A CMS is just about content so it doesn’t need much attention, right? Wrong. In an e-commerce environment CMS means so much more than being able to edit and publish content.

E-commerce pages have dynamic content served by code and this content can change depending on the visitor session; given such variation, how can you weave static content into dynamic pages without screwing the display?

As the sophistication of consumers and online technology has risen, so have the demands on e-commerce managers to understand which tools are the best-fit for the business. Having worked on many CMS implementations and seen the pitfalls, I thought I’d share some advice on what questions you need to be asking.

Before I start, indulge me in a CMS definition. CMS is a rather generic term for a myriad of things. For this blog I’m defining CMS as the toolkit that enables web teams to access, edit and publish content to multiple channels including the website as well as targeting content based on customer segment and user profile.

1. What are the different types of content I need to manage and who owns what?

Yes I know this sounds obvious but I’ve seen this part often under-planned. You should start by mapping what content management means to your business:

  • List everyone involved in producing, editing and managing content, including commercial teams selling web space to partners.
  • List the different types of content that each person/team needs to manage.
  • Outline which pages display copy, images, rich media, html snippets, overlays, pop-ups, pop-unders etc.
  • Define what access you require to SEO assets such as meta tags, alt images, URLs etc.
  • Define the landing pages you need to support the online channel.
  • Define the access you need to CSS files.
  • Define responsibilities - who has edit only access and to what, who approves what content, what is the workflow and what are the timeframes you have to work to.

It’s a straightforward piece of work but it takes time. You need to sit with key stakeholders and canvass their opinions and knowledge. Get this right and your project is off to a good start.

2. On what pages do I have dynamic content being served and how will this affect the implementation of a CMS?

Take, for example, your product details page. The bulk of the content is dynamically generated in a page template. The product data will be held in a database and the page will reference this to show the latest information. You will also be using cache management to serve pages quicker.

Around the product info you might want to display messages and banners to help with customer service and marketing. This content must work in conjunction with the dynamic content to ensure the page renders well and is legible to the customer.

You need to specify to your development team exactly what type of content and size, shape etc you require so they can plan the best way to integrate it into the page without compromising the existing content.

This discussion is most common for the following pages:

  • Category landing page.
  • Product details.
  • Product list.
  • Search results.
  • Basket.
  • Checkout.

3. What merchandising tools do I want to use to personalise the shopping experience?

Enterprise level CMS solutions are getting more sophisticated; some have in-built merchandising tools that enable you to target content to specific users and customer segments.

When evaluating CMS providers, it is useful to define your merchandising hit list and see if you can kill two birds with one stone and reduce your cost base. Areas to look at:

  • Display different content in marketing spots based on user profile.
  • Ability to refine product display based on browsing behaviour of individual customers.
  • Control site search and use business logic to define results based on search terms.
  • Control navigation structure and refinements.
  • Trigger activities such as outbound emails based on customer actions.

4. What testing do I want to do across the website?

Ask this question before you choose the CMS. Define what type of testing you want to do (A/B, MVT or both) and what content components you wish to be able to test – ideally everything so you’re not restricted.

It’s an important consideration because few CMS solutions natively support testing (i.e. you can’t program content tests via the CMS interface), so you’ll either require a customised plug-in or you’ll need the technical team to map how your chosen testing tool can be integrated into the CMS and where you access the testing UI from.

Make sure you work out what tools are programming and controlling the tests and where the data is being collected. You might use a CMS to display the content versions but a dedicated testing tool to program the conditions.

5. How do I want to measure the impact of my content?

Linked closely with Testing, it’s important to measure the impact of your content on site performance. To achieve this you need to understand how you can tag each content component to ensure the data is being collected in the right reports in your web analytics.

Many of the enterprise level CMS providers have plug-ins for tools like Google Analytics and the leading analytics suites like Omniture SiteCatalyst but ask the question, don’t assume it will work.

Start by defining what you want to measure, then work back to how it can be measured. If you’re not sure how it should work, speak to an expert.

6. What other systems does my CMS need to talk to?

Unless you’re running a pure content website, you’ll have any number of back office and ecommerce systems helping your site tick over. You need to understand how the CMS interacts with these systems to ensure it doesn’t destabilise the platform.

A good example is external cache management tools; if you want to implement rapid content changes but pages are cached to improve site performance, you’ll need a way of invalidating the cache at component level to release the new content.

So what do you think? I know this isn’t an exhaustive list, so what else do you think is important? I’d be interested to hear your experience of the above as well as other techniques you have used to improve the quality of your CMS solution.

James Gurd

Published 7 July, 2010 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

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Comments (8)

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Hayden Sutherland

Hayden Sutherland, Director at Ideal Interface


Thanks for a very useful post; you've covered some pretty important ground here.

Let’s also not forget that functionality such as internationalisation adds further levels of difficulty, as does the maintenance/enforcement of standards (e.g. Accessibility, etc.) that you need to ensure the CMS users keep to in their day-to-day roles.

As websites become more complex (e.g. personalisation, rich/dynamic features, analytics integration, etc.) the content management systems behind them need to evolve too. Its only by getting all these requirements (or issues) on the table will a client purchase, develop and launch the correct CMS for their eCommerce business.

Hayden Sutherland
Ideal Interface

about 8 years ago


Steve Harvey-Franklin

Some very good points in this post.

For our clients, I think they have to take robustness, quality, accessibility etc as a given if they are dealing with a serious web company. There are so many web design companies still using outdated CMSs; that are not SEO friendly, with no meta tag control and unfriendly URLs and almost encourage hacking because of their gaping exploit holes.

Some of the features we like to consider are usability, functionality and SEO.


The CMS does need to be easy to use, with power where it is needed. 

A developer switch where programmers can directly enter code is useful for our developments, but from a customer's point of view (listening to what our customers say many of the other user functions can be too confusing, so we offer a basic Toolbar so that end users can make the vital changes.


Where needed functionality can be quite advanced, standard functions should include a good preview function before committing to the final.

Other useful functionality includes:

  • choice to make pages visible (part of the menu) or invisible (not part of the menu e.g. a landing page or Thank you page)
  • choice to make pages active or inactive so pages can be taken off line or left as draft 
  • choice to easily add to of change the menu or navigation the page belongs to
  • function to change page order in the navigation and sub navigation
SEO We see this as one of the most important features for clients and for our own SEO team:
  • Ability to name the url 
  • Intelligent urls for products and categories (long tail)
  • Meta Tag and No follow control 
  • Meta Tag counter so we know how many characters have been used
It's always possible to load up more and more features into a CMS, but if it has to be managed by inexperienced customers, it does need to be kept at the right level for them

about 8 years ago

Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

Brilliant James, I was worried reading this that our homegrown CMS was missing something, but fortunately we've covered most of it - good point about no-follow control Steve, that would be great to have access to. One thing that was also have control over in our CMS is access to user-generated content, which I think for an ecommerce shop is quite important - at least from a workflow perspective if your UGC is moderated. I'm not sure about having merchandising/personalisation built into the CMS, since this feels like a business analytics function, and would be best sent up to a big churning intelligence engine in the cloud, rather than sitting on the machines that serve out content? I don't know. Are reporting functions normally included in enterprise CMS's, or are they pumped out into a BI system somewhere? Our CMS has the support desk functions built into it to, like the card decline monitor - it's all still controlled via user-level security, but I'm not sure if the prevailing trend is to have one giant system, akin to an ERP platform, or lots of discrete systems, which I guess provide a higher level or redundancy and flexibility? Mat

about 8 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Morning all,

Appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and advice. I'm off for a few days so will reply when I've had chance to give the comments the attention they deserve.



about 8 years ago

Jonathan Hall

Jonathan Hall, Founder at Cranberry Panda

Hi All, 

Interesting post James of the usual depth and quality. (That's a pint when we meet next). 

A slightly different point but an important consideration. In my experience the person responsible for content tends to be quite junior and whilst they will have someone above them giving them direction re the feel and tome of the content are they experienced enough to see the big picture, as described above, and also able to utilise the increasing complexity of large CMS systems. 

The size of an organisation and structure of the team and the level if involvement from the middle, senior web manager plays an important part here but is some of the reason why CMS are not used to the full because of those doing the day to day management? 

Or, to argue against myself!, are more sophisticated systems making it easier for people to manage multiple content channels and types? I'm sure the CMS providers would argue this. 

Cheers, Jonathan 

about 8 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Afternoon all,

Thought i'd enjoy the sunshine and work my way through your comments.

Hayden - you make a good point that international requirements add further complexity; in reality there are far more than 6 questions to ask but a blog isn't a good place to be comprehensive because you lose people's attention. In my experience, to cover all the ground we'd need a detailed report.

Steve - you hit the nail on the head with usability; you have to match the features/functionality to each user group that will interact with the CMS and then tailor the visible screens based on individual log-in to ensure people only have access to what's relevant. This should come out in the planning sessions in 1. above.

Matt - the community side of CMS is increasingly important - requirements should come out of 1. but I should have been more specific. You make an interesting point about managing UGC, such as forum moderation.

Re reporting functions it depends on what level of system you invest in. Tridion provides full merchandising as it has integrated Fredhopper into the CMS. I personally would recommend BI being handled by an analytics or BI system because they are more likely to have the granularity of data churning needed. The challenge is to understand how your CMS should be communicating with analytics/BI to reduce the manual faffing around.

Johnny - good point about the day-to-day usage -I've found that often middle and senior management under-estimate the abilities of those working for them and don't involve them in the strategic planning. However, when you speak to the content managers, they often have a clear view of what the systems should be doing to help them improve their output. The challenge is to make sure management involve everyone who has a stake in the project, not simply impose a system and say 'get on with it'.

Re sophisticated systems, the ease of use is dependent on the intelligence of the implementation. It doesn't matter how simple to use your system is, if you haven't got the content managers on board and trained them effectively, the system will not be used to its greatest potential.

Thanks for all the helpful comments. I think we all appreciate that there is much more to delivering an effective CMS - hopefully, as was my intention, the questions I suggested will help people focus.



about 8 years ago



First time I have ever read an article on CMS as applied on eCommerce. Thanks... quite interesting.

almost 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Eran
Glad you liked the blog. Thanks for dropping by with your comment.

almost 7 years ago

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