I spend too much time thinking about cheap content management. Between new sites and new licenses for software I’m already using, I’ve got a couple of reasons. But I think I may just be compulsively fascinated with the idea that my ideal CMS is just around the corner…and that it’s free.
My criteria are simple. A CMS needs to be able to create sites more complex than a simple blog. It needs to be easy to install and use. The software must be mature and apparently bug-free in daily operation. It should have a large community of users and developers. And it should cost less than $200 for a commercial license.
There seem to be four principal differentiating factors among these CMS’s:

  • Platform: Perl, php, or Python/Zope. If this matters to you, you already know.
  • Page generation: Static or dynamic. This is somewhat platform-related. For example any php site is going to be dynamic.
  • License: Commercial, or Open Source. I’m not a zealot about this. I love the idea of Open Source, but I’m currently using commercial packages for my sites.
  • Type of site: Weblog, news site, or Wiki. What you choose depends on what you’re publishing. How chronological do you want to be? Do you want a lot of modules packaged with your software? Do you want your site to look like Slashdot, or do you have an original design in mind?

So, here are what I think are the top ten free and cheap content management systems, in alphabetical order. If you’re thinking about creating a site, this would be a good list of candidates to start with. Examining each would also help you work out your ideas about the ideal CMS for your application. I’ve included a couple of basic blog packages that might not meet my personal criteria, but which I know people are using creatively.
Blogger is free and you don’t have to install any software. If you don’t know why you’re blogging yet, this might be a really good place to start. It’s owned by Google, which is a plus or minus, depending on your point of view.
Drupal is a full-blown site management system (php and MySQL) that has gotten a lot of recommendations since Movable Type changed their license. It’s open source and based on php and MySQL. It’s part of a geek triumvirate with Plone and Slash and I’m wondering if I really need three packages in this category. Other php-based CMS’s in this category are Nucleus and phpNuke.
Expression Engine is the newest CMS from Rick Ellis, who created pMachine, which I use to run Coastsider. It’s based on php and MySQL and seems very powerful and flexible. It will cost you money to run, either for personal or profession use, but it’s inexpensive and the license is flexible.
Movable Type is what I use to run MediaSavvy. I love MovableType. It’s based on Perl, but I love it anyway. It has a huge user and developer community. Movable Type pages are not dynamic and have to be rebuilt every time you make a change. This is reasonably fast, but can be a real pain if you get a lot of spam comments. They have the best templates in the industry and an inordinate market share among A-list bloggers.
Plone is based on Python and uses the Zope platform. It feels sort of like Drupal and Slash, and they’re all designed to help geeks reproduce Slashdot in whatever realm they’re geeky about.
Slash is a perl-based system for Slashdot-like sites. You need to have root access to the server it runs on, so it isn’t going to work for most users. A similar package with the same limitations is Scoop. I seriously considered using Scoop, but it was missing a lot of the things most modern CMS’s should offer, such as real templates and CSS support. I don’t know about Slash.
Some Wiki or other, there are dozens, I can’t tell them apart, and they all make my head hurt. But wikis are undeniably cool, ideal for some applications, becoming a lot more sophisticated, and are beginning to look like an overnight success ten years in the making.
WordPress is another contender who’s profile has been boosted by Movable Type’s licensing misstep. It’s php and MySQL, and its open-source. And it has the momentum of a killer asteroid. It’s biggest limitation is that it can only handle one blog, so you need multiple installations for complex sites. However, at least one thoughtful fellow chose it for his complex site.
That’s about ten, depending on how you count. I’d be interested in more nominations if they’re serious contenders for top ten and genuinely different from the ones I’ve listed here.