Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: Why remapping URLs is everyone's job in a web project

Over the last 14 years, the Jadu team (and now SPACECRAFT) have deployed hundreds of huge websites.

Some are bigger than others and way more complex - in multiple languages. The job of remapping old URLs to new ones is huge and it falls on our users, who understand their old website far better than we ever will - to lead on remapping. Historically, we have provided project management support (supporting our customers’ project managers) and on some occasions, we have provided technical support - where a customer identifies a way for us to part-automate the re-mapping process.

For the last few years, we’ve provided a spreadsheet to our customers (as a tool to help) so that they can remap the most important URLs based on their analytics. At best, this means customer will normally get through 100, perhaps 200–300 tops before they either run out of steam, or time — or both. This is a “half measure” and by no means even close to being an ideal solution.

As a provider, we supply CMS and Forms software and design services - our customers lead the implementation and are responsible for rolling out seamlessly. In truth, life is not black and white and in fact some of our customers, particularly those in UK Local Government, simply do not have the technical resources to manage what seems like an insignificant task. Many of our customers often rewrite, consolidate and remove large amounts of content when implementing a new CMS, so there is a lot to do — typically in a very short time frame.

In fact, URL remapping is a critical task and needs to be prioritised right up there with signing off a site design (or hopefully a style tile and wireframe with an iterated design), or any significant project milestone.

Some sites we replace with Jadu have tens of thousands of URLs — many of our well resourced customers create their own strategies for this — but what about those who don’t have the people, time and skills?  

There is a lot of great experience shared by GDS and others on the web about approaches to URL remapping as well as building a “transition tool” so site managers have the ability to manage their own redirects and archive links rather than relying on GDS to make changes.  As they rightly point out: “preserving URLs isn't just about being a good citizen of The Web, it's about putting users first.” That is something we really care about.

Adopting a formal ‘Content Strategy’

URLs always need management. At the beginning of a migration in particular, but also through the entire life-cycle of content management. If there is no adopted strategy for managing content (this is commonly missing) then URL management becomes an impossible task as an ongoing consideration. It’s essential that a solid content strategy exists that puts URL management at the forefront.

A content strategy needs to cover every process involved in managing your content and is far more than a simple style guide. Including a defined process for the management of URLs ensures that it will become a key element of your overall content governance - an integral step as fundamental as giving your pages clear, meaningful titles.

It is also worth keeping in mind that content is not just the pages you craft telling your users about your services - those 404 pages (and others) are content as well. Your content strategy should plan for the effective management of URLs in terms of both remapping, and presenting an effective user experience when a redirect is not possible.

The first steps to better management inside a Jadu project

We wanted to ensure that any new solution we create for customers balances ease of use for a business user (the primary objective of Jadu software) and technical best practice.

We plan to do four things in the first sprint of effort:

  1. Ensure that URL remapping is part of the content migration process. As content is created in the new Jadu CMS, we’ll make it easy for editors to identify the old URL. We will also grab all the old URLs from the previous CMS / website and generate a list so customers have a starting point.

  2. Build tools inside the Jadu Platform that ‘remove the spreadsheet’. We want to bake-in URL remapping. This tool can be used throughout the lifecycle of the website, whenever content is moved or deleted.

  3. Automate everything we can. We will build tools that help analyse the URL patterns of the old site and remap them to the respective new URLs. We’ll publish the scripts and tools on GitHub so they can be used anywhere.

  4. Ensure that post go-live, the web teams are continuing to analyse analytics and spotting any missed content that should have been migrated (looking at errors and 404s and taking appropriate action).

The obvious things — like managing 301 and 410 server response codes and handling 404s elegantly — we took as read as being basic knowledge in a project. This was a mistake, because many web teams within a project may not have implemented the previous CMS and may not have been involved in migrations before.

Mapping what’s important

We wanted to ensure that customers understood their user need and how that translates to something that we as a team (supplier of CMS software + customer web team) could look to and action:

Old URL prioritised by analytics Content migration is prioritised by most used content As page is created, remap
OLD URL New document or landing pages exists Send 301
OLD URL No new page exists, and will never exist Send 410 (with an explanation)
404s Analysis on why? Create new content, or explain & direct users to somewhere else that serves their need

Many web teams in Government (and occasionally in HigherEd) may also not have technical skills (i.e. they are customer services or communications teams). So, the single most important thing we will do, is to never take a customer's’ redirection strategies as a given, and for granted.

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