Migrating to a New CMS

Dec 30 2016

This article was last updated in January 2022.

Choosing the content management system (CMS) that will be the platform on which you build your website is as important a business decision as choosing your name and defining your brand identity -- it will inform and influence every decision you make thereafter. It will directly affect what kind of website you build, its design, how you update and maintain it going forward, and serve as the foundation for your content governance plan.

If your business is already established and you have an existing website, then your next step will be to plan to migrate the content from your old CMS to the new. You might be replacing your CMS altogether, and aren’t able to automate the process; you might be making your website more responsive, and your old content won’t fit the new design; you might be consolidating two or more websites into one and managing duplicate and/or gaps in your content; or, even worse, your migration might include all of the above! Whatever your challenge(s), they’ll require varying degrees of technical and strategic knowledge and best practices to mitigate.

What Is Content Migration?

For the sake of this discussion, content migration will refer to the transfer of website content from one platform, or CMS, to another. Typically, this will be one of the final steps in the development of a new website and occur prior to final quality assurance and testing. Content migration is usually a collaborative effort, which is executed by teams with members from different business units -- both technical and non. A successful content migration will require a mix of technical solutions (automation, code) as well as more manual ones (content governance plans, strategy, and content management and creation). A typical analogy for content migration is to think of the last time you moved your home.

“Hopefully, you first went through all your things, figured out what was really important and what wasn’t – and then threw out what wasn’t. Hint, hint. Even so, you might have been moving from a historic Victorian to an icon of modern architecture, and needed to replace a few pieces of furniture. Perhaps your living companions suddenly decided to redecorate entire rooms. Or you might have been moving from a larger space into a much smaller one (or vice versa).”

A website content migration is similar -- you’re moving the contents from one platform, or home, to another, and your existing content likely won’t fit your new home like it did your old. Some content won’t fit, some will become redundant, and some will be missing from newly created spaces altogether.

Laying the Foundation

Before you begin to migrate your content, you need a plan. And before you can build a plan, you need to know how much content you’re migrating and of what type. To do this, we recommend taking an inventory of all of your existing content and then auditing it. More than a simple site map or file list, a content inventory is “a detailed listing of all of your site’s content, and the unique relationships that exist between the content. It identifies things such as the URLs, doctype (HTML, PDF, image, etc.), links to and from each piece of content, template identification and mapping, orphaned files, stale files (rarely accessed according to analytics), and potential metadata.” Depending on the size of your existing website, expect this process to take up to several weeks to complete.

Once you have a complete inventory of your existing content, you can begin to audit it and plan for its migration. Here are some key points to consider during your planning process:

1. Know the systems path required to migrate content

Migrating content often requires logging into, and moving between, several systems. This can include your source web server, your new CMS, your authoring tool of choice, your task tracking application, your VPN software, and more. It all adds up and must be done for each piece of content.

2. Clean your content prior to migration.

More often than not, legacy content must be cleaned before it can be imported into a new CMS. This can often be automated, but even then a person is usually required to manually edit the content to make sure that the formatting is correct in the new CMS. This is one of the most time-consuming steps in a migration.

3. Create redirects to avoid breaking bookmarks or embedded links.

Often in a migration to a new CMS, the URLs of content will change to reflect a new directory structure. When this occurs, any bookmarks to the old website that users might have, or any links embedded in online and offline advertisements, will break. To resolve this, a 301 redirect will have to be created that points every old URL to the corresponding content asset in the new system. Serving a 301 indicates to both browsers and search engine bots that the page has moved permanently. Creating 301 redirects will also have SEO benefits for your website. Search engines understand that a 301 means that the page, as well as the content, have changed location to the new URL. The engines will then carry any link weighting from the original page to the new URL.

4. Pay attention to migrating hyperlinks properly.

Similar to the issue with redirects, if you migrate your website to a new directory structure, most of your hyperlinks will break. When these are fixed manually, it can be a very time-consuming process.

5. Create metadata manually and automatically.

CMSs often require a well-defined metadata strategy to function properly. Some of this metadata can be defaulted automatically, but to be truly useful at least some of it must be manually added to each piece of content. This step is especially prone to errors and even the smallest mistakes can require a massive rework.

6. Break up content for better management and display.

Included in many modern CMSs is the concept of one-to-many relationships between content. Essentially, you break your legacy content up into smaller chunks so that they can be reused across your site. The key time drain here is that when you break a piece of content up into chunks, you effectively create multiple new pieces of content, with each piece needing separate meta tagging and link resolution. This can compound the scope of your migration very quickly.

7. Perform quality assurance tests.

Performing quality assurance on a newly migrated website is a significant task. Most organizations prefer to check every single page and without automation you can expect at least a few minutes per migrated page.

Develop Your Content Strategy

Once you’ve inventoried all of your content, audited its strengths, weaknesses, redundancies, and gaps, and migrated it to your new website, you can use this information to help develop an overall content strategy to govern it going forward. In Rahel Bailie view of content strategy, it includes:

“…the planning aspects of managing content throughout its lifecycle, and includes aligning content to business goals, analysis, and modeling, and influences the development, production, presentation, evaluation, measurement, and sunsetting of content, including governance. What content strategy is not is the implementation side. The actual content development, management, and delivery is the tactical outcomes of the strategy that need to be carried out for the strategy to be effective.”

In other words, and in this context, your content strategy is a repeatable system that defines the entire content creation process for your website -- but not necessarily the content itself. The Content Marketing Institute outlined the phases of developing your website content strategy as follows:

  1. Research overview. Define the roles of your team members who will review, evaluate, and determine the scope of the project.
  2. Analysis overview. What do users want or need? How will you measure success? What can you do with your available time, talent, and budget?
  3. Strategy and design. Determine what existing content should still be used, what needs to be created, who is responsible for each piece of content, and what the editorial processes and guidelines are.
  4. Content creation and testing. Once you have all your content created, it needs to be tested and approved on the development site.
  5. Maintenance. Develop a plan moving forward from launch that maps out the creation of new content.

You can review the phases in greater detail, including the specific deliverables of each, here.

Wrapping Up

Transitioning from one CMS to another can be a difficult and time-consuming process at best. On top of the technical considerations and concerns is the migration of your old website’s content to the new, which requires a mix of technical solutions as well as more manual and strategic ones. Like moving to a new home, you must take a thorough inventory of your existing content, audit its usefulness and completeness, and develop a strategy for filling in any gaps that you’ve identified as well as how to live in your new home going forward. Every website’s content migration is unique and will depend on the results of each phase of your move.

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