CMS migration is one of those occasional business ‘must-do’ tasks that is almost guaranteed to come with problems—which may be the reason it strikes terror into so many hearts! Granted, it should never be done on a whim, but when it’s necessary to undertake, you want to do everything in your power to make it as smooth as possible.
The most likely reason you’re considering CMS migration is to allow for greater digital transformation – retiring a legacy system to improve ease, control, and automation within your content production process. You may also be looking to standardize your technology stack across an ecosystem of sites and digital assets.
If your needs don’t include any of the reasons listed above, it might be better to work with what you already have and make improvements within the existing CMS. A website redesign is much more appropriate in these cases.
Often times your website development agency will recommend CMS migrations to proprietary platforms or when migrations aren’t necessary just because they are more familiar with a certain technology stack. Avoid these situations at all costs as they can cause significant down-the-line disruption to your business.
Keeping the previous paragraph in mind, before you commit to a CMS migration, determine exactly why you need to migrate. If it’s not clear, then it will be nearly impossible to plan the best migration and analyze its success. And, as we’ve already stated, if a redesign will solve the problems, definitely do that instead of a full migration.
Once you know exactly what the problems are that indicate a migration is the best choice, clarify what you want to get from the migration. For some, it may be a case of keeping all the current functions but making it all more content creator friendly. Others may be preparing to scale their business, add in automation features, or grow the business internationally. Whatever your goals are, make sure everyone involved in the migration knows what they are, and knows how they will contribute to ensuring the migration achieves those goals.
Note: if there are crawling and index issues with the current site, these need to be solved before migration. After, they become even more difficult to address.
Catalog Your Content
Before you start moving content, know exactly what you have. Not just URLs, but actual files with all content: blogs, copy, images, videos, e-books, whitepapers, etc. Speaking of URLs, know how many you have and what they are, if any are broken, and what types of redirects are being used. Have your CMS migration agency provide you with a comprehensive report.
Are there gaps in content that need to be addressed? Have your content management actions been effective, or is it time for a new strategy? The answers to these questions help to prepare the migration and the future management of all content. You may identify some obsolete or unnecessary data. Removing it before migration will save time and effort.
Check that you have effective metadata for all content, and fill in any gaps where new pages or content are needed. The full picture of your content determines the new site’s foundation and design. Without it, you may end up trying to build in solutions after the fact, which tends to be costly and awkward.
Do a full backup of your current site. If anything really goes sideways, it will help to have all that raw data, content, and rollback capability.
A final thing to catalog is all your tracking codes. Make sure you have a list of all the tracking codes and customizations so that you can transfer them when it’s time. If you use an analytics container solution like Google Tag manager, make sure you take the steps to properly migrate and adjust your triggers, tags, and variables as needed. Your GTM container should not be overlooked.
Plan the Process
Ask your website marketing company to list out the entire process, taking into account how keywords, internal links, and redirect pages will be affected.
Plan so that they will continue to function as designed. If the new site has different templates or rules regarding meta tags and H1 tags, plan how those are going to be placed into the new site (and make sure to allow enough time to do this right).
Take that list of URLs you compiled, and create a URL map that shows the old URL, whether you are redirecting it or leaving it, and the final URL. Ensure your website design agency has clear plan for implementing all redirects.
Determine the most effective timing for migration that allows for the least amount of disruption—likely when you have the lowest traffic to your site. Not only will this help lower the impact if anything goes sideways, but it will give you a better a ability to effectively coordinate with other stakeholders, especially of you follow a traditional Standard Development Life Cycle (SDLC) process, setting and communicating clear development timelines is critical to ensuring sufficient time and planning to create sufficient documentation, conduct reviews, and gather approvals.
The larger your business, the more challenges a CMS migration presents. If you have a business with multiple departments that are responsible for different elements of the website, you’ll need to coordinate with each of them to minimize the impact both on the department and on the staff involved.
If you are working with multiple changes (new URLs, hosting, site architecture, etc), consider phasing the project versus doing it all in one fell swoop. Create a plan that is strategic and methodical. One thing at a time done well is much better than quickly doing everything at once and then trying to figure out what went wrong and where it went wrong!
Always include SEO in the planning process. If a new site has great conversion but there’s no longer great SEO, you might end up at a similar place with numbers than before the migration. You need to incorporate SEO and plan for conversion. A great planning process is comprehensive.
Make sure to discuss security with your team, review and agree on all regulations, protocols, and technical requirements and their associated costs and gain approval for the security design of the website from the right parties. This becomes part of the pre-migration plan.
Once you’ve got a plan established, let your users know that you’ll be moving your website. Put a ‘coming soon’ note of some sort on your site and connect with all your social media followers to let them know that some changes are coming.
This is a great time to build some curiosity and excitement about the new site, pressure test concepts, UX, and new features that will improve the customer experience. If the CMS migration is the result of an outdated system (or even one that’s not optimized for mobile), use your platforms to note what a big enhancement you’ve made and highlight how excited your brand is to better connect with all your followers and customers.
One final comment on planning: have a Plan B. If the worst happens and the migration fails because the website redesign agency makes a critical mistake, what will you do? Fortunately, you backed up all your data when you cataloged your content, but have a plan in place to minimize any fallout from a failed migration or any significant bugs that may occur in the post-launch QA process.
To Automate or Not to Automate
Depending on the size of the migration, you may need to automate the copying and transferring of data into the new system. If you will be using any sort of migration technology, acquire it in advance, run tests, and be sure you have everything you need to use it effectively.
Do a Trial Run
Choose one or two sections of your site and do a trial run by testing out the migration of these sections. Note: Be sure this is not live and accessible to search engines! You don’t want anyone visiting the new site until it’s fully ready for its public debut!
This is one of the many reasons why you should always make sure your website development agency follows a development cycle that utilizes 3 distinct development environments:
- Development environment (this is where all coding happens)
- Staging environment (this is where testing happens)
- Production environment (this is a hardened environment that contains only live code)
Never push code from the Development environment directly to production without testing it first in staging and checking not only it’s successful functionality but also its effect on other adjacent elements of the site.
Check for the following:
- All the content in the section migrated successfully
- The content went where it was supposed to go
- Tags are correct
- The content, design, formatting, or data submission / recall functionalities havn’t been compromised in any way
It’s much easier to deal with a smaller amount of content, identify any problems, and double-check that your solutions work than to migrate the entire site and try to sift through for any problems. When you do a trial run, you can identify and prevent more problems before they happen, and you’ll know what specific issues to look for.
If you do find that you need to make changes to the configuration, migration, or data, this gives you a valuable chance to do it before you migrate the remaining content.
Flag your most important pages so you can keep a close eye on them during the migration process. Especially when the project is bigger, prioritizing the pages will help you know where to direct attention if more than one thing isn’t working at the same time.
A Note About Redirects
In a nutshell, leave all 301 redirects forever. Even once Google is working with the new URL, those redirects are permanent. All you need to do is make sure any redirects are single hops, not multiple redirects to the correct destination.
Evaluate the User Experience (UX)
Once the migration is complete, check through all the content to ensure the user experience is optimized. You can use this UX Fundamentals Planner found in 30 Minutes to Improve Your Website User Experience as a straightforward checklist.
If you use Google Analytics, make a note of the migration date. This will help with the important action of analyzing post-migration traffic. Don’t worry if there’s an initial drop in traffic. This is often just Google checking through the site. And when you follow all the steps, it’s unlikely the declines will remain, and you’ll soon see good results from your careful planning and migration.
If you haven’t already, schedule regular checks of the UX. It would be tragic to successfully complete a CMS migration only to miss issues that arise a few months down the road that deteriorate the UX and reduce the effectiveness of all that great content and massive migration effort!
Before you terminate the old system, double-check that everything is working effectively, can handle scaling, and the site loads quickly across devices. Only when everything checks out should you decommission the old system.
Congratulations! You’ve just conducted a successful CMS migration! Feel free to sit back, relax, have a nice cold beverage… and then get back to work. Now that the new site is up, keep an eye on the UX, and check that all business processes continue to operate as planned. Check that everyone who has responsibility for any site activities understands the new system and is trained in how to use any new tools that have been implemented.
For direct help with a CMS content migration contact Dave Quigley at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your project and get an estimate.