Throughout my years as a graphic designer for both print and web mediums, I have been asked many times what a CMS is, and what my opinion on the best CMS is. One of these questions has a definite answer and clearly defined benefits. One is rather open to personal preferences and desires, but both are questions that should be answered before anyone in today’s data age purchases a website.Simply put, a CMS is a Content Management System used in reference to websites that allow the user to edit the site content without the need for programming knowledge or dedicated software. The degree to which the content can be edited varies widely and a great deal of companies out there exist with their own Content Management Systems, offering different levels of customisation. This is a highly desirable alternative to the traditional system of having a website built for you by a web designer, then paying them exorbitant amounts of money each time you want to change an image, update your prices or add some news.The benefits of having a CMS are plentiful and can help you achieve more with your website than you may originally have planned. Not only is it a cost effective means of keeping your site up-to-date, but it actually helps to improve your search engine rankings and user experience as well. If your site hasn’t been updated for a few years and the content is old and irrelevant, search engines like Google will pick up on this and your page will rank lower and be harder to find. Users also want to know that your content is current and any information on your products, pricing, contact details or offers is still applicable.There are a few things you should find out when seeking the right CMS for you and your business. Everybody has different needs and expectations when it comes to websites so the perfect CMS for one company may not be as great a fit for the next. These questions should help you work out which web design agency and which CMS is most suitable for your needs.What are the capabilities of the CMS and how much am I really able to edit?This is actually far more important than most people realize. Most people are aware of how important a CMS is to the success of a website, but this is usually as far as the knowledge goes. What many people don’t realize is that not all Content Management Systems are the same, and the amount of customisation varies hugely from system to system. What might seem common sense to include as a standard editable feature to the client may actually attract additional fees, so it is always important to find out exactly how much can be edited within your site. Can you add pages? Can you edit and change the menu? Can you change the footer? Can you set the link name and title of each page? Can you edit the design? Is there an editable master page which determines the layout and design of every page? Can you add extra URLs to your site? Do you need to know any programming to make major changes to the site? If you do know some HTML or CSS, can this be added to site? The more you have control over the better, because everything else that you don’t have control over will more than likely attract high fees if you ever decide to change them.What CMS is being used, or is it a proprietary system?This may or may not be important to your business, but it can be good to know. There are a number of open source Content Management Systems available that many web design agencies use, such as WordPress and Joomla as well as closed proprietary systems developed specifically for some web design agencies, their partners and their resellers. With a well known open source CMS, in most cases you will be able to host your website wherever you like and should you decide to switch hosting providers, you will be able to quite easily with minimal help from a web programmer to assist the changeover. With proprietary systems, sites must be hosted with the company who owns the system as no other hosts have the capability to use that particular data. Whilst this may sound daunting, it doesn’t really have a large impact on your website as once you find the right web design agency for your company, you shouldn’t need to change service providers anyway. A good web design agency using a proprietary system will offer incentives and bonuses to make it worth your while to use their system and their hosting.Can I add applications to the website like forms, videos or image galleries and will these cost me extra?One of the benefits of a CMS website is that in general you do have the option to add extra applications to your site without having to know how to program them. Things like catalogues, video players or galleries can be great additions, but sometimes these can attract more fees. Open source CMS sites and some of the better proprietary systems are also compatible with third party applications developed by programmers and this can greatly increase the capabilities of your website at little or no extra cost. The more available applications the better, as this increases the value of your investment, and if you have full control over the customisation of these applications without needing to program or code, then you’ve hit on a winner.Is there a limit to how many pages I can have and will additional pages cost extra?No one wants to be limited to a set number of pages but the unfortunate truth is that many companies have set page limits with additional charges to add extra pages. Larger sites with legitimate pages and content do rank better on search engines so having no page restrictions can be a highly useful thing. The ability to change the menu to accommodate the additional pages is also very important.What e-Commerce is available?If you’re considering selling products through your website, it is important to know what sort of e-Commerce is available through the site. Will the site be able to integrate with your chosen payment gateways? Will you have full cart capabilities and invoicing? Full featured shopping carts can potentially add thousands of dollars to your website whilst basic carts can cost next to nothing. Make sure you know exactly what you need out of a shopping cart before getting your site built or this could come as a nasty shock.Are the sites Flash, HTML/CSS or both?There are benefits to both types of sites and it is important to look at this objectively before finding a web developer. With good Flash CMS providers, you will undoubtably have the highest level of flexibility and customisation, with the ability to change everything, right down to elements of the design itself. You will also have much more interactivity for your site viewers. The downside to this being that unless you are aware of how to save your images and content specifically for web, Flash sites can load slower than HTML-based sites. Some Flash CMS sites are also not SEO friendly, so make sure that if you decide to go with a Flash CMS, it is one which automatically creates the content in HTML as well so that your content can be viewed by anyone without Flash installed, search engines and people on smart phones. A site using a CMS like WordPress uses HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) which requires programming knowledge in order to change layout and design. You can add and change text, images and pages as well as add third party applications, however it is a lot more restrictive and much of the real customisation will need to be done by your web designer or programmer. Many low-end WordPress designers just modify pre-existing templates to add your logo, giving you a site which looks like a cheap blog, so if you go down this path make sure you choose a reputable web design agency.Are the sites SEO friendly?There are a few things to make sure of when finding out whether your site will be compatible with Search Engine Optimisation. Is the content going to be readable by search engines? Purely Flash-based content will not be read by search engines and must always have a HTML copy to ensure your site will be searchable. Can you set the page links? Are you able to set meta tags, descriptions as well as the page and site titles? All of this contributes to how well your site ranks on search engines and will be important if you are planning on ranking well on Google.Are the sites templates or custom designed?No one wants a site that looks like a cheap template design, but if you pay $200 for a website, this is what you will get. It takes a very long time to design and build a site from scratch and the only way that a $200 site is going to be profitable for the designer is for them to have used a template and simply changed the logo and colours to suit your company. Of course, if you’re just starting out, a template site is better than no site at all but you can actually go and get a template website on a CMS for free, so why pay someone else to do it?Can I switch my current site over on to a CMS?If you have a website that you’re happy with already, but want to be able to edit it yourself, it may be possible to rebuild the site on a Content Management System. Some parts may be transferrable, but some may not be compatible with the individual system. It is important to ensure that your desired web design agency has taken the time to view all current pages and content to make sure everything you want can be transferred or recreated using their system.In terms of the best CMS out there, as I have demonstrated above I honestly do not feel there to be a single CMS which stands out as being perfect for every single situation. I prefer to evaluate the company’s needs and from there choose a suitable CMS. It is rather like saying ‘what is the best TV show?’ or ‘which car is the best’; without situational parameters it is just an open ended question. Hopefully, this guide will help you to make a decision on which web design agency is right for you.