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How to Improve the Success Rate of Your Website Content Migration

Updated: May 15th, 2023

If your company has a website, there will come a time when you’ll want to redesign or replatform. It’s not a matter of if this will happen, but when. Because in digital nothing stays the same for long. When that happens, you’ll be faced with a content migration: the transfer of your assets (copy, images, links, videos, file downloads, and so on) into the new system. 

Whether you’re doing a basic “lift and shift” of an existing site to a new CMS, or redesigning from the ground up, you’re moving your content from one place to another, which means there are risks for things like losing SEO ranking or corrupting information. There are also opportunities for better organization and increased consumption of your content in the future. So it pays to pay attention. 

It’s tempting to think there are tools that can make this happen in a simple “button-push” fashion. In fact, we’ve found that the level of work involved in migrations is often misunderstood and underestimated. You’re dealing with legacy content that was created over years (maybe decades), and it’s likely not organized the way you want it to be. At the same time, the current site may be generating significant inbound search volume, so you don’t want to eliminate the benefits you’re currently experiencing by upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

So, what’s a CMO, CTO, or owner to do? At ETR, we’ve done hundreds of migrations over the years and we wanted to share some of what we’ve learned with you to help you better understand the drivers of time, cost, and also the upside opportunity when undertaking a major migration project. 

Know why you are doing it:  

Think of this as a Post-it note you keep on your computer that reminds you to stay focused on how and why you took on this herculean project in the first place. There are a multitude of reasons one needs to migrate content: improved performance, integration with other business units (maybe it’s a company merger, or a combining of different corporate systems), new business requirements that make it necessary to add new features, or perhaps it’s a rebrand or redesign. And because you are “under the hood,” it makes sense to want to tackle it all.

Indeed content migration is a great time to improve many things, but it is important to prioritize and to manage your primary goal first and get that right. Is this an opportunity to simply remove outdated content, or is it a time to revise all the copy on your top 50 pages to align it to new brand objectives? This type of disciplined thinking will help you direct your team and ensure you get what you need. It will help you to accurately forecast staffing needs and understand the time it will realistically take to complete the migration. From our experience, this step is invaluable in helping to keep costs, and the project as a whole, on the right track.

Know who all the stakeholders are – and know early

Who is responsible for which pieces of the migration? Often many team members are involved, on both client and agency side, and you want to avoid duplicate work or work being missed because it wasn’t clear who was accountable for completing it. You also want to be sure to have the right people tasked with the right job. For example, it may initially seem efficient to have a less senior staff member mapping your assets to a new taxonomy. But such a task is at the core of helping your customers easily find what they are looking for on your site. What could be more important? In most cases this requires thoughtful consideration and experience. This one staffing choice, done right, could offer very high returns for years to come.

Make sure you’re clear-eyed about the cost and time necessary:  

If you get the first two steps above right – your objectives and decisions around scope and staffing – your budgeting step will be much more straightforward. However, try to resist the urge to fight the numbers. This sounds obvious, but we have seen this rattle even the most seasoned executive. Large-scale migrations are often expensive. (And one of the chronically underestimated parts of a website build or redesign.) Redesigning your website or moving all of your assets to a brand-new CMS is a long-term investment. Migrate to a platform that will last and will be most beneficial to your business needs. Work with those that are most qualified to do the same. Our most satisfied clients are the ones who undertake their migration with these foundational business truths in mind and are willing to make the necessary investments to get it done right.  

Your assets are your website’s lifeblood, so treat them that way:

  1. Assess your source material: What content are you working with? What content are you missing? What content do you need to have to make a real impact on your users? What has worked in the past that will help you achieve your desired future outcomes? To accurately evaluate this, it’s important to look at your top pages by traffic and engagement, to examine search performance, and identify those other indicators that are important for your particular business to measure. You want to understand what content is working, why it’s working, and also take a hard look at content that’s not performing well and determine if it’s due to poor quality, a wrong match for your users, or perhaps it’s good content that is simply not promoted or optimized well. And of course, for content that is performing well, you’ll want to protect it, and make sure you don’t break what’s proven to be successful. 
  2. Review and revise your taxonomy: Taxonomy is the structure of a website that defines how content is organized and made accessible to users. Think of it as the site’s categories or sections. Undergoing a redesign or migration is a great time to update a site’s taxonomy. It’s a time to take a lens to the content you do have and ensure it’s organized logically. One important watch out, however, is to make sure your new taxonomy isn’t overly complex. Re-organizing all your content into an entirely new structure can be extremely time-consuming, so being circumspect about the complexity of the taxonomy is warranted. This will save you time and energy in the implementation process. And, of course, a simple and effective organization scheme is good for your users as well.

    One final step that’s of critical importance is making sure that your newly located content is findable. You may want to consider a new URL structure for your content if the existing URLs don’t clearly define your site’s hierarchy. You’ll want to make sure the URL structure respects your site’s taxonomy by including any parent categories or pages, and that it is simple and descriptive of the content. If you decide to create a new URL structure, that means you’re going to need redirects to make sure existing links resolve properly. Tracking any changes to page URLs during the process will make mapping the redirects a smoother process. And you’ll want to submit the new sitemap to Google and consider editing content to target keywords to preserve search integrity.
  3. Prepare the material: As content goes, remember less is often more. It is at this stage that you’ll act upon the hard decisions you’ve made about what will stay, go, or be revised in new ways. This is also one of the places where your staffing decisions from above really matter. If you’re updating content, you’ll need a team with editing and writing skills – for copy, and also for images and possibly video. It’s one thing to decide what fits and what does not, and another is to prepare the content in alignment with your brand purpose and business goals. This is also a time to update your metadata and to evaluate all third-party scripts you are currently using and try to remove any that are redundant or not providing you the data or business value that you need. Remember third-party scripts can have a negative impact on your site speed/performance scores. The more you can trim the better.

Preparing the new system: 

  1. Configure the CMS:  Think about how your team has used and will use the content management system moving forward. Can it work better? This is a great time to engage those most familiar with the day-to-day usage of your CMS. This will ensure that how you configure it moving forward does, in fact, create efficiencies for them. While marketing and development have large and clear stakes in the project, it’s the content editors who are in the CMS every day adding and managing the site, so their voice is absolutely critical in the process. When a system is built right, it will pay dividends for years in terms of better team engagement and greater efficiency.
  2. Make backups: Content migration is as much art as it is science. Experience has shown us to expect the unexpected, especially when moving platforms. As previously stated, your assets are why people come to your site. They take time and money to create. So ensure that they are properly protected against any mishaps that may arise. And yes, even in the most efficiently run migrations, mishaps can, and do, arise.

The migration itself:

  1. Test: To ensure that the system is working properly, often we’ll conduct testing using sample data covering the most common scenarios. In other cases, we will conduct the migration by content type. For example, we will migrate all articles and then review them. Then we will migrate all press releases and review them. And so on. (It’s worth noting that in very large migrations we will conduct spot-checks of the most popular content rather than evaluating every single piece.) 
  1. Freeze: Stop what you are doing. While it is true that business never stops even during a website migration, it is important to set aside any new site additions or updates where possible until after the migration is complete to ensure the most efficient transition. There’s not a “typical” time period, but we’ve found that it’s commonly three to five days depending on the client.
  1. Protect your business and your assets by double-publishing: If you publish frequently, you may need to consider a period where new content is published to both the legacy and new sites while a migration is reviewed prior to launch. This way, there won’t be a lapse in content while you’re ironing out wrinkles with the new site and your process. 

Quality assurance and optimizing:

Once content is migrated, it’s important to conduct quality assurance. Are there still any internal links to old URLs that need to be updated? Does anything that was automatically migrated need a little polish so it looks good in the new layout? Did meta descriptions get appropriately migrated? Are all redirects in place that need to be? Continue to watch so that you can improve the efficiency of your site each and every day.

In conclusion:

For the past 20 years ETR has been fortunate to partner with companies to design, build, and enhance one of their most important outward facing assets – their website.  Along the way we have seen that content migration can be one of the trickier and most underestimated aspects of this work. By following the high-level principles laid out in this piece, we hope to help make the process smoother and more effective for you. And, of course, the point of the whole process is paramount: the day that you enjoy the fruits of your labor and see improved traffic, higher efficiency, better user experience, and improved overall customer satisfaction.

If you’re planning a redesign or looking for a partner in your migration project, we’d love to help you accomplish your goals.

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