How to Perform a Content Migration

There are three key phases of work required to successfully move content as part of any website redesign or maintenance strategy.

7 minutes
By: Mandee Englert
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Redesigning a website involves moving content and changing how people interact with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pages. In many cases, the user experience changes completely. At the same time, the redesign can affect how well the site attracts search engines. Yet, perhaps the most overlooked part of a website redesign is the migration of the site’s content.

This is Volt’s how-to guide for executing a content migration, a process often associated with, but not exclusive to, website redesigns; you will perform a content migration whenever you are: 

  • Redesigning the website 
  • Changing the content management system
  • Changing the website URL structure and information architecture
  • Switching domain names 
  • Merging websites under the same domain name

In this process, the text, images, videos, and even site structure will all undergo a substantial change in areas that can significantly affect search engine rankings and the website’s visibility. If not done correctly, a content migration can result in the loss of traffic and, for higher ed institutions, a decline in applications and enrollments; these effects can be long-lasting. 

There are three important phases to building a strong strategy and process for migrating content. 

  1. Preparing the migration
  2. Execution tactics
  3. Post-migration tracking and optimization

Phase 1: Preparing The Migration

Preparation is arguably the most critical phase of this process, and is the foundation for a successful content migration.

Create a content inventory

Be sure that you are accounting for every URL on the site. Relying simply on a Google Analytics report could result in your missing pages — sometimes crucial ones. To make sure you get every available URL accounted for: 

  • Work with web developers for a database pull of all URLs;
  • Crawl the site with a screaming frog report (be sure to ignore your robots.txt); and
  • Pull your sitemap.xml files.

Once you have a full list, run an audit with a spider tool like screaming frog (free for up to 500 URLs) to ensure that all of the URLs still exist and are available to the public (200 status codes only). Seer Interactive has a great guide on how to use screaming frog to pull different types of information.

Image of a list of files from a computer.
A screaming frog full-site scan will help you identify all URLs that need to be updated and migrated.

Add metrics to help make decisions

Add metrics for each URL to determine the success of that content and decide what to keep or delete. The metrics I recommend as part of this audit: 

  • Inlinks
  • Pageviews/unique pageviews
  • Bounce rate
  • Pages per session
  • Keyword page ranking (if applicable)
  • Position of page for keyword ranking (if applicable)
  • Search volume for keyword (if applicable)

You can pull most of this using a custom report in Google Analytics. Pull data for one to five years, depending on how long it has been since your last redesign.

A content inventory and metrics are the most important parts of a content migration. Keep the content that draws the most visitors (or results in the most sales), and jettison content that is languishing unused or unseen. 

I created a template to help you get started and to help you see these steps come to life. You can access this here.

It is important to note that a content migration, as part of a website redesign, will often be preceded by an updated content strategy that will identify content gaps and and new topics that must be created for a variety of reasons, including to support new brand or content pillars, to supplement new institutional initiatives, and to meet the search intent of prospective website users. This content will also be part of a content migration; it will be created in draft form, and then will be pulled into the content migration process.

Decide what content to keep or remove

One important reason migrations fail is that the right players aren’t involved early enough in the process, causing execution of the strategy to suffer. Here are the roles I recommend being involved: 

  • Web developers
  • Content Strategists
  • Brand/Digital Strategists
  • SEO/UX Experts
  • Website Owner
  • Leadership

Use this team to determine which content is performing, and which is still considered mission-critical. This team would also be involved in identifying and greenlighting the creation of new content, as dictated by the content strategy. Then make a recommendation on each page for keeping or deleting that content. Streamline this process by making informed decisions and rules around the data pulled. For example, if fewer than 100 users have seen this content in the past five years it is up for deletion.

You will need buy-in early on and throughout the process to ensure success.

Review information architecture/taxonomy

The team should agree on a shared and controlled vocabulary, where users are able to find similar content and navigate the website appropriately. Use tools like Optimal Workshops Tree Testing to conduct live tests on users to help provide a data-informed approach.

An SEO-friendly website with strategic linking that both users and search engines understand will go a long way toward improving the website’s rank and helping users find similar content. Keep URLs clean by: 

  • Using readable words for folder paths (use keywords when possible);
  • Making the URL as short as possible; and
  • Using hyphens instead of underscores to separate words.

Here is a great resource that details out how to plan and create a solid website structure for SEO. 

Redirect Mapping

Redirection is one of the crucial activities during a site migration. If the old URLs no longer exist and are not redirected, the website’s rankings and visibility will quickly fail. Some tips on addressing redirects include:

  • Address current-state redirect errors (be sure to remove redirect chains);
  • Delete references in content to pages that will no longer exist; and
  • Redirect URLs’ content that is being deleted to new places on site.

When addressing redirects, work with a web developer to determine how to map these out and to decide if anything can be automated. No two migrations are the same, and you definitely will want to have these conversations with the team before beginning to build out these lists. 

How will the migration be completed?

After finishing the planning and overall strategy, determine how the migration will be completed with the technical team. Often, this migration can be automated. But the technical team will need to understand all of the requirements of the strategy in order to set appropriate rules for that content. Questions to answer include: 

  • What will the URL structure look like? Is it changing from its current state?
  • If a taxonomy is changing, who will be responsible for it and how will it be completed? 
  • How will old links be handled?
  • Who will be responsible for the redirects of deleted content or content that is moving to a different location? 
  • How will assets be migrated?
  • How is QA completed on the migrated content before going live? Who is responsible?

Based on these questions, you will be able to determine the project roadmap, agree on the technical solution, and identify who on the team is responsible for which parts of the migration process.

Phase 2: Tactical Execution

Getting even more tactical, the execution phase is where you begin to see the content migration come to life, moving content from one system to another (this can be automated, overseen by technical teams, as noted above).

Once completed, you will want to audit redirects and URL structure and be sure that content strategy is implemented as expected in the new system. When auditing the content and making taxonomy changes in the new state, it’s important to remember some SEO best practices.

Trailing Slash Redirects: Make sure content is available at the URL with and without a trailing slash, but that it will be redirected to a single source that should be the same as what you are using in your canonical tag.

Canonical Tags: This tag appears in the source code of your website and tells search engines that a specific URL represents the master copy of a page. This will prevent problems with any duplicate content that may appear on multiple URLs. Learn more about canonicals here.

Metadata: This information lives and works behind the scenes of webpages, communicating important information to search engines that can aid in pages getting ranked. Some important meta data to have available for search engines: 

  • Title Tag
  • Meta Description
  • Meta Robots 
  • Image Tags & Alt Attributes
  • Schema Markup

Phase 3: Post-Migration Tracking and Optimization

After submitting the new website’s sitemap to search engines, you can begin maintenance, as well as track performance. 

Audit all content with a spider tool

Start with a quick spider audit (screaming frog is a great resource) of all pages launched. Be sure to mark and fix: 

  • 404 errors 
  • Metadata errors or missed entries
  • Redirect chains
  • Redirects that may be directing to the wrong location

Track and monitor performance before and after launch

Before you go live, be sure to have a baseline to evaluate website performance. You can pull this from the metrics that you set aside during the content inventory phase. Track it against the live site. Some SEO success metrics to review before and after launch on a weekly basis include: 

  • Total keywords ranked in search engines;
  • Keywords in top 10 positions;
  • Keywords in position 11 to 20; and 
  • Total clicks/impressions/CTR from search results.

Content migrations are complex undertakings, something I learned firsthand when I conducted a one for Penn State University’s website — now located at psu.edu/news — that launched in October 2021. The migration process began in January, and took about seven months to complete.

What I learned in that process was that, with the appropriate planning and a methodical approach to execution, a content migration can indeed be completed successfully. It just takes a methodical approach.

Mandee Englert

Mandee Englert

Mandee Englert is the Assistant Director of Digital Strategy for Penn State University’s Strategic Communications unit. Through web analytics analysis and expertise in user experience and SEO strategy she provides insights that drive fundamental improvements to Penn State website experiences.


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