Do You Know the Way? SharePoint Navigation Woes

Aloha from Hawaii! I’m actually home for six days—just long enough to do laundry and repack—before heading out for the SharePoint and Exchange Forum (SEF) in Stockholm next week, SharePoint Connections in Amsterdam the following week, with three full-day workshops for AvePoint  and Microsoft and a visit to a huge telecom in between. Should make for a great learning experience.

Also hope to head out for an expensive Swedish beer with my friends at SpecOps to explore the things they’ve been doing with their great Windows deployment and management software. I know this column is about SharePoint, but knowing just how many companies are rolling out Windows 7 and Office 2010 as part of their SharePoint implementations, I highly recommend you take a quick look at SpecOps because what they do will absolutely make those tasks easier!

Last week was Vegas, baby, where I managed to keep a nasty flu-bug just enough at bay to teach and present for two solid days. The SharePoint Connections crowd is a fun one—a great mix of audiences and experience levels—and I found two things quite interesting. First, the event drew far more business-oriented SharePoint pros than in the past—a sure sign that SharePoint is maturing beyond a technical solution to a business-critical Tier I application.

Second, there were a number of folks there that had not even heard that Microsoft threw the gigantic SharePoint Conference just a few weeks earlier! Sometimes we in the SharePoint community get so wrapped up in our own buzz that it’s a bit jarring to get a reality check about the vast numbers of people who rely on SharePoint every day but who are not dialed so closely into the community. I think it would be an interesting discussion to figure out how to reach these large audiences of IT Pros, devs, project managers, business owners and end users of SharePoint.

Complex SharePoint Implementation

One of the discussions that came up more than a few times at SharePoint Connections was just how painful it is to manage navigation across a complex SharePoint implementation. That’s what I’d like to address this week—navigation—and I’d like to put out a call for help and recommendations to find out what approach you have taken.

Over the years, enterprises have learned the hard way that there is a serious gap between manageability and navigability in SharePoint. In order to support diverse information management, service management, and functional requirements, you are almost always pushed beyond one web application and one site collection, for reasons I’ve discussed in many articles and presentations.

The problem is that as soon as you have more than one site collection, all kinds of things become more difficult—navigation being one of them. SharePoint’s default navigation is adjusted automatically as new sites, lists and libraries are added to a site collection, but there is no good way to provide navigation across site collections, let alone across web applications or farms—for example, on-prem and cloud farms.

There’s not a week that goes by that someone doesn’t ask me how to solve the navigation gap. It’s one of the top pain points I hear about. Most often, organizations work around this gap with tricks I’ll share. These solutions aren’t ideal, are difficult to scale, and aren’t slick, but they work and are surprisingly common.

At the higher levels of an information architecture—think about your intranet, for example—there are fairly well-defined nodes in any site map, for example business units and departments. These nodes are relatively stable, although of course reorganizations do happen occasionally, but the relative stability allows many organizations to “hard wire” the navigation between web applications and site collections that comprise the higher levels of a site map.

Modify Navigation Elements

You can modify the navigation elements—the top link bar (also called the global navigation) and the Quick Launch—in the Site Settings of a site. This allows you to link from your corporate intranet pages to the home pages of site collections for business units or departments.

One lesser-known trick is how to provide navigation BACK to the intranet home page. You can certainly modify the master page to provide a link from the site logo that appears in the upper-left corner back to the intranet home page.

But you can also use the site navigation icon that appears next to the Site Actions button. The icon for the site navigation is a folder. When you click the button, a breadcrumb-like tree appears to show you your current location within the site collection. From the Site Settings page, you can add the Portal Site Connection.

This adds a link at the top of the site navigation, and the link can point anywhere you’d like. I often use this to link back "up" to the previous level of the site map. You do have to train users to look for and use the tiny, easily-missed button.

After hard-wiring the links between the top levels of your site map, you will get to a level of depth that is more dynamic—site collections for individual teams, projects, and meetings. Hard-wiring links into page navigation can get trickier at this level because of the breadth and frequent changes at these lower levels.

Many organizations turn to a simple "links list"—an out-of-box links list—with friendly names and URLs to site collections and sites. You can pimp up such a list by adding permissions to each link, equivalent to the users who have access to the site itself, so that users only see links to the sites that they can actually access. Just be aware of the scalability limits of item-level permissions (2,000 unique permissions in a list).

Take this to the next level by adding a managed metadata column to the list, and create a navigation term set to help filter sites by type by adding metadata-based navigation to the list. Or, instead of a standard links list, pimp up the list with site information and use a hierarchical term set to present the navigation of your farm (again with metadata-based navigation) so that users actually navigate the metadata-based navigation folder tree to drill down to an item about the site they seek.

Of course, the challenge at this point becomes keeping such a list up-to-date. The best answer to that, for many organizations, is to simply include an update to the SharePoint navigation when new site collections and web applications are provisioned. This could be automated with Windows PowerShell—the same script that creates the site collection can add a link to the navigation.

Final Frontier: Develop You Own Navigation Solution

The final frontier would be to develop your own navigation solution—either a data-driven navigation, a service application, or a search-based navigation solution. Or pull out your wallet and acquire a third-party navigation solution.

Cross your fingers that Microsoft addresses this scenario—completely, including cross-farm—in the next version of SharePoint! Until then, there are a few third party navigation solutions out there. But honestly, I’ve not yet had time to evaluate them or develop a solution myself, so I’m curious to hear how you have provided navigation in your organization. Write me at [email protected] with your stories!

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