IDEAS | BLOG

The Thankless (But Critical!) Task of Getting Big Content Migration Right

If you are a large nonprofit, you are in the business of ideas: producing great ones, and then changing minds and behaviors with those ideas. So it goes without saying that if your large organization is considering an overhaul of its web presence, then you are keenly aware of the importance of content migration.

Your website is your institutional history. For most large organizations, it contains a decade or more of your ideas and information. This is most true for large NGOs, foundations, and federal agencies.

As you conceive the next generation of your website, keep in mind that large issue-driven organizations must not only define the most effective ways of organizing, structuring, and presenting tomorrow’s digital content; they must also review, refine, transform, and in many cases re-create the thousands of content items that exist today.

Content migration for large-scale, content-rich websites is a big job, and it will have many challenges. Our work with other large content-centric organizational websites has taught us a great deal about the right process, and the right tools for facing challenges. Here is some of what we’ve learned.

Content Migration Starts on Day 1

Perhaps the biggest mistake any organization can make is assuming that content migration can be undertaken as, “the last thing we do before we launch our new website.” Content migration requires careful attention from Day 1, and our process acknowledges this – starting with intimately understanding the nature of all of the content, carefully creating mapping between the existing content model and the new site’s content model, and systematically running multiple imports and quality checks as the site is being built.

You Must Plan to Preserve Google Rank

It’s important that the new site does several things technically correct to ensure that people can continue to find the content they rely upon today within the website, and that search engines can easily understand the new “homes” for your old content. Content migration processes that do not plan for this early and consistently will find that the most popular page on their new site will be a 404 Page Not Found error. During the migration process we collect existing URLs for each piece of content that will be migrated, and ensure that upon import that 301 HTTP Redirects are in place for every single piece of migrated content. This gets users to the right place, and it properly informs search engines of how to update their index with new site URLs.

Let Go of Ineffective or Non-Essential Content

The goal of your organization’s new website is not to put a new veneer on the existing website, it is rather to make the website more effective at extending your organization’s influence and engagement with site visitors.  To this end, your new website will put in place new content structures and new content organization tactics to meet these goals. This means that not all of the existing content on the site will be effective in achieving that goal – in fact, in some cases it may detract from the goal. Forum One has learned first hand how challenging it can be for organizations to sunset or substantially transform previously published content. That is why our process focuses on building the new site structures that our clients need to meet their goals – and moving the right content into the new “home” – as opposed to building the new home just to accommodate the old content.

Automated Content Migration Requires Multiple Iterations

When automating the import of existing content – particularly of HTML content that has been published without much defined structure – it is critical that the process plan for multiple cycles of import, test, refine, and re-import. Within this process or migration iteration, we know that there are many many things that we have to transform within the content we are bringing over into the new site- embedded css styles and naming, image source locations, relational link rewriting, embedded media handling, and more. Our import scripts need to find these and systematically re-write them using rules that match those of the new site. We know from experience that finding all of the idiosyncrasies of any large organization’s existing content will take take several cycles of import, testing, and refinement  – and we always plan accordingly.

These are a few of the lessons we’ve learned from projects where large-scale content migration is a critical need. What’s your experience been?