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Someone recently asked me how he knows whether to use shopping cart software or a full-blown content management system for a Web site. Does it depend on how large your site is? Does it depend on what kind of content you have? And, most importantly, which one is better for search marketing? These are good questions, so they deserve good answers.

You need to start with a definition of a content management system. A content management system, or CMS (as those of us in the know call it), is a way of separating the words and other content you use on each page from its layout and appearance. You might be familiar with the idea of a style sheet (or Cascading Style Sheet--CSS) that separates from your HTML the appearance of your site. Your CSS defines that a heading should be bold, in navy blue sans serif type that is 16 points tall. A content management system takes things one step further, by allowing you to enter your content with the CMS itself supplying much of the HTML.

Depending on your CMS, you might enter a few tags to indicate where in the text you want headings, bold type, or lists, but you'd never have to fool around with metatags, such as title and description tags. The CMS prompts you to enter them into a form on your screen, and uses a template to generate your HTML from the content you provide.

Using a CMS provides a few advantages over using straight HTML:

  • Little or no HTML training needed. Depending on your CMS, your writers might need to learn only a few basic tags, or none at all. Many CMSs provide a text editing window that looks just like a PC word processor, so anyone who can write with Microsoft Word can now write a Web page.
  • Mass content updates. Anyone whose gone through the throes of product name changes or a new marketing message knows how many places you need to change manually to pull it off. Content management systems usually provide the ability for mass changes to content, and, even better, you can design your content so that repeated elements are stored in just one place, so you have just one place to change when the time comes. While there are HTML editors and techniques such as "includes" that let you do some of these things without a CMS, content management systems make it far easier.
  • Mass optimization. Because the bulk of your HTML is in the CMS template, rather than the content, you can make search optimization changes far more easily that affect all your pages at once.
  • Multiple authors. CMSs provide the ability for multiple content authors to work on the same pages without stepping on each others' toes. You can also secure the content so that only certain people can update certain content areas.
  • Automated publishing. You can customize your publishing process so that things you need to do every time (such as get the owner's approval or update your site map) happen automatically with the press of a button.With a little expertise, you can even automate some nice search functions, such as keyword density checking or title checking. Your input form can ask your writer what search keywords the article should be found under, and can then check to see if those keywords are used in the title and throughout the body in the right proportion.

Whew! Now let's look at shopping cart software, which is usually what people call a simple e-commerce system. It provides critical functions for retail Web sites, such as, yes, the shopping cart, checkout, accepting credit card payments, and many other functions. High-end e-commerce systems do all these things and also contain a simple CMS embedded inside, which helps you keep your product database updated. These high-end systems, just like a CMS, help you maintain your catalog information with little or no HTML knowledge, using templates to publish your pages.

As you might expect, a pure CMS is likely to be more configurable and easier to use than a high-end e-commerce system, but simple shopping cart software is the easiest yet. In addition, many open source CMSs are becoming available, so they are as affordable as you can get—free.

It's typical for large commerce sites to use both a CMS and a high-end e-commerce system, with the content being published to the e-commerce database from the CMS and displayed from there. Other businesses, including some small businesses, use shopping cart software for their product catalogs, but separately publish other pages from a CMS.

What should you do? As usual, it depends on what kind of small business site you have:

  • A large product catalog. If you have hundreds of SKUs, go with a full-featured e-commerce system that combines the shopping cart functions with an embedded CMS.
  • A small product catalog without much else. If you have got a few dozen products or less, and not much other information that what's in the product catalog, you are better off with a simple shopping cart product without the complexity of a CMS. Updating a few hundred pages by hand, if it becomes necessary, won't be the end of the world, while you might keel over from sticker shock for a high-end e-commerce system.
  • An information-rich site with some products for sale. Many small businesses sell online, but their major thrust is offline sales. And the most important function of their Web site is explaining how their products or services work, and ensuring that customers understand how their problems can be solved. For these companies, it might be worthwhile to combine a CMS with a simple shopping cart system. The CMS helps a great deal when you have hundreds of pages on your site that need updating.

Remember, that although this might all sound magical, you know better. Both a CMS and a shopping cart system are merely tools whose benefits depend entirely on how skilled you are in wielding them. Both kinds of software can be hard to configure, so hard that you need special help from experts. In the right hands, both can improve your organic search rankings, but used improperly, they can hurt you badly also, with parameter-laden dynamic URLs that search engines don't always index. The good news is that even if your software is configured incorrectly, an expert can correct it rapidly—one template change can fix all your pages at once.

The original questioner was confused because both kinds of software can be used to create high-quality, searchable Web sites. Be sure that you know what kind of site you have before you choose, and consult with experts in your set-up to save you from problems down the road.

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November 10, 2008

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


Interesting question.If you are looking to make money online a content management system is the way to go.Good content draws people to your site and if you have products related to your content you will make sales.

I think a shopping cart system is meant more for online stores with hundreds of different items.

Just my 2 cents...

Thanks for your two cents, Tom.

A high-end e-commerce system is probably what's needed for hundreds of catlof items, as you say. But you can combine a CMS and a simple cart that allows you to take credit card payments to operate a site with a small catalog.

It seems to me no matter what you will want a CMS. However you will only need a shopping cart if you have products to sell.

one will need help with SEO etc to make the online business effective.

Generally, that's true Custom PHP, but there are exceptions. First, very small sites might not benefit from a CMS if it's harder to set up than they are capable of. Second, many e-commerce packages have embedded CMS capability, so the real question is whether you need a separate CMS or you can use what's built in.

Can you recommend a list of shopping cart options for small retail businesses? I've tried Prostores in the past, but had a bad experience. Thanks

I have heard good things about MyMarket, ZenCart, phpMarket, and StoreFront, but its not really my area of expertise. Is there someone out there with a better answer to this question or a pointer to a good review?

Thanks Mike for the great tips. Ideally, you want both, as successful ecommerce sites can feed traffic off a great content managed site. I have a question about ecommerce shopping carts with integrated CMS. It seems like software is getting more robust and diverse and development companies sell them as integrated solutions now. What do you think about software such as Interspire Shopping Cart (features a full content management system)?

I'm not familiar with Interspire, Sammy, unfortunately. Most e-Commerce systems have fairly full-featured content management systems, so if that's what you need, go for it.


There are many free content management systems out there with free shopping cart extensions. One I really like for my clients is Virtuemart for Joomla. All you have to do is download the whole package together, upload it then follow the instructions.

Editing these can be difficult for people not familiar with basic PHP, CSS, etc. But they have a lot of different templates to use also.

Drupal has a good eCommerce solution also for free, but it is unfortunately osCommerce, which is awful in my opinion.

Good shopping cart is the essence of successful online store. if you need to switch to more other shopping cart you can try cart2cart web service. It automates data migration fm shopping cart to shopping cart

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