Software reviews

An indepth review of Webpop – a hosted CMS

Posted on: April 29th, 2011 by patrick No Comments

 

Given the immense range of options we have when selecting a CMS it can be extremely easy to overlook viable options. Combine this with a race for insane amounts of functionality and we can often lose track of seemingly simpler options. I find that many times these overlooked tools not only address our needs, but operate with such simplicity that it makes for an ideal setup. Webpop is such a service.

This hosted CMS is not packed with every last feature imaginable. Instead, it has a small set of fundamentally powerful features that enable total freedom when building a site. And of course it provides a dead simple way for users to manage the content of their site.

A hosted platform

First and foremost Webpop is a hosted platform. This eliminates the site owners need to maintain an installed CMS. Tools like WordPress and Drupal are great, but you do have to keep them updated. By leveraging a hosted platform you typically pay a little more, but you never have to upgrade, fix, or patch your system. Even better, you need not worry about security, this responsibility falls directly on the service provider. If you have ever had to patch a system after a hacker has had his way with your database, you will truly appreciate this configuration

Core features

There are two core features that define working with Webpop. First is total control over the HTML and CSS. Some hosted platforms make it more difficult than others to take control of the HTML and CSS of your site. But as the Webpop site says, you really do have 100% control over the code used to render your site. This means you have the freedom to adopt any new front end technology as needed. Developers need not be worried about being locked into any specific output with this platform. And you will never have to hijack output from the system to make it work.

The second defining feature of this platform is the interface client's use. Most content management systems will have a single interface used by both the developers and the content managers. Instead, this system has two separate interfaces. Each is optimized for the function they serve. This means that users editing copy won't be overwhelmed by an array of options they don't need. It also greatly minimizes the risk of users breaking things they shouldn't be messing with. Users updating content on this system will simply browse the site after logging in. From there they can click to edit chunks of content in place – immediately seeing the results.

Bonus features

Every CMS has bonus features that set it apart from the rest and make it unique. Webpop is no different. First among these are its integrated SEO tools. At the time of this writing this part of the system was still under development. But from the looks of it, it appears that the system will have an in-depth analytics system. The twist is that it will have more of an SEO oriented approach. So instead of just churning out raw numbers, it will actually try to help you find action items to improve your organic traffic.

The next bonus feature is the way this platform is hosted. The entire system runs on a Rackspace Cloud server. This means the platform is not tied to the capacity Webpop offers or can maintain. So if you happen to make it to the front page of Digg or Slashdot, your site will remain online despite the spike in traffic. While the impact this has on you from day to day is minimal, it does offer up one huge perk that benefits both Webpop and their users. By being hosted on Rackspace the Webpop development team is free to focus on improving, expanding and refining their CMS. They need not worry about fixing busted servers or backing up data.

Another huge perk to this system is that it is built to allow you to manage multiple sites with ease. From a single interface you can add many sites for multiple clients. If you prefer to leverage a single system for numerous clients you will truly appreciate how easy this platform makes it to manage a large number of sites.

Digging deeper

Frankly speaking nothing I have covered up this point is much beyond what they advertise on their site about this platform. But, after trying out the system first hand I can totally agree with the level of control and features they sell you on. Granted the SEO feature needs to be finished, but if it matches the ease and flow of the rest of the application it will be a great addition.

But of course there is more to a system then the key selling points. As an actual user many things quickly emerge as invaluable features of the system. Let's dig deeper to see what else makes this platform work so well.

Simplicity

As you get started using this system the first thing that stands out is just how simple everything feels. So simple in fact, that at first it feels like it doesn't do that much. But, as you continue to work with the system you begin to realize it is very powerful. It's just that the interface is truly refined and very clear, so it just feels simple.

A perfect example of this is the way it displays related actions. In the image below you can see the main landing page for a specific project. The right column allows you to easily switch the site on and off, and invite others to work on the site. By bringing these important functions right to the main page, and setting them up in such a clear way, it just makes the system far easier to work with. If you have ever dug through a sea of settings to find some option, you will truly appreciate the simplicity this offers.

Creating new projects

Setting up a new project inside Webpop couldn't be simpler. Below you will see the options we have when setting up a brand new site. This is about as simple as it comes.

One hidden feature from the main project list is the ability to duplicate a site. This means you can easily setup your own site templates to start from. This is one of those features that are easy to disregard. But considering the amount of efficiency this can build into your work flow it is important to consider. Also, you could easily integrate at template, and then sell that site to as many clients as you need to. In this way, each template you create becomes a product you can sell over and over.

FTP access

A fundamental need for a system like this is the ability to upload a bunch of stuff all at once. Fortunately they offer an FTP option for uploading assets in bulk. The main trick here is to make sure you upload the resources to the correct version of the site (see versioning below), and be sure to put all your files into the public folder.

At first it was perplexing why it didn't appear that the system uploaded all of my resources. They went to the server, but didn't appear in the FTP folder. But they are actually there. The server simply processes them on the fly and places them in the appropriate location. Once uploaded, you can view all the files on the design tab of the admin interface. This does mean you can't manage all of the assets via FTP, but you do have the ability to perform bulk uploads.

Full feature versioning

One of the biggest frustrations I have with most CMS's is that they don't allow you to create versions of a site. Yes, most will allow you to roll back individual pages, but not whole sets of updates. Let's say for example you want to add a whole range of new content to your site related to a new product release. On most platforms the only approach would be to load the content when it is time to launch it.

With Webpop you can create multiple versions of a site, and publish them at any time. So you could update your site with a special seasonal branding, promotions and content. Publish this whole set of content when you're ready to go. And the best part is you could roll back to the previous version at any time!

This incredible feature is just a basic part of how the system works and is invaluable for batching updates.

Auto complete

Built into Webpop is a templating engine for abstracting layouts and chunks of content out. This naturally relies on a tagging system to render blocks of content. This is one of the details that transform this seemingly simple system into a really powerful platform.

There is nothing more frustrating than feeling obligated to memorize some language just to work with a single system. This great feature transforms a plain text box into a development environment. The auto complete doesn't just work for the custom Webpop tags, it actually works for all HTML.

Tag Explorer

While the auto complete feature is incredibly handy for those who are a bit more familiar with the system, the tag explorer offers a more visual approach to adding tags. Clicking the button to pop open the explorer reveals a tree of all the tags you can add to the page. This includes custom fields and content parts you have created.

Selecting one of the tags from the explorer will insert it automatically into the editor window where your cursor is located. This really does make the creation and implementation of custom content holders a simple and enjoyable process.

Building content

Naturally a critical part of working with a content management system is creating the structure to manage content. With Webpop each new section comes preloaded with some basic fields. These fields can hold most of the content you might want to add. This includes a title, body copy and a description field for use in per page meta tags.

But you actually have virtually unlimited options here. You can add new fields and some prebuilt data sets to any section very easily. You can add basic text fields, number and date fields as well as full blown image galleries. This makes it really easy to extend the content of a page with multiple editable areas. These custom fields are then available in the tag explorer for easily inserting them into templates.

Working with templates

From a developers perspective the way that the templating engine in a system like this works is of critical importance. For example, how do you break a design apart such that you have re-usable templates? And one step further too abstract components of the templates to a single location. For example, to ensure that the code to render the header of your site is only placed in one location. Of course the goal is to make maintenance as easy as possible.

Layouts

Inside of Webpop a layout is a page template. Each layout can be used by any number of pages. One layout can also be based on another to create a clean nested template setup. These templates allow you to identify the regions containing editable content as well as other elements like meta tags, title tags and other code to include (see below for includes).

Includes

Includes do pretty much exactly what you might expect. You can create an include file that contains a snippet of HTML. Then, with Webpop tags you can easily include that bit of code any place you need to. For example, you could use the same include file in multiple layout files. Sure this is a simple feature, but an extremely powerful one.

Image processing

When it counts this platform has all the right features. And a fantastic example of this is its built in image processing engine. The platform has built in systems for building and populating photo galleries. A natural part of this is producing thumbnail images for each item in a gallery; a chore that is no fun to do. Webpop has a built in option to allow you to dynamically resize images as they are rendered to the page. This fantastic feature single handled makes populating a gallery easy. In particular it also means that users unfamiliar with Photoshop can be enable to manage a photo gallery.

Flow

One of the things that really struck me when working with this platform was how smooth the flow feels. Each element is logically connected to related functions. You need not jump to some other section to define custom fields; instead you simply do so when building the content.

The more you work with this platform the more the more you appreciate the care they have taken in ensuring it is extremely flexible, and logically setup. It does come across at first as being simple, but the more you dig in you find that it is built to adapt to whatever you need.

Conclusion

Webpop is a relatively new platform and a real contender in the hosted platform space. What this system lacks in complicated modules, it makes up for in total control. If you want to allow users to manage content easily, and maintain total control over the code the site uses then Webpop is a great tool to consider.