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Site builder shootout: Drupal vs. Joomla vs. WordPress

By Brian Proffitt
September 14, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Interface

While installation of these content management systems are similar, the same cannot be said for their interfaces. Drupal, Joomla and WordPress each present their content in different ways and manage content under different paradigms, as well.

This is really the biggest gap between these three platforms, because the fundamental way in which they treat content is vastly different.

For Drupal, all content is contained within blocks, and the content's type (blog, article, product in a catalog) determines which block the content is displayed in.

Joomla lets you create content within categories too, but content is additionally tied to location on specific pages.

WordPress handles all articles as either posts in a blog or a page on the site, which is fairly intuitive for new users to grasp. Location of content and widgets is handled by dropping them within pre-set locations within a given theme.

Those are just some of the differences. Here are more.

Drupal

Drupal's administration is handled by a master control bar that appears on the top of the screen whenever an administrator or super-user is logged onto the Drupal site. There isn't a "back-end" control screen, per se -- administrative pages appear as an overlay on the site, such as the Create Basic page screen.

Drupal
Drupal controls appear as needed, contextually.
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The advantage here is that all of Drupal's controls adapt to the page you're on, so you don't have to "assign" actions to particular pages unless you're working on a site-wide activity. Indeed, the main Dashboard for a Drupal site is often bereft of features -- you can pick and choose exactly what controls and status messages can go into the Dashboard.

But this flexibility can also be a big obstacle for new users, since it's not always easy to see what's going on. The flow of Drupal's administration works nicely, once you figure it out. The learning curve for understanding how Drupal does things is sharper than for Joomla and WordPress, but the payoff is great: Overall, the administration interface in Drupal is much smoother and powerful.

Joomla

The back-end of Joomla looks like what a site administration control panel should look like: A single set of segregated pages that collect all the administrative tools in one place.

Joomla
The Joomla controls are in one place, all nice and neat.
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Working in the Joomla controls is easy from the start. Articles are in Article Manager, images are uploaded and stored in Image Master and so on. For basic administration, everything seems to make sense.

But after working with it a while, it became apparent there were some problems with the system. Creating a page was easy, but having menu links for that page in more than one menu became a bit tedious, because each item in Joomla has to have a unique alias. So I couldn't copy a menu entry from one menu straight into another. It was little things like this that kept tripping me up in Joomla and not in Drupal. Joomla also crashed a couple of times while doing seemingly small tasks.

If you get used to these idiosyncrasies, you can make do, but as I did more complex activities, I found myself wishing I had the same ease of use I'd had in the Drupal and WordPress sites.

WordPress

WordPress administration seems to be a hybrid of the other two CMSs. There is a central Dashboard, which focuses heavily on displaying information about the site. The displayed information can be customized to show what you want to see, which makes it useful for a fast survey and control session.

WordPress
The WordPress Dashboard enables admins to see and control a variety of site features from one place.
Click to view larger image

Like Joomla, working in the Dashboard is simple and intuitive. Posts, pages and multimedia content are all managed in their respective pages, and it's pretty easy to move content around and edit it.

Menus were a little harder to grasp. By default, you can specify whether a page will appear as in the top-level menu or as a child to an existing menu item. It took a bit of effort, but I did find a Menus control in the Appearance section of the Dashboard that enabled me to create custom menus and then place them where I wanted on the site using the Custom Menu widget.

Bottom line

As I walked through each tool's administration controls, I found the Drupal tools less intuitive but ultimately more flexible and powerful. The converse was true for Joomla: easy-to-understand controls, but limitations kept showing up. WordPress was somewhere in-between: the controls were a little tricky to find, but once you found them, they were very useful.



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