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Change Content Management System with Extreme Caution

Content management systemsChanging a site’s content management system is the path to greater online glory or the path to online obscurity.

The decision to change a CMS brings with it a high risk of major problems that could result in a large decline in site audience and revenue.

The decision to change may be valid and even simple. The reasons include:

  • High licensing costs with the current CMS
  • Poor customer service from its vendor
  • The vendor went bankrupt
  • Another system has more appeal
  • A new publisher or manager simply likes something else they used at a previous job (which happens fairly often)

The most common approach to making the change depends on whether the site has a staff of one or many.

A lone-wolf operation means that lone wolf is probably a jack of all trades and a master of none.

He or she may be stronger in technology than marketing or vice versa. But it is critical to bring both elements into the project management process.

If it’s a larger staff, management often makes the decision and then tells the technology people to make the change. They may leave product and marketing people largely out of the process.

That’s where the pain often begins.

Biggest Mistake in Changing CMS

The single biggest mistake in changing the CMS involves alterations to the site architecture, which often result in a large loss of audience because the different architecture blows away the pages that are indexed in search engines.

Once a search engine can no longer reach the page in its index, using the path in its index, it will identify it as an error. A high number of crawl errors may result in a penalty in search results for that site.

A good example of a changing architecture comes with WordPress, the most popular free CMS in the world.

A standard WordPress implementation has templates that use categories and tags.

For WordPress, the word category is synonymous with section or channel. The typical path to a category index page has the word “category” in the first segment of the URL followed by the category name in the second, i.e., mysite.com/category/category_name.

Likewise, the typical path for a tag page, which is really a subsection, is mysite.com/tag/tag_name.

Let’s say someone makes the decision to switch from WordPress to another CMS such as ExpressionEngine.

ExpressionEngine doesn’t have default templates with those names. It does have categories, but the categories are used more for subsections than sections.

In other words, the word category has a different meaning for WordPress than for ExpressionEngine.

Someone who builds an ExpressionEngine site isn’t forced to use the word category before creating a section index page. So the typical ExpressionEngine section path is mysite.com/section_name.

That means it is critically important for someone making the switch to use the exact same paths and not be drawn into setting up a site according to the default software specifications.

If the above site is being built in ExpressionEngine, it must have the path mysite.com/category/section_name whether the site manager wants it or not in order to protect its presence in the search engine indexes. (More on how to avoid that problems can be found below.)

For sites that do end up with different architecture and paths, it is not uncommon to see audience declines of 30 percent or more along with corresponding declines in ad revenue.

Tips on Changing a CMS

Based on the above real-life experiences, it is obvious that implementing the same architecture is essential when moving to a new content management system.

If that is not possible for some reason, or part of the structure is changing, a few additional steps are necessary:

  • Use the webmaster tools in both Google and Bing to delete URLs that are going away and submit any new ones.
  • Use 301 redirects in the .htaccess file or via a similar tool in the content management system to direct visitors from the old paths to the new ones.
  • If there are numerous paths to change, use analytics software to identify the ones with the highest search traffic, prioritize the list based on total traffic and redirect each page starting with the highest audience.

Once the CMS has been changed, go through the above tools to identify any missed opportunities and fix them as soon as possible. The Bing and Google webmaster tools both have crawl error reports that will identify any problems that need to be fixed.

Because the indexes don’t update everything immediately, it’s necessary to check the webmaster tools over a period of at least weeks if not months to identify new problems.

Following the above steps will ensure a smooth transition from one CMS to another and reduce the risk of large declines in audience and revenue.

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