It’s difficult to choose a CMS today because there are so many options. But why are there so many options?
Why are there so many [EXPLETIVE] CMSs?
I've been asked this (rhetorical) question a number of times in the last few years, and I thought it would be fun topic to explore.
Disclaimer: I'll preface this entire prosaic exploration by noting that this is an exploration. There are a great many factors that led to why things were the way they were, and why they are the way they are. This is a synopsis and snippet from my perspective.
It's difficult to talk content management without mentioning WordPress in some way. It essentially defined what a CMS is (although that definition is changing).
And while WordPress is definitely still a thing (more on this below), there's usually an underpinning below this question. And I think what folks are usually wondering is: Why isn't there a modern WordPress?
Why isn't there a single content provider that stands above the rest? That when you think about managing content in 2022, you think about this one thing.
Before we can answer that question, I think we have to spend time on two considerations first.
The first is that WordPress is very much still a thing. In fact, it is used by 2 of every 5 websites in 2022! And it's grown from 2021. It's grown more than 10% year over year since 2011.
I mention this because I think it's important for contextualizing this exploration. While we're exploring modern technology in this conversation, WordPress continues to be relevant (even if not modern), and it continues to grow. Those of us tapped into modern tools know that there are many things vying for a market share from WordPress, and yet WordPress continues to dominate.
It's also important to consider why WordPress became so popular. While there are a lot of explanations, I attribute WordPress's success largely to three factors that work together:
Why WordPress continues to be so popular is likely an extension of these three points, but it will also to explain how competitors are vying for a share.
There have always been a lot of CMSs. It just wasn't always so obvious.
Before the modern era of headless CMS, most websites were built as monoliths (tightly-couple front and back ends). This architecture made it more practice to build and maintain a custom CMS. Back in those days there were probably a lot more CMSs. You just couldn't see most of them.
There are certainly more than three factors that led to the current content management landscape. But when I think about why and where we are today, these are the first factors that come to mind.
From somewhere before 2016-2017 or so, the go-to technological choice for the typical website was to build a monolithic application — tightly-coupled front end and CMS.
The emergence of the Jamstack changed that. Netlify helped commoditize prerendering websites and delivering pages from the edge, solving problems that were very difficult to address on a per-project basis.
Within a few years, the industry shifted and we began to see a move toward decoupled websites, driven by API-based content management systems. This opened the door for a whole new class of tools — CMSs that were only CMSs. They didn't provide a front-end website. They simply enabled developers to consume and use the content however they saw fit, via an API.
In the monolithic days, the role of a CMS was to manage content, while the front end consumed that content directly from the database. As headless (API) CMSs emerged, the only inherent difference is that they were decoupled from front ends. Otherwise, they looked and worked very similarly to traditional CMSs.
But in the last few years we've seen rapid development and evolution of what content providers can offer.
While tools like Contentful and Sanity (and hundreds more) are more of a traditional headless CMS, we have tools like Uniform, StepZen, Hygraph, and TakeShape that are combining the idea of headless CMS with mesh APIs. This is becoming a class of tools called a digital experience platform. DXPs enable developers to have a source of truth for all their content, even when that content may originate from several other sources. Think: Contentful for page data and Shopify for product data.
Stackbit (where I work) is taking a similar approach, but doesn't quite fit in this category. It's more like a editing experience platform — a space that doesn't quite exist yet.
But it's not stopping there. Contentful and Sanity have been forced to think about how a headless CMS can solve open content authoring in a world where we have components at our fingertips. They've explored how to provide a WYSIWYG experience that is backed by some structure.
Structured-but-flexible content was a space Notion has been playing in for a few years. And I've now seen developers beginning to use Notion as a content source. At first, Notion was a fantastic personal content management tool — from notes, to task lists, to spreadsheets. When they bolted on an API, developers immediately started using Notion to power the content for their websites. And it makes perfect sense. Notion has a super rich and somewhat flexible editing experience, but it is backed by structured content that can be fed into components on the front end.
In other words, the role a CMS plays for a website is still actively changing.
Because we're seeing such a rapid evolution of CMS-like tools, it makes sense that there are a lot of tools vying for our attention. We're actively developing new categories that all fit under a broader set of "content editing" and "content delivery" tools.
A great many of these tools are API-based CMSs, plain and simple. But if you're wondering why we're talking about Sanity one day, Uniform the next, and even considering Notion as a CMS, it's because we're not really sure what the role of a modern CMS is.
Because of that, the next era of content is still to be determined. It hasn't been proven yet. And for that reason, I think we're going to see even more new players to the game.
I also don't think we will see a single winner. We're going to see some nuance in variations on content providers, and several tools will likely grow to be major players in the space.
The question that generally follows why there are so many CMSs is how to possibly pick one in this landscape.
That one's much easier: Just do it. Don't overthink it. Pick one that fits your needs today, and have some confidence that it will solve your needs tomorrow.
But if the tool evolves, or if your site evolves, or if you evolve, it's all fine. All of these tools are API-first, which means that getting the content out is (relatively) easy. And bringing it into another tool isn't much harder. It takes time, but it's doable, and it's a natural transition for today's websites.
Just be sure to be aware of vendor lock-in when choosing a CMS today.
There are a lot of CMSs. But there have always been a lot of CMSs. I hope you've enjoyed this exploration as much as I have. And I hope you pick your next CMS with confidence and with the knowledge that you can move to a new vendor as you evolve, and with much less hassle than in the previous era of content management.
Although developer experience has brought much flexibility to modern web tools and services, vendor lock-in is still very much in play.
The headless CMS is a core tenet of the Jamstack approach, a gamechanging approach to building modern websites. Here is an intro to the headless CMS approach.
Help your content editors enjoy their CMS experience by designing a content schema that balances productivity and flexibility.