Top 10 content management systems

By Cameron Chapman Posted Oct. 31, 2011 Reading time: 9 minutes

There are dozens of great CMSs out there. Regardless of what type of site you’re building, there’s probably one perfectly-suited to it.

The problem is that most designers and developers don’t want to spend time learning a bunch of different CMSs. They want to learn one, or maybe two, and use those for all of their sites. That means they need something that’s both flexible and powerful.

The CMSs below fit that bill pretty well. Some have practically become household names (in designer households, at least), while others are a bit more obscure.

The first three, WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal, are pretty unarguably the best CMSs out there. The next seven are a bit more subjective, but have a good combination of support, features, and ease-of-use.

Try them out, and decide for yourself which one best fits your needs and the needs of your clients.



Free, PHP-based

A couple years ago, it was widely debated whether WordPress should really be considered a CMS considering its roots as a blogging platform. That debate has pretty much fallen by the wayside at this point, as WordPress now powers plenty of non-blog websites, including everything from simple multi-page brochure style sites right up to full-fledged social networks (using plugins like BuddyPress).

There are thousands of themes available for WordPress, as well as thousands of plugins and widgets to extend its functionality. WordPress also has an incredibly active community surrounding it, meaning it’s easy to find tutorials or information about nearly every aspect of developing for WP.

Through plugins and custom themes, you can turn WP into a social network, forum, e-commerce site, and much, much more. There’s also built-in functionality for creating blog networks or other multi-blog installations from a single core installation. offers a hosted, less-versatile version of WordPress, though the basic functionality is all there.


  • Huge developer community with plenty of documentation and tutorials available
  • Free and paid plugins and specialized themes make it possible to create virtually any kind of site with WordPress
  • User-friendly dashboard for managing content


  • Can be overkill for basic sites
  • A standard installation can have a lot of security issues, and is very vulnerable to attack without additional security measures
  • No official support outside of user forums, where you may or may not get an official response



Free, PHP-based

Joomla! is used by some very prominent companies as the CMS for their websites, including MTV, Harvard University, and IHOP. It’s suitable for back-end networks, too, and is used by Citibank for just that purpose. Joomla! has been used for everything from inventory control systems to reservation systems, to complex business directories, in addition to normal websites.

Joomla! has a long development history and a very active developer community (with over 200,000 users and contributors), so finding information and tutorials is easy. There are also tons of plugins and add-ons for Joomla!, so extending Joomla!’s functionality doesn’t necessarily require any custom coding.

While there are plenty of themes out there for Joomla!, the quality for many doesn’t compare to what’s available for WordPress. There are some great themes, available, though, if you’re willing to look for them.


  • User authentication can be done with OpenID, Google, and LDAP, among others
  • More than 7000 extensions
  • Very active user community and tons of documentation available


  • Back-end isn’t as user-friendly as some CMSs, though it’s still very usable
  • Lack of high-quality themes when compared to some other CMSs
  • Can be overkill for simple sites



Free, PHP-based

Drupal is another very popular CMS, used by a number of high-profile companies including the New York Observer, Popular Science, MIT, Sony Music, Fast Company, and others. It includes a bunch of features for building internal and external sites, and a ton of tools for organizing your content.

Drupal has a very active community, with a number of IRC channels, forums, and even face-to-face Drupal events. There’s also community-generated documentation that is constantly being updated and improved. This documentation includes all you need to know about installation, building sites and modules, designing themes, and more.

There are more than 6,000 add-ons (“modules”) available for Drupal, making it easy to extend Drupal’s functionality to do just about anything you want. This means you can spend your time focusing on design and content, rather than having to code a bunch of complicated features.


  • Robust community support, including IRC channels and face-to-face meetups
  • More than 6,000 modules, making Drupal highly extensible
  • A large number of companies offering commercial support for Drupal


  • Can be overkill for simple sites
  • A lack of really high-quality free and commercial themes (there are some, but not nearly as many as there are for some CMSs)
  • Theming system is fairly complicated



$99.95 to $299.95 depending on license, PHP-based

ExpressionEngine is an interested hybrid of commercial and open-source software. The base code for the ExpressionEngine core is built on CodeIgniter, which is their own open-source PHP framework. But the commercial aspect of the CMS means that there’s committed developers and technical support people focused solely on EE.

There are a ton of great websites built on ExpressionEngine, and they’ve set up a showcase site, Show-EE, specifically to share them. Some sites built on EE include A|X Life, the Canon Ixus site, and LivingSocial Adventures.

ExpressionEngine doesn’t have as many add-ons and plugins as many other CMSs, with only 22 add-on modules and a little over 100 official plugins. But, the plugins and add-ons they have are some of the most likely to be used, and include a wiki, discussion forum, member manager, mailing list, e-commerce, statistics, and more. There are also community plugins, if you can’t find what you need in the official plugins. The core feature set of EE is impressive, too.


  • Commercial support
  • Focus on security, with no major security breaches ever
  • No restrictions on how a site can be designed


  • Cost is high, especially for commercial sites
  • Can be overkill for simple or smaller sites
  • No interactive demo to try it out before you purchase



Free, PHP-based

TextPattern is probably one of the more overlooked CMSs out there. TextPattern is a highly flexible CMS, though, that’s easy to use out of the box and easy to customize by designers and developers. It uses a tagging system to make content retrieval and display easily controllable. TextPattern uses Textile to quickly convert plain text to valid XHTML in your articles and content, which makes it very user-friendly for less technical users.

TextPattern doesn’t have the huge variety of themes or templates available for WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla!, with only a little over 120 front-end themes readily available. They also offer back-end admin themes, for customizing the user experience for content creators.

There are nearly 700 plugins for TextPattern, and another 50+ mods. Plugin categories include image galleries, integrations, e-commerce, custom fields, archives, articles, admin features, navigation, and more. The mods and plugins available greatly increase the functionality of TextPattern and can make it a much more powerful CMS.


  • Really easy to use interface
  • Well suited for sites of all sizes
  • Really great documentation, including a full online manual


  • Smaller community
  • Fewer plugins than the more popular CMSs
  • Relatively few high-quality templates available


Contao (formerly TYPOlight)

Free, PHP-based

Contao has a user interface that incorporate Ajax and other Web 2.0 features to improve usability. It includes advanced editing features for content, including editing multiple records at once or rolling back to prior versions of content.

It also includes a number of common built-in modules. The calendar module supports multiple calendars, all-day and multi-day events, open-ended events, and syndication via RSS or Atom. The built-in newsletter module supports double opt-in emails in either HTML or plain text. You can import recipients from a CSV file, and even personalize newsletters being sent. The build-tin news/blog module includes support for multiple categories, archives, featured posts, comments, and RSS or Atom syndication. Tons of additional modules are also available, to further extend Contao’s functionality.

There are a few premium theme marketplace for Contao, though there appear to be even fewer free themes available. This isn’t really an issue for designers who plan to create all their sites from scratch (and Contao includes a built-in CSS framework to make this easier).


  • No restrictions on how you can design a site
  • Not much learning curve for content editors and authors
  • Good built-in modules


  • Hardly any themes available, high-quality or not
  • Back-end is sluggish and not particularly well-thought-out
  • Because of back-end setup, it’s probably better-suited to smaller sites without dozens or hundreds of pages



Free, PHP-based

SilverStripe is an open source CMS that is well-suited for developers and designers who are comfortable with code. They have recipes and tutorials for beginning developers, and plenty of modules for things like blogs, forms, and forums. Code is isolated in Sapphire, so designers can use whatever HTML and CSS they want to style their sites. It also supports multiple page templates to support different needs.

SilverStripe also has powerful content authoring tools. You can set up your own content approval process, as well as publish or unpublish content on specific dates, and have differing permissions levels for different parts of the site. That can be very useful if you have multiple editors or authors who only need access to a specific part of the site.

SilverStripe has been downloaded over 350,000 times and there is a robust development community. SilverStripe LTD. manages the development of the code, so there’s always someone you can call on if you need help. At the same time, though, they have partners in over 30 countries, meaning you’re not locked into a single vendor like you are with many enterprise-level and commercial CMSs.


  • Basic functions in the back-end are easy to perform
  • Designers are free to use HTML and CSS however they want to design their site
  • Developed on open standards, so it plays well with others


  • Not everything is intuitive in the back-end, which increases the learning curve
  • Only a little over 150 extensions/modules
  • Not many high-quality themes available



Free, .NET-based

Umbraco gives designers full control over design aspects, and focuses on web-standards and a completely open template system. There are starter kits and skins available to make it faster to get started. It’s also easy to integrate Flash and Silverlight content into your Umbraco-based site. A number of high-profile sites are built on Umbraco, including the Heinz and ABBA sites.

On the content-creation side, Umbraco makes it easy to manage content by using a tree-based view of your site. It allows for user-defined presentation of information about your content, so you only see what you need to. It supports versioning, scheduled publishing, and previews. One advantage Umbraco has over many other CMSs is that it works well with content created in Microsoft Word, which can be a huge advantage to users who are used to dealing with Office products. (How many times have clients sent you documents with detailed Word formatting that they expected you to recreate perfectly?)

Umbraco has support for developers and designers to customize the back end with custom applications. It has an open API so that developers can easily access every aspect of Umbraco that can be accessed via the back-end. This opens up a ton of custom application options for developers.


  • Free and paid tutorials and support
  • Powerful and flexible for both websites and intranets
  • An open API


  • Primary add-ons are paid
  • No demo available to try before you download
  • Not really any prebuilt themes available for the front-end



Free, PHP-based

concrete5 is not only a powerful CMS, but can also be used as a framework for developing web apps. Designing sites is easy, and can be done at a variety of levels. You can start with a theme and then override styles without touching the code. Or you can code your own themes with HTML and CSS. If you’re comfortable with PHP, you can use custom templates that can override the way any block looks.

One advantage concrete5 has over some other CMSs is the in-context editing. They’ve attempted to replicate the functionality of a word processor, while also making it simple to edit pages as you view them. It makes it very user-friendly for non-technical users, who may be the ones managing the site’s content.

According to the 2010 Open Source CMS Market Share Report, concrete5’s developer community is the fastest growing among any open source CMS. They have a very active community, with how-tos geared toward designers, add-ons and themes with actual support, and even support ticketing if you run into an issue that can’t be solved on the forums. The community and support surrounding concrete5 make it a very appealing CMS for users at the beginning and intermediate levels.


  • Easy to convert a basic HTML site to a concrete5 site in minutes
  • Active and growing developer community
  • Offer business-class hosting that includes support


  • Many useful and basic plugins are quite costly
  • Almost all of the best themes are paid
  • Paid support is expensive if you don’t host with them ($125 and up)



Free – $28/month depending on feature set, hosted

CushyCMS is the only hosted CMS on this list. There’s a limited-feature free version that includes an unlimited number of sites, pages, and editors, but doesn’t let you use your own logo or your own domain name for the admin panel, or customize the admin experience. If you don’t care about your own branding in the admin panel, it may work for your business. The paid version, which is $28/month, has many more features, including branding support.

The main thing that sets CushyCMS apart from most others is that it’s specifically meant to make it easy for your clients to edit their own content. You design the website however you want, and then add it to the CushyCMS account. From there you can define which parts are editable and give your clients access.

Because of the nature of CushyCMS, there are no plugins or pre-defined themes. But for designers who might not be used to working with a CMS, or who design a lot of basic sites that don’t really need a full-featured CMS, but do need to be editable by their clients, CushyCMS is a great option.


  • Incredibly easy for content managers to edit their content
  • Free plan is suitable for many users
  • Very easy and quick to get started


  • Paid plan could be pricey if you’re not using it for multiple sites
  • Email support only available for the paid version
  • Too basic for many types of sites or particularly large sites


Which CMS do you use? Since the “best” CMSs are very subjective, is there one you think should have been included instead of one of the above? Let us know in the comments!