How To Pick a Website Content Management System. Open Source vs SaaS

Posted by Ben Fjare on Nov 19, 2015 11:00:00 AM

Picking a content management system is a daunting choice for many businesses. Questions and uncertainty are common place and for good reason.  Does the system accomplish all my needs? Will I be able to scale my website in time? Will this system last for multiple years?  All of these questions are common and great things to discuss.


To make the right decision we first need understand the two major types of CMS's (Content Management Systems.)

1. SaaS (Software as a service) CMS

When most small businesses get off the ground they are usually not oozing capital. The luxury of hiring a design firm and web developer to create a beautiful scalable website is a pipe dream. SaaS CMS’s are the most common solution in this situation. These are also the only CMS solutions you will see widely advertised in traditional media.

Here are the main selling points for most SaaS CMS solutions.

Low initial overhead:

  • Most of these services have a monthly fee with the ability to cancel anytime. Pricing varies but usually fits in the area of free to $75 a month—you pay for the service over time rather then one large up front cost.

Little technical knowledge required:

  • SaaS systems are known for slick interfaces that allow you to create page layouts with type and images without having to write code. It allows managers to update a site similar to updating a social media account.

Updated frequently:

  • Due to the consistent cash flow and rapid development, updates are usually faster then traditional software.

No hosting setup:

  • SasS companies host the site for you. No need to buy a hosting account and try to figure out how to install anything.  The hosting costs are included in your monthly subscription.
Keep in mind, there are limitations to SaaS solutions

No custom features:

  • What you get is what everyone gets.  Sure, they all have a ton of useful features but if you want a funky cross integration between your blog and e-commerce store or a super dynamic interactive map that pulls data from a database of users, you will be out of luck working with SaaS.

You have control, but that might not be a good thing:

  • Not everyone is a designer.  Sure you know what you need to communicate but are you sure you know "how" to do it?

Entering content can be inefficient: 

  • Most SaaS systems will require you to enter and format the content over and over again.  If you have a list of 75 employees or a database with over 200 locations, this could be cumbersome. Your time might be a little too valuable for this.
Popular SaaS CMS Solutions.

2. Open Source CMS

Open Source CMS's are a completely different animal. These solutions involve getting the system’s source code and installing it on a hosting account that you yourself purchase and maintain.  This sounds intimidating and it can be.  Most open source systems require some programming and server knowledge that is not intuitive to the layperson. However, if you are hiring an agency or web shop to build your website there is a 99% chance they will use an open source solution. Here’s why…


  • Does your system not have a core feature you need or want? No problem, a talented developer has access to the source code and can create his own add-on to accomplishing that need seamlessly. This allows your site to continue to grow for years and not be limited with certain functionality.  This also allows you to integrate your system with other third party services. Examples would be e-commerce solutions, MLS real estate listings, podcasts, custom database information and other online web services.


  • A good open source CMS will take care of the formatting for you. No need to style every paragraph, heading and image— the system takes care of it all.

One Time Cost:

  • Most of these are either free or have a one time licensing fee.  No monthly payments other then your hosting, which for small sites can be as low as $8 a month.
Here are limitations of Open Source solutions

You will need a developer and maybe a designer:

  • Sure some these systems (Wordpress) have a bunch of themes you can buy, but I'll bet in time you want something outside of that box. In that case a designer and developer will be your best friend.

Larger up front cost:

  • The need for help means you will have larger upfront costs.
Popular Open Source CMS Solutions.

Cool! So what should I do?

If you can afford it, I recommend hiring a professional. (Not a shocking confession being in the business myself.) I say this for a variety of reasons. Hiring a professional that understands how both your business and the web works will be able to provide the best bang for your buck. Knowing best search engine practices and how to make your site look great on a smart phone are HUGE in the current environment.  Can't afford to hire someone? That’s fine, grab an SaaS site and grow...then give us a call.

Ok, I'm going to hire someone--now what?

It's basic, but I would have this list of questions ready which will help you find out if the person really knows how to work with their CMS and if they know anything about the web.

1. What CMS do you use and why? Find out what they use and why they use it. Listen for keywords like “flexibility,” “scalable,” and “easy for clients to use.”

2. What other CMS’s have you used and what’s your opinion of them?

Find out what they don't like and why.  Look for issues such as  "I couldn't figure it out,” or “It's to hard to use.” Most developers don’t use a particular system because its features are less powerful than others— not because they don't understand it.

3. Have you ever built anything custom in this particular CMS? This shows they can actually code for the system of their choice, instead of downloading a pre-built theme and adding your logo.

4.  Are your sites mobile responsive? Google requires this now.  So do your users. There is zero excuse for a site to not be mobile responsive.

5. What's your experience with Search Engine Optimization? Do you have success stories? Do you have a reference to show your success? This is one of the biggest scam industries in the U.S. so make sure they can put their money where their mouth is. 

A quick note about Wordpress

Wordpress is the most popular CMS on the internet and millions of sites are using it.  Wordpress was originally developed as a blogging platform and was then converted to a business style CMS.  There are a ton of great Wordpress developers, but there are also hundreds of terrible Wordpress developers.

The system itself is bulky, and sometimes just plain ugly.  It does great with search engines but I would strongly caution you from taking this route.* It can work, but I promise it could be better.

*If you are a legit Wordpress developer, you know what I'm talking about and this isn't about you.

In conclusion

A lot of factors go into this decision and it's a big one.  The biggest advice I have is to do your research, work with talented people, ask questions and expect clear answers.

Still not sure what your best option is? No worries, get a hold of us and I would be happy to do a free consultation on what might be the best option for you and your business!

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