We've had several clients recently chafing at how confining Drupal sites can be -- it can be a lot more work to make individual pages vary from the template, and if you have build web sites using a tool like Dreamweaver, you can't tweak the layout the same way.

We call these hand-built sites brochure, or static, because they are a collection of files you build once, and then don't change very often. Drupal is a Content Management System (CMS), a program that helps you manage content.

So what's the difference? Why would you want Drupal over a static brochure site?

Purpose of the site

First off, the focus is entirely different. With a brochure site, the focus is on layout and design of individual pages. And you have to focus on that, because every page is different. Any element you want to share between pages ends up being copied instead of appearing in just one place -- which means if you want to change the text in a block that appears on every page, you need to edit every page!

With a CMS, the focus is on content. Layout gets locked down, and what you're working with day in and day out is the text and pictures on the page, rather than the layout of the page. You can easily add elements that appear on every page, and you don't need to regenerate the whole site -- it's everywhere as soon as you add it.

With a CMS, you have elements to deal with, on a site-wide basis:

  • Search engine optimization -- meta tags, rules for paths, headers, etc.
  • Interactive components, such as comments
  • Integrations with social media
  • Related stories
  • Categories, archives, forums, and more
  • Search

With a brochure site, you can find external services to provide some of these features -- comments, twitter blocks, Google search -- but they all end up at the mercy of those providers, and show up as widgets on the page instead of deeply integrated into the content. In a static site, there is no such thing as "content" -- just pages. In a content management system, content exists apart from pages, where it can be organized, indexed, tagged, categorized, and more.

But the bigger questions revolve around getting new content onto the site.

Technical barriers

With a brochure site, there is a relatively high technical barrier to adding new content -- you need to know how to work with HTML, what parts of a page need to get uploaded, how to change other pages to link to a new page, and how to fix the inevitable issues that arise when a cut and paste job changes something critical in the markup. Plus you need to use FTP or a page authoring tool to manually copy your pages up to the web server. These are not things the vast public knows how to do. And to update the site involves finding somebody with the skills to do it, giving them full access to every bit of your site, and trusting that they won't break something by making a change.

With a content management system, you can open your site up to contributions from the public and set varying degrees of trust. Adding new content is as simple as using Facebook, and while HTML knowledge can be helpful, it's not at all necessary.

This means, for a volunteer organization dependent upon contributions from the public, that you're not limited to the availability of the few people with the technical ability to update the site -- you can give a much broader range of people access to make their own changes, without letting them have the ability to accidentally or deliberately break it.

A CMS greatly reduces the technical barrier to adding or changing content on the site. It does raise a technical barrier for changing layouts -- these get established by a theme, and making a theme work correctly in a CMS is more challenging than using Dreamweaver to make a page. But your theme works for all pages in the site, instead of needing to get copied. This does mean you can easily "re-skin" your site with an entirely fresh design, and have your existing content get the new design instantly.

Maintenance

All sites take maintenance. If you never add new things to your site, you don't give people a reason to come back.

Brochure sites do have one advantage over CMSs -- they don't actually run code, so there's no code to maintain. All you need to maintain is content. But the more content you have, the more this becomes a pain to do -- it gets hard to keep track of all the files lying around your web site, and as your site grows, changing a link means changing a lot of pages that contain that link.

With a CMS, there is code to maintain -- people are constantly discovering new ways to break into them. So there is a bit higher cost to operating a CMS. But it makes the job of maintaining content vastly easier. You can pull up lists of your content, with any number of organization systems. You can add new pages, remove old ones, make changes at will, and the more content you have, the easier this job is compared to a static site.

Interaction

Drupal is a particularly good platform for promoting interaction -- ability to create different kinds of content at different layers of the system is one of its great strengths. If your visitors can participate on your site by leaving a comment, posting a story, adding a video, sharing some photos, the site can become a lot more rich as a result. Again, you can add widgets from a variety of services to do some of this -- but you can't have people write articles on your brochure site without then needing your web developer to post them. And you can't go to a profile page in your site about each of your visitors, showing the photos, comments, videos, and articles they've contributed to your site. This functionality takes a bit of time and quite a few decisions to implement, but it's a big reason to pick Drupal, and not possible to do with a static web site.

In short, if you have basic design skills, HTML knowledge, and tools for building web sites, static sites ARE easier if what you want to do is spend time tweaking the layout and appearance of the site. If you'd rather focus on the CONTENT of the site, why waste all that time? You need a CMS. And if you ever want to make your site more than a brochure, you're going to need one anyway.

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Comments (2)

NoNeedForAName

I stopped reading the moment you equated brochure sites w/ static sites. You confuse yourself & others by mixing small scale application & scalability for circa-1997 hand coding.

Drupal is just as flexible w/ SOHO businesses as it is w/ Sony/BMG, NASA, etc. Just because one starts w/ a few "pages" of content (hence brochure), doesn't mean you have to be limited by the framework.

So no, Brochure != static

01 Apr, 2012

Too bad you stopped reading! You're making my point...

Your distinction is a good one -- brochure referring to the content of the site and static referring to site content being in a set of files instead of a database.

We have had a couple of "old school" customers recently who seem to think that being able to hand-code pages and endlessly tweak layouts is more important than being able to easily add or update content. This post was mainly for people who think that way -- if you care more about tweaking the look than the content, you won't like moving into Drupal or any other CMS.

If we thought that way, we wouldn't be a Drupal shop!

03 Apr, 2012

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