Unless your website consists of a few static pages that rarely change, a content management system (CMS) is a must. Picking the right one for your project is a matter of matching function with your website’s purpose.

WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are three most commonly used, and not coincidentally, most usable, CMS systems. They all offer incredible features, extensive customization options, and strong security. They are also all free.

All three use themes and templates to define visual appearance and plugins, modules, or extensions add features and functionality. Although they have much in common, they definitely have different strengths:

WordPress

For people who’ve never used a CMS before, WordPress can be an excellent choice. It’s best suited to small- to medium-sized sites, especially sites with major focus on a blog component. It is possible to run an e-commerce store as well, though for more advanced e-commerce functionality one of the other options would be superior. WordPress started out as blogging software, but its functionality has expanded greatly since then. Key features include:

  • Easy to install - Many web hosting companies offer one-click install of WordPress. A new site can be up and running in less than 5 minutes, though of course you’ll still need to add your own content and customizations.
  • Easy to customize and extend - There are thousands of WordPress templates available online. Many are free, others cost less than $100. All install and completely update the look of a website with just a few clicks. The library of over 45,000 plugins enables you to extend and customize functionality.
  • Huge community - Because it’s so popular, there’s a large ecosystem of fellow webmasters and developers to turn to if you need help. There are many free online articles, and the WordPress support forum is populated by particularly helpful folk.

On the downside, adding a lot of plugins to a WordPress site has a tendency to slow down performance, sometimes considerably. Sometimes developers don’t update plugins to keep up with WordPress updates, which can mean you have to change some plugins after an update.

Joomla!

A step up in complexity, but also in functionality, Joomla was built from the getgo around the concept of presenting a variety of digital content, including e-commerce and content that’s ordered in hierarchical fashion. Its strengths include:

  • Easy to install - As with WordPress, many hosting companies offer automated installation to initialize a new Joomla! site in a few minutes.
  • Easy to customize and extend - An extensive library of over 7,500 extensions enables you to quickly extend your site’s functionality.
  • Social networking - With Joomla!, adding social networking to a site is relatively simple, using plugins and modules.
  • E-commerce - Online stores are easy to set up and manage.
  • Extensive community - It’s easy to find help with Joomla!. There’s a busy help portal and a robust community of users and developers.

Although Joomla! is simple to use, beginners may be intimidated by all the functions and possibilities. There is a learning curve, but the features and functionality make it worthwhile. Some plugins and modules are paid rather than free, and occasionally there are compatibility problems between extensions and templates.

Drupal

The most complex of the three, Drupal also offers a great deal of power to those who like to get their hands dirty. It isn’t for beginners and requires advanced technical skills to set up and manage. It’s often used by global enterprises and governmental organizations because it can be customized and tinkered with to deliver exactly what’s needed. Key benefits include:

  • Flexibility - Drupal allows for more complex content relationships than Joomla! or WordPress. If you need content to appear different ways in different places, Drupal can do it.
  • Enterprise power - With great ability to customize access control, custom content, and complex database configurations, Drupal is often chosen for large, enterprise-level projects.
  • Built for High Performance - Great ability to handle large quantities of content and deliver pages quickly.
  • Robust community - There’s an active online Drupal community of developers and users. The Drupal.org forum is the main goto, but drupal.stackexchange.com is helpful too.

Working with Drupal requires substantial technical skills. Installing plugins or extensions often requires getting your hands into the code rather than just clicking install.

Additional Considerations

WordPress uses a MySQL backend. Joomla! and Drupal support additional database types, which may be important to some applications. Also worth noting, WordPress and Joomla! developers are less expensive and easier to come by than Drupal developers.

For a site with a simple blog, landing page, or wiki, WordPress is definitely the way to go. If the project requires content hierarchy, tagging and authoring tools, or extensive e-commerce, look to Joomla or Drupal. Drupal is best reserved for projects that require high performance and extensive customization.  Joomla! is an excellent choice that straddles the middle ground between Drupal’s complexity and WordPress’s simplicity. A good CMS makes creating and managing content easier. The right CMS is the one that does the jobs you need and can be successfully operated by the people who will be using it.

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