ExpressionEngine – a CMS designed for designers

Since its release in 2002, content management system ExpressionEngine (EE) has built a reputation as a powerful and flexible tool for website development. As the central product of EllisLab, a software development enterprise operating out of Oregon, ExpressionEngine has undergone a number of different versions and developments. It’s currently in its third edition, with version 3.4.2 the latest available for download. So what makes the ExpressionEngine CMS a popular choice among expert developers?

ExpressionEngine: ‘the most flexible and powerful CMS’

According to its slogan, there’s no content management system more flexible and powerful than ExpressionEngine. And the creators at EllisLab might just be right. Their flagship CMS makes use of the PHP scripting language and a MySQL database, licensed under a ‘propriety software license’. This means that the software is available to download, install, and manage on your own server. This software comes in two versions: the full one, known simply as ‘ExpressionEngine’, and a lite one, known as ‘ExpressionEngine Core’. The Core version is free but comes with considerably less features than the full version, and it may only be used for personal use or as the content management system for not-for-profit projects. EllisLab also offer a support service that has to be purchased separately from the main software as a monthly subscription, which means that the price can soon rack up. So is ExpressionEngine worth the extra cost? Let’s take a look at some of its features.

ExpressionEngine features

The primary feature that sets EE apart from its competitors like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla is its ‘channel system. These channels are used to separate different pieces of work within a project, and they can be determined however the user sees fit. For example, you could create one channel for the different products you have on offer, another for your members of staff, a third for any potential openings you have at your company, etc. This offers you complete flexibility as a developer and allows you to work the way you want.

Here are some of the other noticeable features offered by EllisLab’s ExpressionEngine:

  • Global search and replace function to make editing data simple
  • Clear and straightforward administration section for users, with an intuitive back end
  • Option to run multiple projects from one installation package
  • Built-in template creator with separate global settings that can be customized easily
  • Custom SQL queries for additional control

Other features include extensive caching of templates, queries, and tags, an intuitive, built-in versioning system, RSS, and a rich text editor.

ExpressionEngine: extensive add-on capabilities

One of the main features that EllisLab offers with their ExpressionEngine CMS is a large community and extensive plugins and add-ons. The best source for locating these extensions is devot:ee, which has a search function to help you find the plugin you need. Here are a few of our favorite extensions available:

  • Expresso: since many users complain about the lack of a useable WYSIWYG editor, developer Ben Croker has designed a popular plugin that solves this issue: Expresso. Its focus is on simplicity, as a lightweight editor that won’t break your site. Expresso can be downloaded for a one-off price of $19.
  • Channel Images: this extension enables you to create stunning photo galleries and add effects or cropping to multiple images at once (unlike on the default installation, where images must be uploaded, edited, and embedded one at a time). But this add-on comes at a price of 69 USD.
  • Safe Harbor: the most popular tool on ExpressionEngine when it comes to backing up is Safe Harbor. This free-to-download plugin can create backups easily and quickly, to store to either Amazon S3 or FTP.
  • FireMail: although there is a built-in email tool for use in the ExpressionEngine standard installation, FireMail extends your possibilities and offers flexibility with its optional customization of email libraries. Users can compose emails on a WYSIWYG editor and can also receive in-depth statistics about general opening figures, unique opens, clicks, subscriptions, and more. This extensive email tool isn’t cheap, though; costing a princely 149 dollars.
  • Mailinglist Importer: this additional tool allows you to import mailing lists into your ExpressionEngine site quickly and easily. Mailinglist Importer is free to download and has a restore function in case you change your mind or your import goes wrong.
  • Gmaps: this creative plugin solves the problem of embedding Google Maps into your ExpressionEngine CMS site. With Gmaps, you can create map snippets, add location markers, include routes, and more, with all the functionality of the Google Maps APIs. The price for all this is $39.95.
  • Facebook Tools: the same developer who brought you Gmaps offers another exciting option for any modern website: a Facebook-focused plugin. This extension allows you to add all of the common Facebook plugins to your website, including the famous ‘Like’ button, ‘Comments’, ‘Activity’, and many more. This is a little cheaper than Gmaps, costing just $15.

SEO in ExpressionEngine CMS

The community of developers for ExpressionEngine have added a number of useful tools to help you make your EE website fit for search engines. Here’s are three of our favorites:

  • SEO Lite: this handy tool is by far the most popular SEO extension on ExpressionEngine, receiving an average score of 4.89 stars out of 5. It’s a simple but effective plugin, which adds an SEO tab to your back end publishing section and gives you options for meta keywords and a meta description. It’s free to download and the developer offers remote support to anyone struggling with it free of charge.
  • SurgeEO: like SEO Lite, SurgeEO handles the usual meta data for any entry. But it offers an extra feature, which allows you to define pages and so add SEO meta data to any ‘page’ on your site, rather than just predetermined entries. This increases your flexibility when implementing SEO, but it comes at a price: 19.99 USD.
  • Sitemap Module: this add-on creates an XML sitemap of your EE site automatically, and then informs search engine crawlers like GoogleBot whenever you make changes to your site. This means that administrators can always keep Google up to date with changes they make. Sitemap Module is a very useful but quite pricey extension, costing a one-time fee of $49.

ExpressionEngine: pricing and notable examples

By now, you’ve probably realized that EE doesn’t come particularly cheaply. While the ‘Core’ package is free (you simply have to create an account), it’s also limited. Serious developers will want to invest in the regular package, which costs $299. If you’re already an ExpressionEngine user and want to upgrade from your current version to version 3, this is cheaper, at a cost of $149. If you want to add an e-commerce solution to your package, EllisLab offers one developed by the Vector Media Group. It’s called CartThrob and costs an addition $249, but features a real-time payment system, ordering functions, product listing, a donations function, and much more.

EllisLab support comes separately and is offered as one of three packages: Silver Support, Gold Support, and Platinum Support. Support aid is offered through the exchange of ‘support tickets’ and ‘urgent tickets’, for immediate, in-depth support. All three packages offer you unlimited support tickets and number of sites covered, with the difference between them demonstrated by the number of urgent tickets per month (1 for Silver, 2 for Gold, unlimited for Platinum), the response time (1 business day for Silver, 4 business hours for Gold, 1 business hour for Platinum), and of course the price: Silver costs $49 per month, Gold is $299 per month, and Platinum is $1,999 per month. You can find out more about these packages and purchase your EE + EllisLab Support here.

Some examples of sites that use EllisLab’s ExpressionEngine can be found on Siftery’s comparison site. These include Nike, Apple, and the BBC online site.

ExpressionEngine: powerful, flexible, pricey

As content management systems go, ExpressionEngine is certainly on the expensive side. When compared to rivals like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla, the price may seem steep. But EllisLab describe EE as ‘the most powerful and flexible content management system’, and with good reason too. The excellent range of add-ons give you scope to kit our your EE website with all the features you need, while the intuitive back end and channel functions make programming easy for first-time users. ExpressionEngine, a support package, and several key add-ons may rack your initial bill up past the 1,000 dollar mark and leave you with a monthly support subscription too, but when you look at the results achieved by top brands like Nike, Apple, BBC, and more, it’s tempting to make the investment. It’s worth noting too that ExpressionEngine is also exceptionally secure: it’s never had a major security breach in its life. We recommend that you try ExpressionEngine Core to see if it feels right for you, before investing in the full program.