Do SharePoint Hub sites seem ineffective and of little benefit?
With the right approach, hub sites can transform your intranet from a random collection of seemingly unrelated sites and content to a sleek, purpose driven space where content is easy to find and collaboration is supercharged. How do you achieve this? We are going to dive into the building blocks that make up a SharePoint Hub Site strategy.
How do hubs work in SharePoint Online?
SharePoint Hub Sites provide a way to organise and connect related sites. With this, it promotes collaboration, information sharing and a consistent user experience. Here is how they work:
- Hub Site Creation – A site is declared as a special type of site that will serve as the centrepiece, or parent, for a group of connected sites. This can be done by a site owner directly from the site or by a SharePoint Administrator in the SharePoint admin center.
- Hub Navigation – A new navigation structure is added to the site declared as the hub, referred to as the hub or ‘global’ navigation. This navigation is displayed across all sites associated to the hub.
- Branding & Theming – By setting the branding and theming on the hub site, all sites associated with the hub will automatically inherit the same branding and theming.
- Site Association – Once your hub site has been created, you can associate existing team sites or communication sites with the hub site. When you have associated a site to a hub site, it becomes a child site and will inherit the navigation, branding, and theming of the hub (parent) site. Hub site association can be done by a site owner directly from their site or by a SharePoint Administrator from the SharePoint admin center.
Here is an example of a company with 3 hubsites in orange (Sales, EMEA, & HR), each with several sites associatedwith them (green for communication sites and blue for team sites):
Now that we know the basics of how tocreate a hub site and associate to a hub site, let’s look at some points youneed to consider when planning your hub site strategy.
1 – SharePoint Hub Site Strategy - Site Definitions
It’s important to know what types of sites are at your disposal, as well as the driving purpose of each type of site that you consider adding to any SharePoint hub. In SharePoint we have two modern site types; a Team Site and a Communication Site. Whilst these site types share most functionality their purpose is subtly different:
- Team Site - A collaborative space for teams of people to work together; think department, workgroup, or project teams.
- Communication Site – Publish information to a broad audience of people, potentially your entire organization.
So where do hub sites fall into the equation? A hub site is a communication site or team site that has been specifically declared as hub site, giving it the enhanced hub site functionality. The trick is choosing the right site type for the main goal of your hub site:
- Team Site Hub - Content, collaboration, and solutions targeted at a smaller, defined audience, think of a department with its various internal projects.
- Communication Site Hub - Content, collaboration, and solutions intended for a broad audience and owned by a small, defined group,think company policies and procedures.
2 – SharePoint Hub Site Strategy - Structure
One of the first temptations when considering implementing hub sites is to have one hub to rule them all. This can be a disastrous strategy as this creates complicated navigation requirements, surfacing relevant content is impossible, it diminishes your search benefits of hubs, and you end up with an intranet akin to one without hubs implemented.
A multi-hub approach is best because it helps create groups of sites and content related to logical concepts that your organization will be able to easily follow. You can still have a central or ‘main’ hub, also known as a SharePoint Home Site, that will be the face of your intranet but you will also have hubs that help group content in the following ways:
- Geographical - When your organisation is based over multiple geographies, it can be useful to create hubs that pool resources relevant to that particular location.
- Functional - a hub driven by the function it is related to, think of sites and resources related to a particular function in your organisation, such as HR or IT.
- Project - a hub that brings together all the sites and resources related to a particular project in your organisation.
- Solution - a hub that pulls together various SharePoint solution sites, such as contracts management or company policies and procedures, to make them easily accessible.
3 - SharePoint Hub Site Strategy – Permissions
Permissions management is a key factor in any solution, whether it’s your intranet or even just a simple project site. If not considered with care at the start of your process, it can quickly unravel and you will end up with a complex matrix of permissions that no one fully understands.
How can we use hubs to avoid permission spaghetti?
Hub sites can sync their permissions down to all sites associated with them. This means that, if you want a particular group of users to have read-only access to the hub and all associated sites, you can add them to the hub as visitors and the hub will manage the rest. This is great, right? Well, not always. There are many cases when, even though a site belongs to a hub, the information within that site is sensitive and should not be available to everyone that has access to the hub itself. This is a key factor to keep in mind when considering utilizing the hub permissions functionality.
- Central management of permissions - Central location to administer access for many associated sites.
- Automatic inheritance - Hub permissions are automatically added to each new site associated with the hub.
- Traditional view of permissions - The has the feel of old school SharePoint, with intranets built with subsites instead of the newer flat information architecture that Microsoft has been advocating.
- Permissions remain in place - When removing a site’s association from a hub, the inherited permissions remain, meaning that you could still be giving unintentional access to your site.
- Change from a 3-category permission model - Modern SharePoint sites have 3 neat categories to sort your permission into (‘Owners’, ‘Members’, and ‘Visitors’), the hub site inherited permissions do not show in any of these but rather the old school SharePoint permissions menu.
4 - SharePoint Hub Site Strategy – Search
One of the biggest benefits of using hubs is discoverability of content relevant to the person searching. When searching for content, traditionally, you would need to go to the site where the content is located or use the global search.
Hub sites provide a step in-between the granular search of sites and the broad global search by providing collections of information to search from. Let’s look at a breakdown of the three types of search and their strengths and weaknesses:
When you’re searching for content, you may know where the content should be but just notable to pinpoint the location inside the site you believe it’s in. When this is the case, site search will delivery fast and effective results.
When you’re not sure in which site the content is, site search falls short as its often a process of elimination through each site that does have the content you’re looking for. This takes time and is ineffective.
Sometimes you have no clue where the content you’re looking for could be, maybe it’s in your OneDrive, maybe it’s in a team site, who knows? In these cases, global search is the tool you need. Far reaching, it’s able to deliver the content you need only if you have accurate enough search terms.
When you don’t have specific enough phrasing, however, the strength of global search becomes its weakness. Depending on the site of your organization and intranet, that could be hundreds or even thousands of unique locations. This means that the search results may be too broad and pick up similar results to what you’re looking for but not the exact thing you’re looking for.
Hub Search – the hybrid
How does a hub help with search? When set up correctly, it slots in neatly between site search and global search by grouping sites and information together in a meaningful way for your users. This means that, when a user wants to find something, if they don’t know which site it’s in, they have an additional step before using global search, to help narrow and produce more relevant results. For this reason, it’s important not to take the single hub approach and rather create clear categories of content with your hubs.
5 - SharePoint Hub Site Strategy – Look & Feel
Now that we are armed with the types of sites we can use as hubs, how to use hub permissions, as well as the structural concepts that can drive a hub’s purpose, we can look at major visual benefits of implementing a hub. This can be divided into 2 major categories:
The navigation that you build on your hub site is automatically inherited by all sites associated with it. This means that the navigation is a critical component in ensuring the usability and success of your hub site.
You will need to ensure that the navigation is intuitive and allows users to easily navigate between sites and find the information they need. Clear and consistent navigation enhances usability and saves time for employees.
When building useful navigation, less is often more. Not everything needs to be a link on the hub site navigation. When navigation contains too many items, it loses value for the user and, therefore, the hub itself.
Below, we have an example the Sales and Marketing site, a Teams Site Hub Site:
- 1 - The first row of navigation displays the hub site navigation that all associated sites will automatically inherit.
- 2 - The second row of navigation, or quick navigation, is unique to the Sales and Marketing site:
Below we have an example of the U.S. Sales site, a Team Site that has been associated with the Sales and Marketing hub site. The top row of navigation has been inherited from Sales and Marketing whilst the quick navigation (left) is unique to the U.S. Sales site:
A major benefit of using hub sites is the ability to implement consistent branding across all associated sites, reinforcing a cohesive brand identity and giving a professional look and feel to your sites. The key branding elements available on a hub site are logo, colours and fonts.
You can uniquely brand each of your hubs to ensure that it’s easy to identify which hub your site or content is stored in and give you an idea of the purpose or use of those assets.
Now that we have all the different areas of our SharePoint Hub Site strategy and we’re ready to implement our new, supercharged intranet structure, we need to take a step back and take a moment to remember that:
Not everything belongs in a hub
Whilst hubs will help you organise your intranet and help you simplify the experience both for admins and for users, not every site needs to belong to a hub.
Consistency is key
The flipside of the previous point is that when onboarding new sites, one should ask the question of which hub should it belong to. It then needs to be associated with the required hub as a part of the creation process to ensure that the hubs and their content remain relevant to the users.
Nothing is set in stone
Whilst planning to implement your hubs and associating the sites to them, one needs to be mindful that, just like any business, the hubs and their sites need to be flexible. As the organization changes, so will departmental responsibility, content ownership, and hub site association.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Users need to know what each hub’s purpose is and the copy of that hub site needs to reflect that clearly on the homepage. Along with this clear purpose, each hub needs to be assigned owners and those owners should be displayed on the homepage of the hub so users know who to contact, should they have questions.