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FEATURE: Got Site Problems? It May Be Time for a Migration

by Jessica Lee, October 17, 2012

Audience: Site owners

Estimated reading time:  7 minutes

Takeaways:

  • A site migration can mean many things, from simply moving hosting providers all the way to a redesign and new content management system. 
  • Site migrations pose many unique operational and technical challenges that must be managed well.
  • Take a 10-step, repeatable approach to your migrations for success.

Many of you might be experiencing limitations on your current website including anything from the inability to make updates to your site to an outdated design to the need for new functionality or trouble with your search engine rankings. What you might not know is the back end of your site, your content management system, could be one of the main drivers of many of these limitations. Enter a site migration.

A site migration has many meanings, and could be as simple as moving your hosting to a new company, or as complicated as a redesign and entirely new system. From large sites to small sites and everything in between, a site migration can help breath new life into your site and prep it for more visibility and flexibility to make updates.

Mark Knowles is CEO of Pixelsilk, a company that created the first SEO-friendly CMS. He and his team have performed thousands of site migrations and today, he's going to talk about when you're a good candidate for a site migration, some of the operational and technical challenges, and a how-to approach it if you're thinking about doing one yourself.

(You can also download your complimentary step-by-step ebook, “Migrate Your Site in 10 Steps,” by going to Pixelsilk.com/migrate.)

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Jessica Lee: What is a site migration?

Mark Knowles: The word “migrate” as it relates to your site can mean a number of things. To us, a site migration is made up of anything from a physical server migration like switching hosting companies or switching to a new content management system.

A site migration can even mean something more abstract like switching your overall strategy for your site. You might decide the website is in this “place” that no longer serves the business well anymore. It may have worked five years ago, but times have changed. This almost always prompts companies to add new functionality, a new look and feel and new marketing tactics.

The more complex migrations usually have all of the elements I just talked about.

What are some of the problems companies might be facing where a site migration is the solution, but they may not know it yet?

There are multiple reasons folks might find themselves wanting to do a site migration. One scenario is where technical staff “owns” the website. Historically, they might have been the only people who understood how to manipulate the site.

But today, modern successful websites are being managed by the marketing department because it’s the most important touch point for your business.

Another reason is if your organic SEO efforts are being hindered. When the code behind your website is messy, it can hinder a search engine spider from understanding what the website is about.

That’s a big deal if you’re trying to get organic search engine traffic. When you migrate your site, you have an opportunity to clean that up, and make certain the new site is crawlable.

What are some of the challenges of migrating a site on an operational level?

On an operational level, if you’re adding new functionality to the site during the migration or you’re redesigning it, project management is very important. You have to think about how you are going to rally everyone who has a stake in the site to contribute ideas about what’s important to the business online. At the same time, you have to be able to know how to strip that list down to realistic and attainable goals.

One challenge in this phase is when you need to communicate the new look and functionality of the site for approval. After the research has been done and before you create the design, you should create wireframe mockups so everyone can get on the same page of where you’re headed.

But where this can get side tracked is when people get caught up on the details of the wireframe and treat it like a design. As the project manager, you have to make sure you manage the mockup so it’s abstract enough where people don’t get caught up on the colors, the font, the logo or anything else that takes their attention away from approving the general direction of the new site.

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You should stay focused on the visitor interaction and make sure it represents the new goals of the site that everyone agreed upon. It’s a delicate balance, and operationally, there needs to be a leader in the site migration – even if it’s a small site.

What are some of the technical challenges of a site migration?

One is that you have all this existing content on your site and traffic patterns, and you need to be able to understand what those things are before you go moving them around. First is to identify the assets to make sure they are preserved and carried through in the site migration. During this research, you can also find out which elements of the site are not helping, and leave those behind.

This is an important step because if you migrate the site without looking at your assets, it could cost you traffic or conversions or some element of user experience.

And you might not have that skill set in house to be able to do that. It’s possible that you will need some outside help to take an objective look at the data and your content, and show your team what’s important and what’s not.

How do the migration challenges differ for sites of various sizes? 

Smaller sites usually have fairly simple site migrations because the problem set is a lot smaller by nature. You can wrap your head around small site migrations a lot easier. Larger sites could have a dozen different connecting systems and someone has to make sure all of them make it over to the new site’s home seamlessly.

And on the larger sites, instead of just moving the content with a site editor type role, you might need a database programmer to take a look at the database format and programmatically move content from one system to another. (That’s under the assumption that you’re changing your CMS.)

And when you have a complex map that moves your content from one system to another, it’s not usually complete with the move. Usually, you move the content, see what it looks like after it lands and then refine the process from there.

You and your team have come up with a repeatable approach to site migrations, what does that look like?

We have a 10-step approach to site migrations that looks something like this:

  1. Set goals for the new site. This is where all the stakeholders of a site brainstorm companywide what they want the new site to do, without limitations holding them back.
  2. Research phase. This is where the site is examined from all angles to identify assets and liabilities to decide what stays and what can be left behind.
  3. Create the concept for the site. This is where functionality and other important details of the site will be communicated in a simple way via wireframe mockups for the approval process. This happens before the design and build portion of the new site.
  4. Design the site’s new look. This is where you work with designers to communicate how the news site will look and feel. The end product is something that should support your brand moving forward and be as search engine-friendly as possible.
  5. Build the site’s shell in preparation for migration. This is where Web developers build the shell (the site templates or themes without content) in preparation for migrating content. When done right, the new code will be search engine-friendly so that when your site is live, you can reap the benefits of your organic Web marketing.
  6. Train staff on the new system (if applicable). Usually the goal of using a new CMS is that all the roles within your company who need to update your site can easily do so. In this step, you make sure everyone knows how to maintain the new site.
  7. Migrate content from the old site to the shell. This is the heart of the project, where all the content moves to its new home. As simple as it sounds, there are a lot of moving parts that need to be managed well.
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  9. Test the new site. Once the site is pieced together, you must test and test, and test some more. You want to make sure everything looks and functions well before you go live, including making sure there aren’t’ any broken links. We use an extensive checklist for this step.
  10. Launch the new site. This is the day when you swap the DNS, implement redirects, and make the new site go live. It’s a team effort, so it’s best if everyone involved has hours set aside to focus only on going live. There’s also an extensive checklist associated with launch day that we like to use.
  11. Web marketing after the site goes live. Your site is ready to gain visibility by the search engines and your audience. Web marketing is an important part of keeping your site healthy and growing.

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