Picking the right classified ads platform for Joomla

With the decision to go with Joomla as my CMS, my next hurdle is to figure out what additional components I’ll use with it. As I’m building a jobs site, my first priority is to evaluate and select a classified ads platform. I’m going to want to keep my costs down, so my personal selections will be somewhat biased as a result.

Deciding between home grown or off the shelf

While I can hack around a bit under the hood with HTML, I’m a little leery about trying to put together something as complex as a classified ads platform from scratch. For someone with more time or programming talent than me, this might be a solution to consider. A home grown platform could be completely tailored and customized, allowing it to stand out compared to any competitors. As the existing choices are so feature rich and easily modified, this is not a path I intend to pursue.

The solutions available for classified ads vary in price from free–always a great option–to quite expensive. As I said previously, though, as my budget is limited I’m only going to focus on the free choices that are available.

Choosing between tight and loose integration

While there are a good number of free classified ads choices available, not all of them integrate closely with Joomla. In reviewing my options, I realized that while the tightly integrated ones are easily installed and configured within an existing Joomla site, they seem to be less frequently updated and supported. In contrast, the less integrated ones seem to be far more actively developed with vibrant support communities, but can be a real chore to seamlessly interface with Joomla. It’s a difficult trade off between ease of use and a perhaps fuller features set.

I discovered a few options, such as Jobline and Marketplace, which appear to be tightly integrated with Joomla. It seems that both of these products are no longer being developed, though, and so in the end I decided that selecting one of them would be unwise. Instead, I elected to solely focus on options that were currently and actively supported.

Comparing Noah’s Classifieds and AdsManager

Noah’s Classifieds seems by far to be the grand daddy of classifieds ads platforms, with an immense base of installations and users. The main site doesn’t have a support forum, though, which was troubling at first until I stumbled upon the Noah’s Classifieds Unofficial Support Website which has a great forum. There is a version of Noah’s for Joomla, too, making it appear to be quite attractive. Because it was modified to work with Joomla, though, the development of the Joomla version and the normal version aren’t in synch, and I wasn’t personally comfortable with using it.

The other choice was AdsManager, which was developed specifically for Joomla. It’s website isn’t glamorous, but the software itself is impressive. It was designed from the ground up to be very closely integrated with Joomla, allowing it to share user accounts and permissions, which makes it very easy to setup and configure. It also has a very active support forum. I asked a number of questions, and got responses very quickly, enabling me to quickly move forward with the few configuration issues I experienced.

The best classified ads solution for Joomla

I felt a strong case could be made for either Noah’s Classifieds or AdsManager. In the end, I opted to go with AdsManager, though, due to its seamless integration with Joomla and the strength of its community support. Thus far I’ve been very satisfied with both its features and support, and feel it’s the right choice for the jobs site I’m building.

Drupal or Joomla? Picking a CMS

I’ve decided that a Content Management System (CMS) is the best foundation for my site. My next step is to choose the right one.

A great place to start is OpenSourceCMS, a site with user reviews of pretty much all the major players in the CMS space. What sets them apart is that they also provide live demos of each CMS they cover. You can actually log in to the front end or the back end of each one, reconfigure it, and make changes to your heart’s content. Every two hours they “reboot” and put everything back to a fresh install. It’s a great way to experiment without having to go through all the time and hassle of installing each system yourself.

Installing Drupal and Joomla on my host

In addition to testing each platform on OpenSourceCMS, I also wanted to install them myself to gauge how easy they would be to work with. Fortunately my hosting provider, Host Gator, uses a product called Fantastico which makes installing Drupal and Joomla as simple as a few mouse clicks. Both installed successfully with minimal effort. Purists abhor Fantastico, but for my purposes, it was a quick and easy way to get up and running quickly to be able to start kicking the tires of each product.

Installing Drupal and Joomla locally

As I’ll need a test environment before long, installing both products on my local machine is a good idea as well. Before I can do so, though, I need to install the LAMP (or WAMP) stack commonly used by Open Source software. LAMP enables my desktop to act like a web server, so that I can run everything from my local machine just as if it were running on my host.

For the curious, LAMP stands for Linux Apache MySQL PHP, and they are the four products that make up the foundation that Drupal, Joomla, and countless other products use. WAMP is essentially the same thing, but uses Windows as the operating system. Each product offers its own installer, and I got WAMP working on my local machine in no time.

The local installations of Drupal and Joomla were a bit more involved. I had to understand how to setup MySQL databases, and know the right answers to a number of questions, although the wizards that each product offered were pretty good. A complete novice would probably be overwhelmed, but I found it pretty much a snap to get both going quickly.

Picking the best CMS

At the end of the day, neither product stood out as being an obvious, dominant solution. Each had its own quirks and metaphors for organizing information and accomplishing tasks. As might be expected, there were a lot of differences between them. Like learning a language, becoming an expert in either platform would likely be a long process.

I spent a considerable amount of time in each platform creating content, changing around templates, activating modules, and doing my best to get a reasonable feel for what it would be like to work in each environment. I downloaded a number of add ons that were commonly available to assess how easy it would be add to their core functionality. I evaluated the search engine friendliness of the URL’s they generated. Above all, I tried to get a sense of how comfortable I felt in each product, understanding that I would likely be spending a lot of time with my final choice.

It seemed that Drupal had some incredible abilities to define different types of content. I could create a “job” object and define what attributes (title, country, description, etc.) it should contain. It was pretty powerful. I liked how everything was available from one page, without loading and reloading all the time. Adding and formatting content was easy. There were a large number of included modules that could be enabled, from forums to blogs to comments, so that I could extend its functionality quite easily. There’s a lot to like about Drupal.

Joomla draws a hard line between “front end” (what a visitor sees when visiting the site) and “back end” (what an administrator sees to control the site), which is more consistent with other applications I’ve used in the past. The types of content are essentially fixed, although there is a considerable variety in how you can display them. Joomla also comes with fewer bundled features than Drupal, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective. The number of unique add-ons, though was impressive. In fact, Joomla has a whole section of their site dedicated to Joomla extensions. It took some time to figure out the difference between a component, a module, and a mambot, but once that was clear, I was able to extend Joomla quite easily.

To make my decision, I finally decided to look at the community that surrounded and supported each product. As a test, I made a general inquiry into the support message boards of each product. My Joomla post received a number of helpful responses in a relatively short time frame. My Drupal post languished for days, and even after asking a second time for feedback, was still unanswered. As I’m going to be learning each system, and relying on others to help me, this experience ultimately swung the pendulum to Joomla.

With this key decision out of the way, my next task will be to choose the right mix of extensions to add to my base Joomla installation.

Deciding between a forum, a blog or a CMS

My competitive analysis of the major and minor players in my niche has given me a much clearer picture of the web site I plan to create, and a clear set of requirements has emerged. A fundamental question, however, remains unanswered. Just exactly how am I going to organize and present all of this information in a manner that is both scalable and appealing?

Evaluating different ways to organize and present information

In the land of the Internet, it’s rare to come up with a really unique problem so a little further competitor comparison can help me understand how other job sites have solved this problem in the past. Going back to the large and small competitors from my initial research will help my narrow down my choices quickly. As expected, I find that there are many different ways that I could enable schools to post advertisements for ESL jobs, and teachers to find and respond to them.

Considering a forum

I could use a forum as the foundation, and set up different categories for the different regions of the world. Employers could then register and post freely, and teachers would have the ability to browse and search through the listings. Controlling the quality, though, would probably be an issue, as by definition a forum post is completely free form with little in the way of consistent look and feel. It seems that although a few competitors are using this approach, it’s not terribly popular. I’m also not very pleased with the overall look and feel of a forum approach, which at least to me doesn’t come off as feeling professional. For my own purposes, this is not an avenue I intend to pursue.

Considering a blog

A blog is another possible approach. They’re very easy to set up, and I could enable tags to classify the different types and regions of jobs to help teachers find them more easily. Creating an open format for schools to post, though, would likely be a nightmare. A blog would probably be acceptable for a single school that wanted to post a running list of current jobs, but I could quickly see such a method becoming very unworkable as the site scales. Surprisingly, a variation on this theme is used by one of the biggest and oldest job sites in my niche. Why is it so successful? My assumption is that when that particular site was created the blog format was one of the few solutions available that could be implemented easily. The approach feels considerably dated at present, though, and I think it would be hard to attract new visitors using it.

Considering a CMS

Another general method is to use a content management system, or CMS. These are a bit more complex than forums and blogs to get set up, but the trade off is better control over the organization and structure of the content. They’re great when the need is for multiple people that need to post information, yet with a consistent look and feel throughout. No competitor is using a CMS in isolation as a solution, but a number seem to have used a one as the core to which greater functionality was added. This possibility in particular is attractive to me, as most CMS platforms have a lot of third party developers contributing added features. It’s likely that someone has created code that works with a CMS that makes posting jobs easy.

Considering a niche solution

The final choice is to look for something tailor made to the exact type of information I want to organize and present. As expected, there are systems available that solely focus on classified advertisements. At least one of the competitors in my niche is using a very popular one called Noah’s Classifieds. I’m tempted to choose this path, as it would appear to offer the shortest path to get up and running quickly. I’m concerned, though, that while it obviously excels at ads, there are other areas where it may be lacking. While a niche solution would get me up and running in this one area quickly, I’m also afraid it could limit my future options. I sense it would be a real chore to bolt on a forum or a blog without going through a lot of custom effort to integrate them.

Settling on the right foundation

In the end, I decided to use a CMS as the core of my web site. Doing so offers me lots of future flexibility to easily offer some of the additional features I’ve determined will be necessary to differentiate myself, and keeps the door open for even more features that I might not have thought of originally.

My next step will be to review a few of the major CMS platforms available, and see which one offers the best off the shelf solution for my own needs.