Why say no to the madness of content migration

If there is one phrase that fills me with dread it is “content migration”. The idea that you might want to migrate all the content from an old site to a new one boggles my mind. To refresh an entire website, but ignore the content, has to be a sign of madness!

Why content migration sucks

A policy of content migration is to ignore the issue of content on your website and that is to ignore user needs. It is the content and functionality that caters to those needs, not the design. You may able to bump conversion rates slightly with design improvements alone. You might even be able to improve usability to some extent. But it will take changes to the content to make any kind of real difference.

Even if you update your information architecture and re-organise the content, things are likely to fail. The result will be a mismatch between the content and its structure. All this is going to do is break the user journey around your site.

Many large institutional sites like Universities are tempted by content migration
Many large institutional sites like Universities suffer from large amounts of 'ROT'.

Image from Placeit

Failing to address content in a redesign means that your shiny new website inherits the problems from your old one. You will have a bloated website full of redundant, out of date or trivial content. Content that you should be removing.

Of course getting people to remove content is hard. Different people own different pieces of content. Getting agreement is a logistical nightmare. But that said, you will never have a better opportunity than a site redesign. This is the one time people are open to change.

Overcoming the challenges of rejecting content migration

You might be thinking you have no choice. That your site is so large and unwieldy that you could not audit everything. That without that, you could not decide whether content should stay or go. You might be thinking that the political battles would be too huge. That telling a colleague you are removing their content, while keeping others, is insurmountable. These are all good points.

But what if you started from scratch? What if instead of deciding what to remove you removed everything? You then don’t have to audit what you already have. Your political fights are less too. After all everybody is receiving equal treatment. Everybody is having their content removed.

Now I know what you are thinking. You couldn’t write content from scratch for a site as big as yours. But here is the thing, your site doesn’t need to be that big. In fact it doesn’t need to be anywhere near that big. When the European Commission reviewed their content they ended up removing 80% of it.

The European Commission decided against content migration and instead reduced their content by 80%.
The European Commission removed a staggering 80% of its content.

Take a moment to look at your analytics. I bet the vast majority of traffic only hits a fraction of your pages. I also bet that if your site is big there is an enormous proportion of pages that are rarely if ever viewed. In truth 80% of your audience only needs 20% of your content. So cut the rest. At least to start with. You can always add content back in later if there is a proven case.

By starting from scratch you change the default. Instead of having to argue for every page that you want to remove, others have to argue for every page they want to add. That is a much healthier starting point.

A process for starting from scratch

Instead of migrating content, start by understanding what questions your users have. What tasks they want to complete. Carry out a top task exercise, run user surveys and talk to front line stuff. Also be sure to look at what people search on within your site. All this will give you a list of every question users have and which questions are most important.

Next write the answer to each of those questions in priority order. By starting with the most important questions you can launch early and add more questions in later.

The Government Digital Service builds its sites around user questions.
The Government Digital Service builds its sites around user questions.

Feel free to reference the old content for inspiration. But the primary aim is to answer those questions, not create an online brochure promoting the business.

With the biggest questions answered and a list of the others you can now begin to organise them alongside any functional tasks. Carry out some card sorting exercises to ensure the structure reflects the users thinking. Their thinking not your organisational structure.

Once you have done all that you can then relaunch. Sure there will be content missing, questions unanswered. But you can always add more later by monitoring what users are asking and responding with answers on the website.

The result will be a more focused website. One focused on user needs and one where answers are easier to find. But also a site that is much easier to maintain and evolve over time. Now that is more sensible than the madness of content migration!

Chris Lake over at Search Engine Watch has raised the issue of SEO associated with removing old content. Although I can see where he is coming from I don't believe this has to be a huge issue. As Chris himself said in his post there is a lot you can do to mitigate the risk. But where that is not the case there are alternatives to completely deleting legacy content from the web. Instead we can still start afresh and downgrade that legacy content to being archived. How exactly this could work is discussed in a previous post I wrote.

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