What CMS is right for you? How to pick the best content management system

When you’re buying a car, you care about how it looks from the outside. But as anyone who has “looked under the hood” will tell you, it’s what’s on the inside that counts as well. Building your website with the right CMS in mind will be just as essential as building your website with the right look in mind.
But what CMS do you choose? There are plenty of options out there and, much like cars, much of your decision will come down to exactly what it is that you need. If you have a family of 4 and a carseat, a Porsche 924S isn’t going to meet your needs. That said, if you’re flying solo and living in a city, do you need a Toyota 4Runner?
Below, we’ve broken down the three tiers of CMS options — from the drag-and-drop of Squarespace to the mid-range, old faithful WordPress to an all-out custom platform — we’d recommend you consider. With each of these, we’ll also talk about some questions to keep in mind to find the CMS that is right for your organization.

The drag and drop DIY: Squarespace and Wix

The Marina Abramovic Institute’s website, built on Squarespace

When you need a website and you need it now, Squarespace and Wix both offer modern, responsive, and eye-pleasing solutions that require zero development skills. These are the quickest options for, say, putting up a landing page with a newsletter signup and “Coming Soon” sign while you build out a fuller site behind the scenes.
Squarespace offers a lot in terms of design control for non-coders and has earned its street cred as the hippest drag-and-drop platform. It also boasts a number of integrations, including Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, SoundCloud, YouTube, Vimeo, Apple Pay, Stripe, PayPal, and MailChimp. Check out their claims to fame in the Marina Abramovic Institute, Contently, Active Schools, and the #girlboss Foundation.
Likewise, Wix offers an array of attractive templates, though it is still catching up in terms of responsive design. If you choose to change your template, unlike Squarespace, you will also need to reupload all of your content — so choose wisely. That said, if you’re okay with a little bit of Wix branding and using a Wix domain, you can also run a site on their platform free of charge. Here’s an example from Danz Alterna.
On the paid level, Wix’s plans range from $5 to $25 per month; Squarespace ranges from $12 to $40. This seems reasonable until you consider what other options cost in comparison. WordPress is free, and hosting on a reputable server like InMotion can run as low as $6 per month. Additionally, making customized changes is harder with drag-and-drops, and Squarespace and Wix developers are fewer and further between than developers covering other CMS’s (and are therefore often more expensive). So if you are looking for something more customized for the long run, we’d suggest reading on.
Drag-and-drop? Off-the-shelf? Custom? Everything you need to know about picking the right CMS for your organization. Share on X

Old faithfuls: WordPress and Drupal

DREAM’s website uses WordPress

Ah, WordPress. When we’re asked to recommend a CMS, 9 times out of 10, WordPress is bae. It strikes a solid balance between customizability and out-of-the-box options that can grow with your site as needed. WordPress also exemplifies one of our biggest considerations when shopping for a CMS: Author experience. How easy is it going to be for your team to makeupdates to the website once it launches?

The setup of WordPress as a backend for adding content or updating existing pages is built with non-developers in mind, which makes for an easy learning curve. WordPress is also chockablock full of open-source plugins and extensions that can meet your needs for a site without having to start from scratch. WordPress is also constantly updating its system to fight bugs and hackers and these updates are incredibly streamlined.
Drupal is another option that is especially powerful for building efficient formatting  and pattern libraries for page templates, something that is more difficult to achieve on WordPress. If you’re going to have multiple users updating your website and want to assign different levels of permission and access, Drupal has that on lock as well. Drupal may be a bit more difficult when it comes to updates, however its security also wins over WordPress.

When you need a custom CMS

Sometimes off-the-shelf is harder to customize to fit your site’s needs and building a CMS from scratch is the way to go. If you have a Tudor Revival house, there are a lot of things you can do to renovate it, but you’re better off starting from scratch if you want the exterior to look like a Spanish Colonial.
Custom CMS’s also give you control over the software versus being beholden to what is offered on open source platforms like WordPress and Drupal. Depending on how complicated the offerings on your website will be, hacking together a number of extensions and plugins may be too tenuous to manage in the long-term.
Of course, like buying an apartment versus renting one, that also means that you’re the one responsible for keeping up with maintenance. When going proprietary, it’s easy to remember that while it looks fantastic now, it’s only a short period of time before something breaks down. It’s also good to know whether you’ll own the code or have to license it on an ongoing basis.

Always keep in mind…

With all of the above, there are pros and cons to each CMS. Here are the questions to ask yourself in order to help guide your decision with a website build.

  1. Author Experience: Will this CMS be easy for you and your team to learn? Will it be easy enough for you to maintain it on an ongoing basis?
  2. Customization: How much can the CMS be customized to suit your needs? And how much can you customize content if you’re working with a custom CMS?
  3. Extensibility: Are there open-source plugins and extensions available that can work out-of-the-box so that you don’t have to start from scratch on a website feature?
  4. Elements: How easily can you make updates to core elements of the website without needing to hire a developer?
  5. Developers: Speaking of developers, are there a number of developers in your price range who work with the specific CMS? (WordPress is the most popular and therefore developers don’t charge as much as those who work with Drupal, Squarespace, and/or Wix. Custom is much more limiting in this regard.)
  6. Cost: How much will this all total? How much are the monthly fees associated with the CMS, and are server charges handled separately? And how much will it cost to hire developers, both for the initial site build and for ongoing maintenance?
  7. Security: How secure will this CMS be? How much will you have to be responsible for that security versus a server provider acting as the watchdog?
  8. Updates: How often and how streamlined are the updates provided by the CMS platform? If you’re considering a custom CMS, how often will you need to handle upgrades?


See something you like? If you’re looking at other websites for inspiration, BuiltWith is a great resource for seeing what CMS any given website runs on. This is especially useful if you want to see what’s possible with what platform.
Building a website? Check out our other website optimization resources, including 47 terms you should know when working with a developer.