Free CMS tools compared: a quick-reference guide
Shopping for a content management system? Here's a run-down of the best free options on the market.
Starting a website has never been easier, thanks to the wealth of content management systems now available. What’s more, some of the best content creation tools are free and easy to use. The key is to know the subtle differences between them, so that you can choose the right one for your needs.
The best place to start is with an open-source content management system (CMS). Open source platforms use code that is readily available for anyone to use, so they don’t require any prior coding knowledge. Furthermore, they’re developed and upgraded by communities of users, making support readily available and updates frequent.
Below are five commonly used open source CMS platforms. While all of these content creation tools use themes, templates and plugins to enable customisation of sites, there are some key differences you need to know before deciding which one to use.
Initially created as a blogging platform, WordPress is now the most widely used CMS out there. This means it has a huge community of users, so bugs don’t go unresolved for very long and you can be sure you’re getting the most advanced updates.
The WordPress backend is user-friendly, and it’s straightforward to grant different access levels to site users. For example, you can grant basic access to writers or designers and a higher level of access to developers and programmers.
WordPress is flexible and adaptable and can be used to create a simple blog through to a complex e-commerce store. It’s estimated to have over 40,000 free plugins, making it easy to customise your site.
Great for: if you want to get started quickly with a simple business website or blog.
Drupal is more technically challenging than other content creation tools, and it takes roughly two to three times longer to setup a Drupal site compared to WordPress. It is also the most advanced and Drupal pages typically load faster and have quicker response times than WordPress or Joomla.
Drupal offers slick customisation and organisation. Out-of-the-box features include polls, comments and RSS feeds, and it has multi-lingual capabilities. Content is SEO-optimised and you can customise user permissions. Moreover, there are about 450 downloadable themes that support a range of sites from blogs to e-commerce.
Updates can be a headache with Drupal, but it’s a good option if you’re capable of creating some of your own code and you plan on developing a more complex and bespoke project. Its security is considered to be more robust than that of WordPress.
Great for: if you expect your website to grow very quickly and you require extensive features and unlimited customisation.
Joomla sits between WordPress and Drupal. It is powerful enough to operate most websites smoothly, and it doesn’t require as much technical expertise as Drupal. You can access a wide range of themes and plugins, making customisation simple.
Joomla was designed as a community platform, with strong social networking features. This means if you want to create a community or network with a membership area, forums or input from external authors, Joomla is ideal. For example, you can set articles to expire, activate dates and use its in-built multi-lingual capabilities.
Starting an e-commerce store with Joomla is simple, requiring less effort than with WordPress or Drupal. While its community of users isn’t as extensive as WordPress, you will still find it has a robust support network.
Great for: if you’re looking to create a community, social network or e-commerce store.
Magento is specifically designed for e-commerce, making it the best option for an online store. Some of the biggest brands — think Samsung and Nike — use Magento.
Unlike the other content creation tools in this article, Magento has a wealth of features specifically for e-commerce. It is highly scalable and can grow with your business, it has quick page load times and it’s flexible and customisable. It is also easy to integrate with third party services such as payment options and shipment tracking
Great for: if you’re creating an online store, no matter how small or big.
Concrete5 is very intuitive and easy to use, making it a great option for beginners. All of its plugins have to pass a peer review process that checks for compatibility, usability and vulnerability, which means they’re of a high standard. However, there are far fewer of them.
The Concrete5 community is much smaller than that of WordPress, making it tougher to resolve issues. However, unlike WordPress, which was originally built for blogging, Concrete5 has been designed to help people start websites, so its user interface is slicker and easier to navigate.
Great for: small businesses looking to build a simple, easy website.