As a site developer, web designer or site administrator, you’ve probably had to go through the process of choosing between platforms. But maybe not recently—if you’ve been designing and developing web sites for very long, chances are you’ve already got your favorite go-to platform that you always use. And if your go-to content management system isn’t already Drupal, maybe it’s time to take another look.
The downside is, Drupal is huge. There is a steep learning curve and it can be a full-time job just looking through all the contributed modules to find exactly what you’re looking for. It is not a happy-go-lucky, “set it up right out of the box” platform.
But the upside to all of this is, Drupal is huge! There is nothing you can’t do with Drupal. Want to run a blog? Done. Want to run a blogging community? Done. Share links and photos, run classified ads, show Twitter updates and statuses, sell products, upload and share files, play movies, even manage a wiki? Done, done, done, done and done!
At the risk of sounding trite (and please forgive this slightly over-used phrase)…Drupal is as Drupal does…And Drupal does it all. So what makes Drupal stand out so much? Many things, but we’re going to focus on just the most important aspects right now..
First… Views. I could almost just stop right here. No other platform offers your site the power and flexibility that Drupal does through Views.
For those of you not already well-versed with Views and all its glory, let me explain it to you. In a nutshell, Views allows you the chance to define how you want the content on your site to be displayed. But that’s not all. Thanks to the powers that be at the Views project, Views allows you to query your Drupal database for the content and define and solidify exactly how you would like to display the content retrieved from the query… all without having to write the SQL queries yourself. And with the even more simplified administrative interface offered by Drupal 7, building Views has now become streamlined. A basic View – say, showing a list of all the products on your site – can be set up, configured, and saved in two or three minutes.
More complicated Views will take a little longer to set up and configure—for example, maybe 15 minutes to set up a list of all your members as an exposed proximity search by zipcode.
If I never have to write another SQL query, I will die a happy web designer! Even if you love SQL, who wants to spend unnecessary time on repetitive tasks? Views helps you stay focused on the important parts of your project.
Custom Content Types
Next, Custom Content Types. The Content Construction Kit (CCK) has been around for, well, forever. CCK was a contributed Module for Drupal 4, 5 and 6, but now with Drupal 7 most of CCK has been added to Drupal Core.
The Content Construction Kit does, pretty much, what it says in its name—it’s a kit to help you construct various types of content. Thanks to CCK, you can have thirty different types of content and each one can be glorious and different from all the others. For example, you can have real estate listings in which there are fields to input things like square footage and the number of bedrooms. Or you can have auto listings that need a whole separate set of fields. Here’s an example of various content types in action:
It just doesn’t get much more flexible or easy than this.
Powerful SEO Tools
Third, Search Engine Optimization galore! It would probably take me ten articles to describe to you the top ten ways that Drupal rocks SEO…and even then I couldn’t get into any real detail or address every aspect of the power behind Drupal’s SEO capabilities.
Everyone knows about how important it is to optimize content for SEO, and add in things like keywords and meta tags. And Drupal gives you the power to do this. But Drupal goes even further by offering you full control over your URL structures, page titles, and even power over caching tools.
Plus, integration with other SEO tools such as Google Analytics is easy to do and highly configurable. Want to track your members but not your moderators? It can be done! All from within Drupal, all without manual programming… And all for free.
I have two words for this…Rock On. By radically simplifying this side of things, Drupal helps increase the value of the services you can provide to your clients – all in a pain-free way.
Versatile Theming System
Fourth, Drupal’s theming system is extremely versatile – and perfect no matter your level of experience.
For new users, Drupal offers a slew of free themes that are ready for you to use right out of the box. And we aren’t talking about bottom-of-the-barrel themes that will make your site look like it’s been built with a free theme. We’re talking beautiful, professional themes that will give your site a clean, professional look without much work from you at all. Check out these examples:
Changing the look of your Drupal site is as easy as uploading your theme to your server, and clicking on a link in your site’s theme administration system:
For more experienced users looking for an option somewhere between building a custom theme and using one of the available free themes, Drupal also offers a collection of starter themes that will provide you the basic building blocks—allowing you to further customize and build your theme on top:
And for you experts out there, Drupal has provided you with a thorough explanation of their theming system, including basic page templates, hooks, functions and classes.
Taxonomy and Unicorns (well, maybe)
Fifth is the magic of taxonomy. Okay, so taxonomy isn’t actually magical (it’s the science of classification)—but it might as well be. Through Drupal’s taxonomy system, you can build a seemingly limitless hierarchy of keyword-rich terms that will help you classify and categorize your content.
From there, you can even build menus, pages, and Views that center on this taxonomy. Each Vocabulary on your Drupal site can be as strict (select a term from the given list) or as free (type in a term) as you like. Powerful organization and easy management is magical, right?
User Management and E-Commerce
Next is the sheer power and flexibility offered by Drupal’s user management capabilities. You have absolute control over everything, including registration, member profiles, content access controls and role assignments. You can allow or restrict inter-member communications as much or as little as you like – from full-blown community sharing to simple forum discussions or messaging.
Create and control inventory, offer shipping quotes, calculate taxes and handling fees, accept payments from any of several payment gateways…The sky is truly the limit. No need to find a third-party resource to list and sell your products; it can all be done from within your site.
And finally, Drupal’s awesome community of developers, themers, programmers and overall support sets this content management system apart.
First, the centralized repository for Drupal modules helps ensure that the support queues and version control are handled in a more universal way and remain GPL compliant. (Don’t know what GPL compliance means? Basically, it means you won’t have lawyers breathing down your neck!) If you happen to be a developer of one of the many (many, many…many) contributed modules on Drupal, you can be assured that your module will get a high level of exposure and be thoroughly vetted by the Drupal community.
And, Drupal has been around a long time—which is a huge benefit for a number of reasons. It’s stable and it works; its longevity already proves that. But, let’s be honest: other CMS platforms can boast the same thing. But can everyone else also boast that they have never forked or branched out? The Drupal community works together: programmers work in hand with writers to bring you the documentation area, guides, and handbooks; developers of one module work together with the developers of other modules to help design better integration. And they do it in such a way that allows your online presence to continually grow and expand without ever having to hack into the core modules. And who wants to hack into the core of anything?
While we’re on the topic of community and universal handling of modules, I should note how easy it is to hand off a Drupal-based project, or get a new developer on a project up to speed. I know… as a business owner you would never have to fire your existing site developer and, likewise, as a site developer you would never leave your client. You are both mutually awesome and work together perfectly.
But, in the chance that I am wrong and you do find yourself someday in a predicament where you’re looking for someone to continue the work for a site being developed, almost anyone trained in Drupal can handle that for you without worry. There’s no need to feel like you’re stuck with a platform that no one else can learn or understand. Also, if your project takes off and you need more help, you can get a new developer going in almost no time.
In short, if you’re looking to build a simple site with anywhere from six to twelve pages that aren’t going to be updated all that frequently, then Drupal is probably over-kill. But if you’re looking to build a robust site with infinite possibilities for expansion and growth, Drupal is an absolute must.
If you’re a brand-new beginner within the world of Drupal, you may find Drupal a little harder to pick up than most other CMS platforms.
With great power and flexibility comes a steeper learning curve; unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about that. But if you stick with it, use the support queues and forums to gain help as needed, and truly experience all that Drupal has to offer, you’ll find yourself wondering why you didn’t try Drupal earlier.
Dana Winslow (aka Dana on Drupal) is a member of the DWUser.com education team. DWUser.com offers software tools for developers and designers, including an easy and free jQuery slider builder, EasyRotator.
Do you use Drupal for your own projects? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!