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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:
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:
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.
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.
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