The Fallacy of "The Best CMS"

By Deane Barker on January 3, 2010

I’ve been a judge of the Packt Open Source Content Management Awards ever since they started the program.  Packt has been wonderful about it, and I’ve really enjoyed doing it.  It’s given me the opportunity to look at a lot of systems I wouldn’t otherwise find the time to play with, and I’ve discovered some real gems over the years (CMS Made Simple, ModX, Silverstripe, etc.)

But, 2009 was my last year.  If they ask me in 2010, I will decline.  Packt has been great, but I’m starting to have a problem with the entire thing.  Not their awards in particular, but with this whole concept of “the best CMS.”

I get asked quite frequently what the “best” CMS is.  Over the years, my answer has devolved into “the best for what?”

Here’s my issue: without concrete evaluation criteria, it’s not possible to say any particular CMS is “the best” anymore.

All content management systems have sweet spots – those requirements for which they were designed.  You need a blog?  WordPress is arguably the best.  You need a LAMP system with a strong hierarchical content model and extreme extensibility?  eZ publish will do well.  You need a platform on which to manage some content but really just serve as a framework for your own app development?  Consider Drupal.

In all those cases, I was matching a CMS with some requirements.  This is the only way you can ever approach a question like “what is the best CMS?”

Without some requirements, that question is like asking, “is that man standing to the right?" the right of what?  Something is only “right” if something else is “left."  Without “left,” “right” doesn’t mean anything.  Similarly, without some standard criteria or hypothetical situation on which to judge something, any concept of “the best” is pointless.

Tony Byrne, over at CMS Watch, has echoed the same thing:

There is no “best” web content management system. [...] The best CMS for you is the one that best matches your needs – your budget, scope, and type of project – in short, the one that fits best for your web publishing and interaction scenarios.

CMS Watch does it right – when they evaluate a CMS, they have 12 different scenarios to consider, and they evaluate how will the CMS would do for all 12.  Scenarios like:

  • Corporate Brochure

  • Enterprise Intranet

  • Ultra-Large Single Site

  • Microsites

Even just with simple labels like this, you’re in a much better position to choose what CMS fits.  A CMS that does well with a “corporate brochure” may fail spectacularly for an “enterprise intranet.”

WordPress won the Packt Awards this year for “Best Overall CMS” – the category I was judging in.  There was some grumbling about this – I was not thrilled with the results.  (In searching for that post, I found this one from two years ago when WordPress won “Best Social Networking CMS,” and I was struggling with that too.)

My chief problem with it was that I didn’t think WordPress was a full-blown CMS.  But, let’s think about that statement for a second – my feelings about whether or not WordPress can be called a “CMS” like Drupal is called a “CMS” is entirely dependent on what you’re asking it to do.  If you want a straight-up blog, then WordPress is as much a CMS (more, even) than anything out there.  If you need a product catalog...not so much.

So, this is my position – just asking for ‘the best” CMS is a fallacy.  If you’re asking for a vague concept of “the best,” you need to have some set of criteria or scenario in mind to anchor your choice.  Without that, no answer really means anything.

Comments (14)

Matt Smith says:

The ‘Best’ anything is always dependent on the answer to ‘Best for what?' You can’t walk into a bike shop and say ‘What is the best bike you’ve got?' Well, are you road, trail, casual riding? Before the holidays I got a lot of computer questions like ‘What is the best laptop to get?' Well, is it for you or your 11yo? What are you doing with it? etc.

Brdavs says:

Well, I have a theory about “the best CMS”.

Content Management (as such) denotes an application to present documents. After all most web sites serve documents as their content. Content management system is then – by deffinition – document centric (as opposed to being data centric, which denominates a relation management application)

So – if you want to serve documents, your CMS should be good at that. What’s good then? We all know, that only 2 things are certain. Death and taxes. You can avoid the later to some extent, but the first one will eventually get you. Seeing my lack of time on this planet as the greatest of all my foes, I therefore firmly believe, that the best CMS is the one, that takes the least of my time using it....

Tried Drupal, WP and Joomla, and they all failed. I had to write my own eventualy.

Best regards

Lucas says:

In my opinion, the best CMS for clients is concrete5. It’s easy for developers to build on and even easier for end-users (your clients) to edit with. concrete5 uses in-context editing so you edit your page as you browse it. Powerful and simple! Try it at

George says:

I think you said it best. There is no best cms, only systems that have a sweet spots in different areas. To me that sweet spot needed to be a cms with an api. I feel content should be set apart from the design and application, and the best way to do this is a saas cms like Osmek. Everything is moving to the cloud as a service and its only logical that your content should too.

Deane says:

the best way to do this is a saas cms like Osmek. Everything is moving to the cloud as a service and its only logical that your content should too.

I like the cloud and everything, but that’s a massive, massive over-simplification of the problem. SAAS has its place, and your CMS sounds good, but neither the cloud nor SAAS is a blanket solution for everything. In fact, I’d say it’s a good solution for a minority of situations, at the moment.

George says:

I agree the cloud is not a blanket solution, but it does provide a flexibility that I feel developers seek. Developers aren’t stuck using one framework or language, and clients don’t have to worry about their cms being outdated the second the project is finished. And it pays to have reliable support. I think right now the cloud is a good solution for a majority of situations if it has the right features, people just don’t know it yet. You were ahead of your time and Osmek is moving to satisfy this need.

Deane says:

The cloud does provide some advantages, but it probably also introduces just as many disadvantages. To wit –

  1. You’re depending on some other system to be up all the time

  2. You’re stuck with someone else’s features

  3. You introduce network latency (which caching can only partially solve)

  4. There are privacy issues – some organizations can’t send their data off-site

  5. There’s potential lock-in issues

Don’t get me wrong, Osmek is nicely done, but the cloud isn’t for everyone. It’s naive to think that everyone can just shift to the cloud and everything will be fine.

Different architectures fit different situations. For a whole lot of people, installed software is still the right solution.

George says:

Dean you make a great argument. The cloud for sure introduces a new dynamic that can be both good and bad but this is all situational like you said. In response to the disadvantages:

  1. Most people already rely on data centers for up time anyway. Osmek runs on rackspace and it doens’t get much better than that, unless you have the resources to run your own servers. And in this situation you probably can afford to have a custom tailored cms. (but agreed your point is still valid)

  2. True of any out of the box cms.

  3. With caching, latency is negligible and has never been a problem for any of our clients. (but is an added issue)

  4. Now in this case the cloud is not right for you.

  5. Not sure how the lock-in issue is more of a problem than an installed cms.

It is naive to think that everyone can just flip a switch and move to the cloud. It doesn’t work for some people and may never. But I like to think it is the undeniable future for a growing number of people, or at least it seems that way if VMware has their way with the world ha.

Gyle Abanathie says:

Great article! My company is currently looking for an enterprise content management system. I have had a look at a lot of different articles / posts. This one here helped me in making a decision:

Lucas says:

It does depend on your needs but I have to throw in a vote for Concrete5. Bloated content management systems like Joomla or Drupal are terrible for the end-user experience and not very developer friendly. Concrete5 is a new powerful CMS that is easy for developers and even easier for end-users. It works on a in-context editing model so you make changes as you’re browsing your site. Try a demo of it here:

Gregg DesElms says:

I agree that it’s kinda’ silly to try to declare a “best” CMS.

As for WordPress being considered a full-blown CMS (which I do not, so consider it, by the way), WordPress’s ability to allow the user to create fields in the back end...

...that one feature kinda’ blurs the line between WordPress being little more than just a blog, and it actually nudging its way a little into the world of real CMSs.

I still say that WordPress is nothing but a blog... a darned nice one, mind you, but still only a blog, and not a true CMS. But I concede the slight blurring of the line by the one feature, alone.

varun says:

thanks for blog , helped a lot

Peter Caines says:

Hello, reading these reviews were very helpful, I am a freelance web designer and have always coded everything myself without using cms. I few months ago i Started using Zen Cart for my shopping carts and realised the major benefits of these pre-build cms.

I now see that using cms software is the future and was wondering if anyone can give me advice on which one to go for, what I need to get out of it is:

  1. complete control of how each web page will look – really don’t want to be restricted by the cms 2) PHP based and the ability to go behind the scenes to tweak the code if needed 3) good support forums 4) easy for my clients to edit with little jargon

Here is a link to my website: will my portfolio so you can see the kind of sites I do and maybe give advice on which cms to go for.

Any help will be MUCH appreciated

Steven says:

Some very good points were made in your article and I agree that having a standard set of criteria, a rubric if you will, provides a much more efficient way of judging. Though regardless of the outcome in a “CMS competition”, it definitely comes down to what the person needs.