Before building a website, you need a foundation for it. Don’t forget to consider scalability when choosing a content management system—this exercise will help.
Recommendations on how to choose a content management system typically tell you to pick a CMS that’s scalable. But what exactly does that mean?
Scalability generally refers to the ability of a system to do more without its users feeling any detrimental effects. But it’s a bit more complicated than that when it comes to digital architecture and systems.
In this post, I want to examine the different ways in which you might need your digital products to scale. I’ll also provide tips to help you decide what type of CMS will meet your scalability needs.
When we talk about scalability, what we’re really talking about is the growth and evolution of a system. That’s going to vary a lot from product to product and business to business.
So to get you thinking about what your scalability needs are and will be, let’s look at different examples:
This is the typical use case we think about when talking about CMS scalability. As a website or app becomes more popular, it’s inevitable that traffic volume and on-site activity will grow. So being able to access the database resources and processing power to handle it is crucial.
I would also argue that having the ability to scale those resources up and down as needed is also important.
While it’s nice to imagine that activity will always be on the up and up, there are times when things slow down. Think about something like the period after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. So having a CMS (and hosting solution) that gives you the power to use only the resources you need at any given time is crucial.
One of the mistakes I often see made when it comes to digital security and performance optimization is a set-it-and-forget-it approach. But just as your product’s resources will eventually need to scale, so too may your security and speed requirements.
Depending on which type of CMS you use, you may have no access to either of these controls. You might be able to enable something like image compression or to add an SSL certificate, but that’s about it.
Will that suffice over the long term?
Think about something like GDPR. That’s a fairly recent regulatory development and many companies were left scrambling to make their digital products compliant. If your CMS only does the bare minimum in terms of security and privacy protections, that could put you in a tricky situation down the line.
It’s common for SaaS pricing tiers to grant a certain number of users access to the platform. As the team that manages and supports your site grows, you’re going to want the ease and flexibility to scale the number of users. But that shouldn’t mean that you get stuck paying for a whole bunch of stuff you don’t need.
So if you imagine growing your support team—or that the client you’re building the product for does—user access scalability and the affordability of it is something to think about.
I would also consider the intuitiveness of your CMS as a scalability factor. Not only that, but the ability to templatize the backend of it. Because while it’s great that you can add more users to share the workload, none of that will matter if the backend is too difficult for them to use or the processes too inefficient.
This is something that came up with a client recently. He runs a web design agency that builds products for residential real estate companies. He found that many leads he talked to weren’t thinking about scalability. All they were thinking about was having a website built for the property they own today. So they were using the free website builder platforms included in their property management software.
Not only do these types of CMS greatly inhibit what you can accomplish with a website, they make it difficult to scale the number of locations and corresponding digital properties for them.
If you’re in the business of designing digital products for businesses or industries that often expand to different locations or franchises, CMS scalability is something to consider right from the very start. You can also throw languages into this bucket. Finding out too late that your CMS can’t be translated into different languages or that you can’t create subdomains for different language speakers could be hugely problematic.
Most content management systems and website builders claim that they’re feature-packed, that everything you need to build a great website is included. While that may be true for small websites that have basic needs and won’t do much to expand in size over time, that’s not true for the rest.
Business is a complex thing. What makes sense for one business, doesn’t for another. The same is true for websites.
Even if you feel like a CMS has all the tools you need today to build beautiful responsive designs, you might feel restricted down the road as your business evolves and your website is unable to keep up.
So if that’s something you think might impact you, finding a CMS that truly is feature-rich will be vital. That typically means looking for open source solutions where the community contributes new features and tools to keep up with modern design and development needs.
I’d also say that having access to your product’s code can make or break its ability to scale. Because if you can’t find an out-of-the-box solution to add the new feature you need, you’re going to have to build it yourself (or pay someone else to). And some CMS options just don’t give you that ability.
For some online shops, the size of their inventory may not change much over time. In that case, product scalability won’t matter much.
However, if you know or even suspect that your inventory will grow or that your inventory will need to be swapped out on a regular basis, you have to factor in scalability. While many content management systems promise ecommerce capabilities, there’s no guarantee that it will be easy to add or manage a constantly revolving inventory.
Before committing to a CMS, it’s a good idea to get a look at the ecommerce aspect of it. For starters, is it a native feature? If it’s not a native feature, how easy is it to add? And does it seamlessly work with the website you add it to?
You should also think about the scalability of ecommerce features.
Most ecommerce builder solutions give you key functionality to start. You can add product pages with descriptions, images, reviews sections and add-to-cart buttons. But what about adjusting the quantity, offering a subscribe-and-renew option or adding product spec tables? If those features aren’t easy to add or there aren’t affordable solutions for them, that’s something you should know upfront.
The issue of scaling content is similar to the one you may face with ecommerce products.
Websites that produce content like blog posts, articles, podcast episodes, whitepaper resources, ebooks, reports and so on typically don’t stay small for long. Finding a CMS that can scale in a variety of needs is critical.
You’ll need a platform that can scale in terms of:
Content-related features are also something to keep in mind. Starting out, you’ll want your content pages to include features like a subscription form, a comments feed and social sharing icons. But you may need additional features down the road.
This might not get as complex as it does with ecommerce. However, you should still consider the possibilities as early as possible so you don’t go choosing a CMS that limits what you can do.
One other type of scaling to think about has to do with third-party integrations.
Most CMS allow you to integrate with popular software, like payment processors, CRMs and help-desk platforms. But as the business behind your digital product grows, it will likely benefit from other kinds of integrations.
You’ll need to discuss your client’s business goals in order to get a sense for what they might need down the line.
In terms of growing and improving the digital product, there are certain integration needs you can probably anticipate. For instance, if you’re going to do ongoing work on the site, you’ll probably need a way to integrate an A/B testing platform. You might also want to implement a user feedback widget at some point.
Even if you don’t know exactly which integrations you’ll need, knowing that the CMS supports a wide range of them is a good place to start. So if you go to their site or platform and you’re underwhelmed by their list of integrations, it probably won’t offer the kind of scalability you need.
Now that you have a good idea about how to assess scalability, let’s walk through some basic steps to help you find the CMS with the right type of scalability for your product.
You may already have gone through a goal setting exercise for the digital product you’re building. If that’s the case, then you’re one step ahead.
If you haven’t yet tackled your goals, get tips here on how to do SMART goal setting.
Ideally, you’ll want to establish goals for your site at different intervals. For instance:
This will help you to visualize the amount of growth you foresee for your product. I’d suggest taking it a step further and to translate what that growth means in terms of product scalability.
For instance, let’s say you’re going to build a restaurant website. Within 6 months, you want 1,000 website visitors and 20 online reservations a month. With a year, you want to see five times that amount of traffic and conversions.
When it comes to smaller and local sites that don’t change much in terms of content, your focus will mainly be around having sufficient resources to handle that traffic growth. If your site is going to undergo massive changes over time and your goals reflect that, though, you’ll have additional scalability needs to factor in.
Next, make a list of what your website currently needs in terms of the scalability factors I mentioned earlier:
This will serve as the baseline for what your site needs to run right at the start.
Make another list (or column next to the one you just created). This time, try to envision what your needs will be for each of those factors six months from now. Do the same for one year and five years.
Even if you don’t know exactly how much scaling will take place at those milestones, you’ll know which areas to focus on when weeding out CMS options.
Visit the websites of five to 10 competitors—both big and small. Review each of the sites carefully and try to assess what their sites have that yours don’t.
Don’t just look at the superficial features either. For instance, you can use PageSpeed Insights to see how fast their webpages load. You can then refer to BuiltWith to take a peek behind the scenes and see what sort of technology they’re using.
BuiltWith is great because it also gives you insights into other tools and integrations your site might benefit from using in the future. Right now you might not be thinking about implementing a CDN, for example, but seeing it on a competing site might get you thinking about something you’ll need in the future.
Now that you know what your site needs today and what you’d like it to be doing at different intervals down the road, you can start to weigh your CMS options. I’d put them into three buckets:
Option #1: SaaS CMS
These are the drag-and-drop website builders that you pay a monthly subscription to use. They might offer a quick and easy way to get a website online, but these types of content management systems are going to give you the fewest scaling capabilities.
In general, you have little to not control over your data, resources, security or performance. While it is possible to scale your content, products or features, be careful. These CMS might allow for unlimited content creation, but the tools make it too difficult to create that content at scale.
Option #2: Open-Source CMS
These are the free content management systems that require you to purchase a hosting plan. So when evaluating the scalability of an open-source CMS, you also have to account for what sort of impact the hosting provider will have on it.
Open-source CMS can offer you a good deal of scalability, especially if the platform has a dedicated following. With anyone able to contribute to the platform and loads of software partners eager to integrate with it, you’ll find no shortage of features or integrations to add to your site.
One of the big things to consider with this option is how difficult scalability is. While the CMS itself might make it easy to create and scale your content, the hosting provider is a different story. Not only can they make it difficult for users to scale resources (and some may block access entirely), it can make the whole thing quite costly.
Option #3: Managed PaaS CMS
A managed platform-as-a-service like Sitefinity Cloud removes that big obstacle that designers and webmasters face when it comes to hosting providers and plans.
With this option, you’ll have a content management system that allows for total customization and scalability. At the same time, you’ll have a partner who manages everything having to do with your site’s infrastructure. You won’t have to stress about scaling your resources or improving your site’s security or performance because you’ll have a partner who handles it for you.
The only potential drawback is the cost. However, if you’re thinking 10 steps ahead when it comes to your site and all the power, resources and tools it’s going to need to grow, then cost won’t likely be a factor.
If you consider the scaling limitations you’ll face with a SaaS CMS and the sometimes exorbitant costs of scaling an open source CMS, the managed PaaS usually becomes the most cost-efficient option for success-minded brands and their websites.
At some point, every website will need to scale in some capacity or another. But waiting until your site and business are ready to scale is too late in the game to be choosing a CMS.
For starters, having the right foundation laid down for your product on Day 1 can help you get to those goals faster. Plus, migrating from one CMS to another is costly and disruptive.
That said, not every digital product requires the same level of scalability or control at the CMS level. By going through the exercise above and narrowing down what type of scalability is needed for your unique use case, you’ll have a much easier time choosing a CMS that’s perfect for your needs before you get started.
A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.
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