Why a proprietary CMS is rarely a good investment for small and medium businesses

You’re looking for a new website – and a new design/development company. As you’re interviewing potential companies, many of them will probably talk to you about content management systems (CMS).

Most companies will probably talk to you about open source CMS – these are the popular platforms like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and many other less-well-known solutions. Most of them are free, and all of them are highly flexible and customizable. With the right designer/developer, you can get a wonderful tool for your business in the form of an expandable, search engine-friendly and custom website.

Open source content management systems are great for many small and medium business owners because they:

  • Give you freedom to grow your site, in the form of additions to existing pages, new pages, or blog posts.
  • Are great for search engines, because you can add fresh content (which Google loves) without relying on a web designer’s help.
  • Give you control over your own website management.
  • Can go with you to the host of your choosing – they’re portable.
  • They have large user bases – you’ll always be able to find support for your open source CMS no matter how much your business grows or where it takes you.
  • There are a lot of developers and vendors making free and low-cost addons every day. What you can do with your site is nearly limitless.

However, you might find a few shops that have built their own proprietary CMS. This means they have their own custom CMS platform, usually running on their own servers. There are definitely some drawbacks to going this route…

  • They’re expensive.  You’ll probably be paying a monthly fee for the privilege of using their CMS. It might seem very cost-efficient up front when your site is being developed, but the perpetual fees can really add up.
  • They limit your hosting choices. Often you’ll be required to use the company’s hosting services. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you already have a host you really like, or the hosting costs are significantly higher than other comparable options.
  • You’re tied to your provider. With an open source CMS, you can take it with you. You can move it to any host that provides the required server software, at any time you choose. If your site is managed with a proprietary CMS, you can’t do this.  And – what if your provider goes out of business?
  • No access to your own site’s source code. If you decide to go elsewhere, getting your data (read: your page content, images, uploads, etc.) out of that system is going to be difficult at a minimum.
  • Support options are limited. Only your provider can offer support for your site.
  • Quality and functionality is just as good, if not better, with open source systems. Years ago, it was true that to get a high-quality CMS solution you were probably better off going with a private company – but that’s no longer the case.

When do you really need a proprietary CMS?

I have not yet encountered a small or medium business that needs this kind of tight control, but there definitely are some situations in which a proprietary content management system is a good choice.

If your site needs security audits or has other strong security constraints, a proprietary CMS is probably the best way to go. A high level of familiarity with their own system will allow your provider to lock down security problems much more efficiently than with an open source CMS.

And, if you require a high level of ongoing, one-on-one support with a complex website, a proprietary CMS might fit the bill.

Otherwise, do yourself and your business a favor and go with an option that allows you the freedom to manage your site as you like.