Content Migration: When (and when not) to Automate

Let's be clear. Updating and migrating your site’s content can be as big or bigger an undertaking as the redesign of the site. The quality of your site content is also as critical as the new design and functionality. Content is not just critical for your users, either. With the latest changes to search engine algorithms, providing high-quality, unique content that meets your users goals is the most important tactic you can leverage for SEO.

But trying to manage and migrate thousands of pages of an enterprise web site is daunting at best and, at worst, the lengthy and detailed process of content revisions and migration can jeopardize the launch date and budget for the project.

This may explain why content was historically a “forgotten” part of a web site redesign project. Agencies or implementation partners were often willing to just leave the content—and the risks—to the client. Clients have had to manage for themselves the content tasks that would not fit into their project vendor budget—often without the staff or editorial processes in place to do this well.

It’s not a shock that “automated” content migration tools were developed. But, are these tools the easy answer agencies and clients both are looking for? To use the worn-out UX phrase, “It depends.”

 Here’s why.

The GIGO Rule

Back in the dark days of “brochure-ware” web sites, online content was often re-purposed print material. It was loaded with acronyms and corporatese. It was not scannable, searchable, visual or formatted for online. Sometimes, the web site just didn’t have the budget for a real copywriter or information designer, or the budget for video or quality images.

Redesigns often meant putting a nice slipcover over bad content. Garbage In, Garbage Out, in other words.

Thankfully, online content has improved vastly, but not completely. Chances are there is content in your site that is dated, ineffective, not visited, or not compatible with your brand or your users’ goals.

If you don’t take the steps to review, audit and improve your content before a platform migration and redesign, you’re not only perpetuating the GIGO rule, you’re skipping the most important step for creating a better user experience. Better content also means better SEO and higher conversion rates. Both of these outcomes are higher priorities than the internal efficiency you are gaining with a better CMS. Planning for a content-first approach to your site migration may be the most important line item in your budget.

Projects like these are often time-crunched and there’s always the temptation to look for shortcuts at every step of the way. There is a great tool for generating the content inventory that kicks off your analysis and planning, but the audit, developing a content strategy, and optimizing your content are all tasks that require skilled humans and time. And those activities are worth the effort in the long run if you are truly creating a content-first experience.

The content improvement process needs to happen early in your project. Your content strategist needs to be engaged early and work closely with the user experience architect as well as the technical team. The user experience needs to be informed by the content strategy so that the new site is structured to present the content your users need when they need it. You also need time to develop good content. This means not waiting until the site templates are in the CMS before you begin creating the new content.

Tools like GatherContent’s content development platform can help you manage your content creation workflow outside of your CMS and provide your writers with content authoring templates that align to the new site so they can begin writing before development begins. GatherContent and similar tools can even support export of your new content to the redesigned site depending on your CMS platform.

Because your content team is able to work early and independently of the site development, the process of revising or combining content and creating new content is less likely to jeopardize your site launch.

You may consider a content development platform tool if:

  • You need to start the content creation process before site development.
  • You want to avoid the risk of jeopardizing the launch if the content is not ready.
  • You have multiple content authors and need a tool and shared workspace to help with workflow and project management.
  • You hate tracking down and organizing separate Word files.
  • A significant portion of your site’s content is new or needing significant rework.
  • The chosen content development platform is compatible to export to your new CMS.
  • The new site’s content templates have a very different structure from the existing site.
  • You are creating all new content.

Steps you cannot automate regardless:

  • Content audit
  • Content strategy
  • Content-first UX planning
  • New content creation and content updates

All Content is Not Lost

Improving your site content is time-consuming and it takes budget and skill. This is why many clients want to focus their new and updated content efforts on the most valuable site pages like landing pages and those along the sales funnel or conversion paths.

Another way to lighten the weight of a content migration is to delete dated and underperforming content. But “out with the old and in with the new” may not cover all your migration needs. 

A lot of your content will stay the same especially if you have an active newsroom and hundreds of existing press releases to migrate. These content items are usually highly structured in how they are written, and it’s likely that the structure won’t change dramatically in the new site templates.  Automation may be the solution for this type of content.

Again, it depends.

Consider automation if:

  • Your site has hundreds of pages of content of one type such as press releases or news articles.
  • The current templates for these page types are very similar to the new templates, at least in the content area.
  • The cost of an automation tool plus about 15 minutes per page of QA and resource time is less than the cost of 15-40 minutes resource time per page to manually migrate the content. If your automation plan requires writing scripts, evaluate the developer time to create the scripts plus the manual QA and cleanup for each page against the all-manual effort.
  • You truly are re-platforming only and all the content is migrating as-is to the new site templates that match the current ones.
  • You are comfortable with this content migration taking place after the site is at least 80 percent developed and tested, and aware of any risks to the content migrated during the remaining development.

Even with automation, your team still needs to plan on some manual time for each page migrated. There are a few reasons for this. QA time is required to review each page, check links and formatting that may have not migrated perfectly. The existing content may have had typos or errors you can fix at this stage. And, finally, you may be wisely improving your SEO, or making your site’s taxonomy consistent, which means you’ll need to update the meta data for that existing content, too.

The Best of Both Worlds

Because brand new sites and “as-is only” migrations are less common, there’s a good chance that your project will involve both migration of existing content and the need to update and create new content. Both of the types of tools covered here offer significant advantages to support your migration.

The important thing is that there is no truly automated tool, and there may not be one single tool that does everything you need it to do for your site migration. You need to base your decision on which tool or tools will offer the best support for your specific project. No matter which tool or tools you use, your effort will still require significant manual effort.

 A few points to remember:

  • You will still have to allow for manual review of content from an automated migration.
  • Most sites require both new content and existing content in their migration.
  • Consider the timing you need for successful content migration; do you need to start before development or can you migrate late in the process without risks to the launch date?
  • Evaluate the ROI of an automated content migration tool versus manual migration carefully.
  • Be sure the tools you select can work with the CMS platform for your site.
  • There is no automated solution for good content strategy and user experience, but a content-first process sets your project up for success.

Additional Reading and Resources

For more on how to audit content pre-migration (or at any point in a content project), check out Strategic Content founder Paula Land's new book, Content Audits and Inventories: A Handbook

Tools mentioned in this post: