Where to start when building a new website

Maybe you're new to the world of websites. Or maybe your existing website is so out-of-date that it's time to start from scratch. Where to begin?

A decision guide to the different platforms and options

There are three types of websites at McGill:

  1. WMS websites, which use McGill's central website-building platform
  2. Custom-designed websites that are built from scratch
  3. Websites or web applications based on licensed products

In this article, we'll explore all three types of website. You'll learn each option's strengths and weaknesses, and how to get the most out of what you've chosen.

WMS websites

The WMS is a centrally-managed site building platform that lets McGill community members quickly and easily build a brand-aligned site. (Think of it as a McGill-flavored Wix!) The WMS is great for any public-facing McGill website. 

Advantages of the WMS

The WMS has many advantages! It's usually the best choice for building a McGill website. 

  • It's free.
  • It's the easiest way to build a McGill-branded website.
  • It's fully supported by McGill IT and the Web Services team. That means you get:
    • Free training to show you (and anyone who works on your site) how to use the system;
    • Support from the IT Service Desk for any problem you have with the website;
    • Customized support for planning, building and optimizing your website through our consultation service;
    • Drop-in labs to get live, hands-on support for questions or challenges with your site;
  • It can be customized easily, and you can request new or updated features.
  • It uses the McGill brand (and can accommodate your unit's brand alongside). With their consistent appearance and widespread use, WMS sites are easily recognized as official McGill websites. 
  • It's compliant with our Digital Standards, and remains compliant over time.
    • This includes legal requirements around security and accessibility which evolve over time, can be costly to address, and may require specialized knowledge to implement.
    • You'll still need to make sure your content is aligned with the standards, but we offer WMS-specific training and support for this.
  • WMS sites integrate well with each other, making it possible to conveniently promote content like news and events across WMS sites.
  • The WMS integrates with a variety of other McGill systems, including our student recruitment CRM and course catalogue. You can also request new WMS integrations for approved cloud services
  • The WMS is a self-serve system, so anyone with access (including you, your team, and McGill support) can update your website at any time.

Disadvantages of the WMS

There are a few drawbacks to the WMS:

  • The WMS is designed to be a self-serve tool, so you'll need to learn, delegate, or hire someone to build your website. 
  • Since the WMS is a flexible tool with many features, you might need some support to determine how to adapt those features to meet your specific needs.
  • There are some features the WMS can't accommodate, such as payment processing. 
  • The WMS uses McGill's branding. In some cases, you can request to remove the McGill logo, but the site will still use McGill's colors, fonts, and a McGill.ca URL. This may not suit independent projects or initiatives where multiple institutions are equal partners.

Who can use the WMS

The WMS is the official McGill platform, accessible for:

  • Any McGill employee or faculty member, as well as students, vendors, or others who are sponsored by an employee or faculty member. 
  • Any websites that concern official university business. (Personal websites or hobby websites aren't eligible for the WMS.)

Importantly, using the WMS is the easiest way to use the McGill brand on a website. Eligibility to use the McGill brand on other types of site is limited. 

When not to use the WMS

  • Websites that aren't sponsored by a McGill employee (for example, student-, alumni-, or retiree-led websites) may not be eligible. Request a consultation to see which options are available for these websites.
  • Websites where the McGill brand (with or without the McGill logo) would be inappropriate. For example, initiatives where multiple institutions are equal partners may prefer not to use McGill branding, even though they're eligible. 
  • For content that doesn't need to be publicly accessible, or content that should be restricted to members of the McGill community. SharePoint is a better platform for internally-facing content, and it allows you to restrict access to members (or segments) of the McGill community. 

 How to get started with the WMS

  1. Staff who will work on the site must complete the required training courses. See Web Services training & events for our training schedule and registration details.
  2. The Site Sponsor and all Site Administrators, Editors and Managers must complete McGill’s User Access Guidelines form.
  3. A Site Sponsor or Site Administrator should complete the New WMS website request form.
  4. Complete the Web Services consultation request form if you’d like to receive guidance and recommendations for building your website.

Custom-built websites

Custom-built websites are built to measure for your particular needs. Custom websites may be built by McGill employees, students, freelancers, or agencies. They're usually based on a CMS like WordPress or Drupal, and can be hosted at McGill or independently. We discourage building custom websites unless there's a strong need.

Advantages of custom-built websites

Custom-built sites offer few advantages, but these may be critical for some projects:

  • The website can offer features and integrations which aren't possible in the WMS (such as event management);
  • The design of the website can be fully customized to your unit's needs and brand.

Disadvantages of custom websites

Custom-built websites face many challenges, which is why we consider the WMS a better choice for most websites. If you must build a custom site, bear in mind:

  • Custom websites usually take longer to build. They must also be acquired according to McGill Procurement Policy and IT Acquisition Process, which can introduce additional delays in the process. 
  • They can be very expensive, and often website projects cost more than the initial estimate.
  • Custom websites may require specific configuration or services to be compliant with Quebec law (including accessibility and personal data protection).
    • The site owner is accountable for compliance.
    • Usually this requires a knowledgeable employee to conduct compliance audits at multiple stages of the project. 
    • A non-compliant site may lead to legal challenges or complaints.
    • The University may also initiate disciplinary or corrective procedures if we see that a site is non-compliant. 
  • Not all custom websites are eligible to use the McGill brand. See "who can build custom sites," below. 
  • If your custom website does use the McGill brand (including URL or visual identity), you're also accountable for making sure the website is compliant with McGill's Digital Standards
    • You (or a member of your team) will need to have a thorough understanding of the standards.
    • You'll need to keep abreast of changes to the standards, and audit the vendor's work regularly to make sure it stays compliant.
    • Non-compliance with Digital Standards can damage the University's reputation.
    • As with compliance with legal requirements, the University may also initiate disciplinary or corrective procedures if we see that a site is not compliant with our Digital Standards. 
    • McGill websites are also part of the Quebec Government's Bug Bounty Program (officially called the Programme de prime aux bogues du gouvernement du Québec). If a genuine bug is found on your website(s), the site owner may be responsible for paying the person who found it (up to $3,000) and is accountable to resolve the bug in an appropriate timeframe. 
  • Once the site is launched, there are often additional costs for post-launch changes, hosting, training, maintenance, updates, and security. Most sites need to pay at least some of these ongoing costs to keep their site running, legally compliant, and (if using the McGill brand) aligned with McGill's Digital Standards.
  • Custom websites (even ones based on open-source software) are unique, which means they're usually dependent on the original vendor or person who built them.
    • Most companies and freelancers consider it a bad investment to learn and support a custom website built by someone else. If they offer this service, it may be costly and success is not guaranteed.
    • If there's a problem with the vendor, or the person who built the site leaves, it may be necessary to close the site and start over. 

Who can build custom sites

Almost any unit can ask an employee, student, freelancer, or agency to build a custom website. But...

  • We only recommend a custom website in cases where the WMS is clearly incompatible with project needs. For example, websites that require features that can't exist in the WMS, or websites which shouldn't use McGill branding. 
  • Although systems like WordPress make it easier than ever to build a custom website, we recommend working with a qualified team (this could be an internal McGill team or an agency). This can reduce the likelihood of cost overruns, compliance issues, or abandonment by the original vendor. 

Using the McGill brand on a custom site is a privilege. To be eligible to use the McGill brand (including a mcgill.ca URL and visual identity), the website must:

  • Be sponsored by a McGill employee or faculty member, who is accountable for branding quality and standards compliance.
  • Concern official university business. Personal websites (for example, advertising services not related to the owner's role at the university) or hobby websites aren't eligible to use the McGill brand.
  • Be supported by a reasonable plan to evaluate and meet all legal and institutional requirements, and maintain compliance over time.
  • Be acquired through the applicable McGill Procurement Policy and IT Acquisition Process.
    • This includes completing a Data Assessment Form that indicates desired level of branding.
    • Based on branding intentions, your website or vendor may need to pass an information security assessment before being authorized to use the brand.
  • In the case of research entities, only entities formally approved under the Policy on Research Entities (PDF) may use the McGill name and logo alongside their own.

When not to use a custom site

In general, you should never build a custom site if your needs could be met by a WMS site. It's like buying a luxury sportscar when all you need is a reliable commuter! You should also avoid building a custom site if:

  • Your team has limited time or money.
  • You don't have someone who can audit the website for compliance (both during the initial build and after launch).
    • If you're using the McGill brand, you're accountable for upholding all of McGill's Digital Standards. Otherwise, you might face disciplinary or corrective procedures.
    • Even if you're not using the McGill brand, your site must be audited for legal requirements like accessibility and personal data protection. Lack of compliance can lead to legal action, and you may be personally liable.
  • You have a small team.
    • On small teams, one person may handle most or all web-related tasks. If that person leaves unexpectedly, you may be stuck: unable to access or update the website, with no one at McGill to help you fix problems or regain access.

How to get started with a custom website

First, meet with Digital Communications to get an evaluation of the options available to you:

  • We may be able to find a way for the WMS to work! 
  • We'll help you evaluate your branding requirements and URL, which will streamline the IT acquisition and setup process. 
  • We can provide support for usability and performance evaluations.
  • We'll provide personalized recommendations for resources, vendors, and next steps.
  • A small number of strategically necessary custom sites are eligible for design, usability, and compliance evaluation services.  

After meeting with us, most projects follow the lifecycle outlined in the Custom and licensed project toolkit, beginning with:

You should also plan to complete required courses related to our standards and best practices, and fill out the User Access Guidelines form.

Websites or applications based on licensed products

Websites or web applications in this category are intended to provide (relatively) quick and easy solutions for common use cases. They do this by offering limited customization options over a standard template. Websites in this category are often based on applications or databases that allow them to do things normal websites can't do. They're usually offered on a subscription basis by software companies or specialized vendors. 


Licensed products (like the Office 365 suite, our student admissions system, and others) can deliver powerful functionality with limited investment:

  • Licensed products can offer highly sophisticated integrations with databases or applications which may not be possible in the WMS.
  • Compared to custom solutions (which can also offer sophisticated integrations), licensed products are often more reliable and cost-effective.
  • Most basic maintenance and support is included in the licensing fee, meaning costs are relatively stable over time.
  • If a licensed product is truly necessary to meet a core business need, McGill IT can offer support to make sure you get the most out of the product.
  • Licensed software vendors may offer reporting and compliance services for common legal requirements like accessibility and security, which may reduce the effort needed to audit for compliance.


Licensed products shouldn't be used if the WMS (or an existing centrally-supported option) would work. This is because they're highly dependent on the licensing vendor:

  • Licensed products require regular (usually monthly or annual) subscription fees. These fees are not usually negotiable, and the vendor may modify their pricing structure at any time. If you can't pay them, you lose the service. 
  • Licensed products are usually harder to customize than the WMS or custom websites.
    • Even if customization is possible, you may need to rely on the vendor to edit or change certain aspects of your licensed product. 
    • Vendors sometimes make ambitious claims about design, branding, or results - your implementation may not turn out as awesome as others in the vendor's portfolio.
    • Many licensed products have technical limitations that prevent them from using full McGill branding (even if the website would normally be eligible).
  • The feature set of a licensed product is usually driven by its client base:
    • If the product has a limited or shrinking client base, it may stagnate.
    • If its clients have different needs than you, it may evolve in a direction that isn't useful.
    • A licensed product may also be discontinued due to lack of demand. This can happen at any time, even if you have an active contract. 
  • As with custom websites, licensed products often require you to work with a single vendor for service and support. More established licensed solutions have networks of recommended or certified vendors, which is less risky.
  • Data stored in licensed products may be difficult or impossible to migrate, syndicate, or integrate with other software or websites.
    • This is common with proprietary solutions; products based on open-source software tend to be less risky. 
    • Increasingly, licensed softwares come with APIs that can pass certain types of data along - but the quality of these APIs varies widely, and they sometimes require additional costs. 
  • If you're using the McGill brand, you're accountable for upholding all of McGill's Digital Standards. Otherwise, you might face disciplinary or corrective procedures. Even if you're not using the McGill brand, your site must be audited for legal requirements like accessibility and personal data protection. Lack of compliance can lead to legal action, and you may be personally liable.

When not to use a licensed product

As with custom websites, you should never use a licensed product if your needs can be met by an existing central solution (like the WMS). You should also avoid using a licensed product if:

  • You don't have the time or resources to participate in the IT Acquisition Process. Following this process is mandatory for acquiring licensed solutions. 
  • You're not sure about your budget or long-term needs. It can require a lot of effort to set up (and transition away from) a licensed product, so you'll want to get more than a year or two of use. 
  • The product(s) available to you seem hastily designed, clunky, outdated, unreliable, overcomplicated, or niche.
    • It may be that your needs are novel, or the products on the market aren't mature. You don't want to waste your time and money as a test subject for a fledgeling company or failing product!
    • In these cases, a custom website or web application from an established vendor may be a better investment. Although it may cost more, you'd have more control over how the website or application meets your needs, and you'd have a reputable company to support it. 

How to get started with a licensed product

As with a custom website, it's a good idea to meet with Digital Communications before going too far:

  • We'll help you evaluate your branding requirements and URL, which will streamline the IT acquisition process.
  • We can provide support for usability and performance evaluations.
  • We may be able to connect you with resources, data, or other units that would be helpful to your project.
  • A small number of strategically significant licensed products are eligible for design, usability, and compliance services.

After meeting with us, your project will follow the IT Cloud Services Acquisition Process. You may also need to complete required courses related to our standards and best practices, and fill out the User Access Guidelines form.

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