What Makes a CMS a CMS?

There has been a lot of debate of late on Twitter about whether or not WordPress is a CMS (ignoring the “WCM v CMS v ???” issue for now).  Peter Monks is an proponent against the concept [Edit: He isn’t, see comments], as is Irina Guseva, a senior editor for CMS Wire.  Ron Miller over at Fierce Content Management says that WordPress is a CMS and Tony Byrne at CMS Watch says it is for a simple reason: Many organizations are using WordPress as a CMS. That makes it a CMS.

That is a fallacious argument.  I’ll explain why in a second, but some important facts.  This blog, Word of Pie, is hosted by WordPress.com and I love it.  If I decided to host the blog personally, I would use WordPress.  For my blogging needs, it is perfect.

So do not read into any of this as an indictment against WordPress.

Why the Argument is Flawed

Let’s look at the statement.  If people use it as an X, it is an X.  I can tell you right now, through my years of creating fun solutions while out camping, traveling, and owning a house, that is not a valid argument.

  • I once used a towel to fix my car.  That doesn’t make it a car part, even though without it I wouldn’t have gotten home that day.
  • I recently bought some instant oatmeal to eat in my hotel room. I didn’t have a bowl, so I made it in one of the glasses provided by the hotel.  That doesn’t mean that the glass is a bowl. Don’t ask me what I used as a spoon.
  • I can’t tell you how many times a mouse (mostly the older mechanical models) didn’t work on a table until I put a piece of paper under it.  That didn’t make that piece of paper a mouse pad.

Those are a few examples that I had on the tip of my tongue.  The point is that using something to solve a problem doesn’t make it designed to solve the problem.

Quick Thoughts

Looking at all of the comments, here is one that sums up my opinion.

From Irina: WP is a publishing/blogging tool. It is not a #CMS, people…

To prove to me that WordPress is a CMS, the community needs to finish working on all of the definitions out there and get terms with which people agree.  Then classify the systems because they vary quite a bit.

The fact that there is debate just reinforces that there is a lack of clarity.

29 thoughts on “What Makes a CMS a CMS?

  1. Actually, I’m a proponent that it *is* a CMS, specifically a Presentation Management System (my terminology) / Web Publishing Tool (NPR terminology):

    FTR I think WP is #wcm – specifically a PMS / WPT. Ditto Drupal, wikis, portal servers, DotNetNuke, arguably every MVC f/w out there, …


    Isn’t WP simply a rather opinionated PMS / WPT? Very particular defn of what a ‘site’ is, how it’s managed etc.

    That said I would be the first to argue that it’s a rather limited PMS / WPT – WordPress has a strong opinion about what constitutes both “content” and “management”, but there is little doubt in my mind that it definitely does do both things, according to a reasonable definition of “content” and “management”. And I’m sure there’s no argument that it’s a “System” (to complete the trifecta).

    Perhaps you’re suggesting that the Word of Pie either contains no content or is not managed (or both)? 😉


  2. Far be it from me to argue with you, but if WordPress manages content, I guess one could call it a content management system.

    I have used Plone as a CMS, as a web site, as an online form and as a blog.

    I have never actually used the word CMS that much I guess, so arguing about a moniker seems weird to me. I used SalesForce for years before I was told it was not a CMS, but a CRM.


    Plone’s web site defines CMS this way;

    CMS stands for Content Management System. A CMS is a web content publishing and management system that allows normal content originators to create, submit, and publish their content directly within a web application/site without any development tools or knowledge of HTML.

    I have no experience with WordPress whatsoever, but that sure sounds like what wordpress does.


  3. Pie are you being deliberately disingenuous ?

    I get it that your point is about sorting out definitions, but you don’t actually present your arguments as to why you don’t think WordPress is a CMS ?

    Is a blog posting a content item – yes.

    Does ‘management’ including elements like, one person writing an article, another editing it, a third approving it and finally Publishing it ? It does in my book.

    At my last employer in the UK, there was a number of quite sophisticated intranet sites built on WordPress, in that scenario, and to my thinking it was definitely a CMS (or WCMS if you prefer).

    I admit the caveat that it might be a limited CMS, not the most functional around for sure, but please, please, please put me out of my misery and tell me why you think its not !


  4. You once used a Towel to fix your car but it’s not a car part. But would your argument be different if:

    1. You were using this towel every day
    2. Millions of others were also using this towel for the same purpose
    3. You had to have a towel (or replace it with something equivalent) to fix the car
    4. If your towel was “down” or not available, your car would not be working
    5. etc


      • I think you’ve already started wondering what’s happened to this industy 😉 But the perception of WordPress being a CMS is something to ponder, rather than deny. It’s why we added it to the WCM research — people just want to know how it stacks up.


  5. I understand where PIE is coming from. The debate is really about how you define what a CMS is.

    Its similar to defining what is a vehicle. According to dictionary.com, a vehicle is – “A device or structure for transporting persons or things.” So by definition a bicycle, motorcycle, car, or truck can be defined as a vehicle. What does this mean, this means a lot of things can be defined as a vehicle. Whats more critical is the customer/salesperson interaction when looking to purchase a vehicle. If a customer is looking to do some heavy lifting, saleperson should not be trying to sell a bicycle. If a customer is looking for a recreational vehicle, the salesperson should not be trying to sell a tank.

    I feel this is the same situation with defining what a CMS is and what people are looking for (vs what companies are trying to sell). Without stricter definitions (which I believe PIE is looking for), no one wins by calling every product that “manages” content a CMS.


  6. Wow, just when I thought we had a little bit of clarity on this topic I read this post. Instant oatmeal in a glass? We’ve really bottomed out here folks. 😉

    Even though I was one of the instigators in triggering this debate on Twitter, it’s a discussion that doesn’t matter much. IMHO, it’s just another example of the CMS community tripping all over ourselves at the expense of folks trying to figure out how to actually manage their websites with whatever software they can find.


    Wake me up when the community finishes with all those definitions…

    Jeff Cram
    CMS Myth


  7. I knew this would cause a few comments. The primary purpose of the post was to comment upon the observation by CMS Watch and to point out that the fact that people disagree shows issues with the definitions.

    I would say that my content is stored and presented. To use the word “Managed” would be a stretch in my opinion. Maybe I set the bar too high for the term.

    CMS should not be like good art, “You know it when you see it”. A system should either be a CMS or not be a CMS. There should be a clear understanding of lines that define it.

    Not being a CMS should also not be construed as a bad thing.

    Just like we are now backing off of ECM to say that some systems are Document Management systems and some are ECM solutions, there is a need to clarify the CMS terms and come-up with some solid definitions and distinct terms.


  8. Ned says:

    Trust me, if you need to manage content inside WP that is more than just blog posts you can do that easily.

    I think that you are saying WP is not a CMS because you only use it for blogging, thus the way you use it becomes responsible for the way you view it as a tool. The inverse would be looking at someone who uses an “enterprise” CMS purely for blogging and then arguing that the platform is more of a blogging tool than an actual CMS.

    I’m challenging you to attempt to do something you would do with an enterprise CMS in WordPress. If you fail, ask yourself if it is the system that prevented you from doing what you wanted or is it your lack of knowledge of the system that prevented you from accomplishing your task. But more than likely I think you’ll succeed. You might just have to step away from WP.com for a bit and into the .org aspect, which is a fine transition to make.


    • There are many things you can’t really do in WP which you can do in other WCM systems. And it very quickly becomes prohibitively resource intensive to get WP to do those. WP is a great WCMS for simple scenarios, but it’s still quite limited. (For blogging, though, it’s one of the best.)


  9. You got WP Extend plugin’s covering CDN, Akamai etc. solutions, advanced caching, multiple data layers, advanced language and fallback support and as well as integrated data from SAP Developer Network. That, among much other, pretty much makes WordPress more of an “CMS” (or WCM as you prefer it over there) than several other, less supported open source solutions. In my eyes. Take a look at the large Swedish Allers group (http://bit.ly/cQT0gn), they have migrated from proprietary CMS solutions like EPiServer and Polopoly to WordPress. THAT makes WP a “CMS”.


  10. @ Philippe Parker – WELL SAID – that was a great post. Thanks – my key takeaway is (and perhaps what Laurence Hart was trying to original convey) is that without a definition, we have no method to measure what the minimum feature list for a CMS would be – and even if we all somehow magically agree on that definition today – I think we all can agree that WordPress might not be the best CMS (or WCM, or WCMS).

    Before anyone retourts with a “…but with a plug-in..” comments – my point is that I do not think we will see WordPress listed in the CMIS wikipedia stub anytime soon.

    @ Laurence Hart – as you are at HIMSS, what we need is a National MPI (Master Patient Index) so we can see exactly what that dream feature list might be for an Über Medical grade CMS – and then show your CMIS AIIM project to the EMR crowds ! (at least, that is my hope, and you have at least one raving fan of that effort here in Simi Valley, California!)


  11. In the end is not just semantics ?

    1. What I call a WCMS someone else (normally the vendor) calls a CMS

    2. What I call a WCMS someone else (always a vendor) calls an ECMS

    3. What I call a EDMS someone else (usually the vendor, some times the integrator) calls an ECMS

    I agree with Pie that standard definitions might help the uninitiated lay person, but as information management or content management professionals do we really need to obsess over definitions ?


    • @ Jed – as someone whom is often customer facing, definitions are really important during a sales cycle. a great example is when you are selling an EHR system (Electronic Health Records) – anyone can say they make one. Some can say “hey, but we are CCHIT certified!” – and while that might be helpful, you need to qualify ‘when” and ‘for what’. Without a a unit of measure, we have no ruler, and without a rule, a customer can’t make a useful feature comparator.

      I ‘think” this is what is stuck in Pies craw – we are not obsessed, we are rabid cut followers of the devil(s) we know – I am worship Plone, and that trumps others Drupal god, I am Python-ista, and their Perl is puke and I declare jihad on their .net…

      – when a customer is watching all that, they are frozen and afraid they will be sent to the land of bad ideas(tm).

      So, yeah – some of us are obsessed with definitions – and with good reason – when the boss man sez ‘which one’ we can’t just put slips of paper in a hat.

      my two Belgian fracs
      (yeah, i know, i know, i should have exchanged them for Euro when I had the chance)


  12. Brian says:

    I’m guessing you used two straws from the cafe bin as a spoon.

    A guitar is not a piano, but they are both string instruments.

    I concur that WP is best suited for a blogging platform. I have used WordPress as a CMS for a conventional website and I agree that there are better CMS tools for conventional sites. Some tools provide functions out-of-the-box that will require custom php or plug-ins with WordPress. But the point of the argument is not whether WP is better or worse than other tools.

    If you are saying WP is not a CMS, you are essentially saying that a blog is not content and therefore WP is not managing content and therefore it is not a CMS. [I think Ned makes this point above, and I agree]. WordPress also manages non-blog content (images, ‘pages’, links, media, etc.)

    If you agree that a blog is content then I think you have to consider WordPress a CMS. Albeit, not the best CMS for every situation, but a CMS nonetheless.



    • Brian,
      I’m just reading some of these WP (non)CMS posts. I really think your comment hits the nail on the head “A guitar is not a piano, but they are both string instruments. ” Vignette and WP manage content on the web. WP sounds better for some CMS scenarios and Vignette sounds better for others. There are 100’s of WCMs and all have a scenario they satisfy better than a competing system. The difficulty is finding that one system for your scenario.


  13. Oh, come on, give up what you used for the spoon. An empty sugar packet? The do not disturb door hanger? your fingers?

    What makes a spoon and spoon ? CMS – Culinary Mini-Shovel ?


  14. Would it be possible that WP is just an application and not a CMS?
    Talking about application separation from the content platform… isn’t it.. Laurence?


  15. Jeremy says:

    Is the CMS war boiling up like OSes, consoles, GUIs, IDEs… etc? Can’t we all just get along!? Doesn’t everyone realize that everyone else has different preferences than their own!? 🙂

    But seriously, I posit that WordPress is definitely a content management system. Without using any plugins! That’s right, no plugins whatsoever.

    First of all, it seems that everyone in this debate has forgotten that WordPress has PAGES. Every page can be assigned its own, custom template. Your list of pages is easily accessible through built-in WordPress php functions. Pages have hierarchy. Pages are sweet.

    Secondly, every post and page can be assigned meta data through the “custom fields,” which you can take advantage of in your templates using built-in WordPress php functions.

    Miscellaneous: There’s a media library for uploading and managing photos, pdfs, and other types of files you want to append to your site. It even has some simple built-in image editing now. There’s been built-in version control for awhile for your posts/pages. There’s built-in (weak) protection against editing pages that other users are editing. I sound like a fanboy now.

    In conclusion, who cares? I don’t know what CMSes the anti-WP are proposing (I would love to see a list of recommendations!), but I can guarantee you that there are other people on the internet who will e-fight you to the e-death for claiming that Joomla/Drupal/ExpressionEngine/MovableType/Frontpage is a CMS.


    • Jeremy, you missed the point.

      Just because something isn’t a CMS doesn’t mean it can’t be used to manage a website. They are not inclusive. I actually think that we have evolved a new category of software, the Website Management System. Post will follow shortly.


  16. I’m a little late to this conversation but thought i’d add my opinion!

    My non academic, simple definition of a CMS is pretty simple – it’s a system designed for managing content in a simple manner by the end user, without having to delve into code.

    WordPress fits that definition perfectly. Was it originally designed as this – no. Has it grown and adapted to suit user requirements – absolutely. Not everyone uses WordPress as a blog, it can be many things. You can build a whole site based on pages, and in fact that’s what all the templates over at http://www.studiopress.com are based on, and they definitely take WordPress in some interesting directions.

    WordPress can manage text pages, manage images via gallaries etc, include other media/forms of content such as video etc. Content can be stored within the system and then put together and published as required. This can be done without coding if required.

    So, in my very humble opinion, is it a CMS – definitely – it can be used effectively to publish and manage content and has features built in for this purpose. Is it the most advanced tool for this task – absolutely not. But do many small businesses who only have small amounts of content to manage in simple ways need something more advanced? I would suggest in a lot of cases they don’t.

    Thanks for the article, it was a great read.


    • Where we disagree is managing content. To be fair, I need to re-assess now that the new version of WordPress is out, but before that, it fails. I think part of it is that I have slight issues with your definition of a CMS. If you substitute the word “content” with “website” you have a definition that fits many CMS systems, and other applications like WordPress.

      Being able to run a website doesn’t make a CMS. It makes it a good system for running a website, which is not the definition of a CMS.


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