the market that decides and there’s a lot of stuff out there packaged up with the CMS label. Perhaps we even run the risk of saying there is everything labelled CMS (good, bad and ugly) and there is WordPress. My concern here is the if we get snooty about what constitutes a CMS – we could be missing something or failing the folks that are confused by this software space.

WordPress is a specialised CMS (or WCM). But blogging platforms (or might I add wikis) are just CM systems, simple ones – with specialist fancy user interfaces and web applications, that have carved their own CMS niche in all the excitement about Web 2.0 – are they not?

I think perhaps our industry needs to take a look at why people are reaching for these tools instead of “traditional” CMS products. It’s not just because they are free, plenty of open source alternatives around – it’s about the ease of adoption, perhaps the very lack of governance, the basic ease at which you can just get publishing? Maybe these are requirements we need to be listening to as an industry – rather than try to exclude them from the club.

Folks suggest that WordPress is not a CMS because you can’t create content types, that it doesn’t have a multi role approval process or whatever – but if I only require a single content type (or a page based CMS) and you only have a couple of excellent trusted authors – maybe it fits the requirements?

It also doesn’t have in-context editing or multi-site functionality, but then neither do plenty of commercial and open source established CMS products – so where do we draw the line? (Nice conversation happening now about Drupal vs WordPress going on Twitter as I write this – being driven Jon Marks).

There’s a law when CMS folks are having a discussion, that it will come to a car analogy (what is it with CMS folks and cars?) and in this case Scott Liewehr did this – by comparing WordPress with a scooter. But, I’d like to think of as a car – the Tata Nano. I believe that the Tata Nano is the words cheapest and (arguably) the most basic new car on sale today.

If you are a family in India, used to loading your family precariously onto a moped the Tata Nano is a revelation, access to a new freedom in transportation – although a Tata Nano won’t meet a rural farmers requirement to get a lamb to the end of a muddy lane and it certainly won’t meet McLaren’s requirements to have the Mercedes and Vodafone logos dancing on the top step after a formula 1 weekend. But, it’s still a car.

These analogies often don’t really work very well, as we don’t buy cars for the same reason as we buy software, but if I may try to extend it – there are governing bodies that defines what is a car, a van, or a truck.

I guess in software, that’s what analysts are for? In any case, without that trying to hold back the tide of content management systems that don’t meet this or that ideal for a CMS has a whiff of Canute about it – there are so many of them and who can tell them whether they call their offering a CMS or not.

Maybe a cheese analogy would be better here, if I want to produce English Stilton, some nice man, probably in the EU needs to approve, telling me and my market that my product is Stilton. In the absence of this (or the crowning of a benevolent CMS dictator) – it’s beholden on CMS practitioners to educate the market, to understand, own and define their requirements and understand what it really takes to meet them.

You could argue that blogging platforms, in the same way as the Tata Nano will revolutionize access to transportation in India, have revolutionised people’s access to being published, prepared a generation of new authors to contribute content – that I have referred to as democratized content authoring.

They have also prepared folks for consuming a new kind of content, informal stuff that comes from knowledgeable folks – rather than what sales and marketing say in their (I should say ‘our’, as I am one of them) business speak, jargon littered ‘on message’ sales messaging. This is an opportunity for anyone driving a web content management (or dare I say engagement) project today – I maintain that it’s ongoing success will rely on fresh new content and those contributors.

I’ve digressed, I’m supposed to be talking about tools and we’ve seen what a CMS means change hugely over the last 10 years, from an IT enabling rag bag toolkit of API’s and you build on yourself over a painfully expensive year long project – to an expectation of business user driven, easy to install and implement tools that deliver value in weeks.

I’ve talked here about how the titans of our industry got distracted by ECM, while a vibrant community of new vendors delivered what the web content management systems that actually everyone wanted.

Lets’s not do the same thing here, with CMS – sure WordPress is barely a CMS – implementing it for a decent sized site could catapult you back into the dark ages of web content management, like I imagine that jumping from your Prius into a Nano would be. You’ll also get very expensively stuck if you try and adapt your Nano to do the job of a Land Rover or the McLaren MP4-25.

– But it’s teaching us lessons on what the people want and we should respond and welcome it into the club..

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14 thoughts on “Is WordPress a CMS? Hardly? Barely?

  1. Ian – Great summary of the debate. Something that gets lost whenever the debate around WCM fit comes up are the website goals.

    Are we talking capabilities to support global, multi-lingual, multi-brand web sites? Is there integration to e-commerce? Is there single source publishing needed for email newsletters, social media and other sites? Or are we talking a simple campaign microsite with some blogging and commenting?

    Suddenly feature/function debates seem less relevant and it will become tremendously obvious if a given product is a fit.

  2. Thanks for chiming in support of WP, even if you think we’re a Tata Nano. 🙂

    I think WordPress is being adopted as a content management system over many capital-letter CMSes because it focuses on an author first, and has the most robust third-party theme and plugin community. Every WordPress user is three steps (click add plugin, search, click install) from a solution to every shortcoming you describe.

    Whether people decide to call us a CMS or not really doesn’t concern me, it’s a lot more interesting to work on new features and functionality our users are asking for. In the day since you posted this WP was downloaded over 60,000 times.

  3. The problem I see with Wikipedia’s definition of a CMS is that it reflects (and exemplifies) on-going issues with CMSs in general: the fact that we–the developers and consumers/end-users–place too much emphasis on the software to handle nearly all aspects of content management.

    It is people that drive process, and the software we choose to use should not impede that process (whatever form it might take in your organization).

    A CMS–any CMS, and that includes WordPress–should be considered the end-point in a delivery strategy with the website being the result, e.g. a delivery mechanism vs. the entire process of…

    Let’s not forget the value of Information Governance while we’re at it.

    To be clear, I love WordPress–it’s a great example of a system that retained a clear focus as to who its market is, and more importantly, the task for which it was built in the first place. The fact that the community saw greater potential in the system and explored the possibilities of applying it elsewhere is a testament to its potential as a ubiquitous tool.

    But it is just that: a tool. To glorify it as anything more than one possible means to an end is just asking for trouble; after all, isn’t it about the right tool for the job?

  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    I think I am with Matt and Tony – the conversation sometimes wanders too far into academic discussions around terminology and away from requirements.

    Some folks really do have very simple WCM (or CMS) requirements and my post was really about what we the ‘tradition’ or ‘mainstream’ CMS folks can learn from WP.

    Janus Boye has for example proudly tweeted that his organisations website is driven by WordPress. Now Janus is not some innocent Mom and Pop store confused by our industry – the question probably should be – what turns a blog into a corporate website? Yep, requirements… I guess if Janus wanted a Danish version of his site with parallel translation processes he’d have chosen a different tool.

    I think it was interesting that, as a CMS technology geek Jon Marks pitched in with this stunning set of well designed WP websites. A reminder I guess that it’s a compelling end product – the website – that drives most WCM implementations – the requirements of marketing.

    Philippe there is a great conversation going on in the comments to your article, so I won’t add here, but I think we need to be cautious about taking too rigid a view on this.

    Chris – BTW your website/blog just gets more awesome every time I stop by. Anyway I only referred to Wikipedia as I liked the rest of the quote from Robert Rose’s excellent post – but “right tool for the job” – absolutely.



  5. “I think it was interesting that, as a CMS technology geek Jon Marks pitched in with this stunning set of well designed WP websites.” — Ian, I’d think you know better than equal “stunning” designs as part of the CMS/WCM definition. Seriously?

    1. Not at all Irina – I wasn’t equalling stunning design to a CMS/WCM definition – like I said I just thought it was interesting that Jon contributed that link to the discussion.

      What I do think – the point I was trying to make in the rest of that paragraph – is that a CMS, besides the academic definition discussion, needs to meet some business need. In the case of WCM specifically – that is probably to deliver the requirements of marketing – a compelling, engaging website.

      Of course, I presume that the requirements for these designs were not just about ‘stunning’ but also about functionality, both for the visitor and how the business user can maintain the site – otherwise they would have been static hand crafted in HTML or Flash. These sites look like they are probably driven by small web teams, meeting their requirements, similar to the point about Janus using WordPress.

      Thanks for stopping by Irina, really appreciate your comment.



  6. Good article Ian, with plenty of interesting analogies.

    The car analogy does remind somewhat of what Clarkson was writing about a while back with regards to the Nano which was basically that it exposed the real cost of making a car. If I remember rightly, he was emphasising how all of the layers of associated (but in many respects largely unecessary development and management activities) pushed the manufacturing costs up dramatically for aspects of a vehicle that were as good as, if not better, than far more expensive alternatives.

    I find it interesting that quite a number of long standing practitioners who have been exposed to many types of CMS across many different implementation scenarios support the idea that WordPress is very much a CMS. This is probably because they have witnessed first hand the importance of user adoption but also just how many features of upper tier systems never actually get used, are over-complicated or are largely superfluous.

  7. For me it’s simple:

    WordPress is a CMS
    WordPress is NOT an enterprise level CMS

    I would use WordPress to run one of my personal sites.
    I would not use it to run the websites at work (I lead a government web team).

  8. I’m a little late to this conversation but thought i’d add my opinion!

    My non academic, simple definition of a CMS is pretty simple – it’s a system designed for managing content in a simple manner by the end user, without having to delve into code.

    WordPress fits that definition perfectly. Was it originally designed as this – no. Has it grown and adapted to suit user requirements – absolutely. Not everyone uses WordPress as a blog, it can be many things. You can build a whole site based on pages, and in fact that’s what all the templates over at http://www.studiopress.com are based on, and they definitely take WordPress in some interesting directions.

    WordPress can manage text pages, manage images via gallaries etc, include other media/forms of content such as video etc. Content can be stored within the system and then put together and published as required. This can be done without coding if required.

    So, in my very humble opinion, is it a CMS – definitely – it can be used effectively to publish and manage content and has features built in for this purpose. Is it the most advanced tool for this task – absolutely not. But do many small businesses who only have small amounts of content to manage in simple ways need something more advanced? I would suggest in a lot of cases they don’t.

    Thanks for the article, it was a great read.

  9. Hi @Ian,

    I like your description of a CMS to include the people and the processes that constitute one’s system for managing content and I definitely agree with that sentiment.

    I also notice that you wrote this in March 2010 and at the time you were correct that WordPress could not be used to create custom types. Since June 2010 that has changed and that tiny change has been a watershed for what WordPress can do as a CMS (the software part, not the people and processes part, of course.)

    Having had 2 years experience each with Drupal and WordPress (and 20+ years of database and application experience before that) I’ve come to the conclusion that the well-known standard bearer in the open-source CMS world is actually a worse CMS than WordPress so I wrote an persuasive post to advocate for that perspective. You can read it here:


    Hope this helps.


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