Building public facing websites on SharePoint 2013 – Part 1
March 10, 2013 4 Comments
Yesterday I had the great opportunity to present at the Perth leg of SharePoint Saturday for 2013. Overall the event was a resounding success – the turnout was reasonable considering it was the day of the state election and while the numbers may have fluctuated across the entire day, a number of sessions were well attended in all of the time slots. I had roughly 25 in my session which didn’t reach the great heights of my user group session on Harnessing Client-Side Technologies to Enhance your SharePoint Site however seemed a decent turnout considering there were 2 other quality sessions on at the same time and the overall numbers would have been less than the many which attend the monthly UG sessions.
After having some success with my previous session linked above I decided to follow the same presentation format – half an hour dedicated to slides and theory and another half hour dedicated to demonstrations. At the end of the day I probably whipped through the slides a little quicker than I expected which guaranteed I had enough time to finish off the 4 demo’s I had hoped to get through.
This post will run through the background to each slide shown below, then part 2 will give a run through of the steps and comments associated with each demonstration performed.
Building public facing websites on SharePoint 2013
The cover slide gave me an opportunity to thank everyone for supporting SharePoint Saturday in Perth and particularly choosing my session for the time slot – it’s definitely something I appreciate and is worth repeating in this post. I covered off a little bit about myself and explained my public facing website journey on SharePoint starting at Tourism on the now infamous westernaustralia.com website and various partner sites to my more recent experiences at the Department of Training and Workforce Development on various departmental and TAFE institution web sites – the most recent being developed on SharePoint 2013.
There were 2 main things I wanted to get out of my session – firstly I wanted to generate some excitement on the possibilities that existed around building public facing websites on SharePoint 2013 but also transfer some knowledge around the key areas which are often neglected when building an internet facing site. I wanted to cover off how each version of the platform performed in each area then explore the new and exciting features which exist for web content management on SharePoint 2013, backed up by a number of demonstrations on my favourite features.
Branding & UX
Most people think branding SharePoint is all about slicing and dicing images into Master Pages and Page Layouts – and while this is a large part of it, there are a number of other factors which should be considered for a successful site. Implementing Custom Error Pages is one factor which is often forgotten about and can make the difference between your site looking professional or incomplete. The client-side and search experience is another area which can transform your site from something which looks good to something which performs great.
Search Engine Optimisation
SEO is often neglected or considered as an afterthought once the website has already gone live and traffic is not up to expectations – it is a crucial factor to consider to maximise the number of visitors to your public facing site. The topic is worthy enough of a presentation of its own however I have a 3-part blog series on Search Engine Optimisation for SharePoint Sites and Ian McNeice has written a great global SEO strategy book which cover the details. The main takeaway from this slide was that effective SEO requires a 3-phased approach – identify the keywords and phrases which are most effective to optimise for, optimise your site for those keywords and phrases and finally think outside the box for ways in which you can drive traffic to your site – rating well in the search engines in merely one component to an overall strategy.
If SEO is all about bringing people to your site then Performance Optimisation is all about keeping them there. There are some great statistics and studies on the web which link bounce rates to page performance so it is most definitely an important factor to consider when building a site. There is a common misperception that SharePoint is inherently slow but that’s not a theory I subscribe to – a poorly developed and optimised site will perform badly on any platform – it’s just that SharePoint is easy to blame. Again this is another area in which an entire presentation could be dedicated and while I have another 3-part series on Performance Optimising SharePoint Sites the main takeaway was that while there are a number of generic and SharePoint-specific tasks you can target to optimise a site, there are also a number of great free tools available to benchmark and measure the performance of your pages including webpagetest.org, ySlow and Google Page Speed.
From a couple of topics which are often neglected or postponed to one which is often discarded completely. While it’s understandable how accessibility sometimes falls by the wayside due to its at-times difficult and time consuming implementation on SharePoint it’s interesting to note the time often dedicated to cross-browser compatibility for browsers with a lower percentage of use compared to the numbers that would benefit from an accessible site. This is particularly important for WA Government Organisations who have a mandate to ensure all websites are WCAG 2.0 compliant by the end of 2013. Vision Australia has written a great whitepaper on Achieving Accessibility in SharePoint 2010 which should be read for more information.
So how does each version of SharePoint fare in these areas? Before I start it’s important to point out that any discussion on Licensing is generic and ballpark – I’m no licensing expert and the numbers have been taken in US dollars and at the time they were relevant – see the hyperlinks for the source.
Licensing: MOSS was fairly expensive to host public facing sites. At roughly 40k per internet server plus external connector licenses and with best practice guidance recommending a staging server with content deployment to production you can quickly see how even with a small web farm of 2 front end web servers and an application server how costs would add up.
Branding: Nothing to write home about here – we had ASP.NET 2.0 Master Pages and Page Layouts but that’s about it. Guidance was low in the early days, the starter master pages had yet to become mainstream. Custom Error Pages (other than 404) were particularly difficult to implement. jQuery had yet to take hold which left us with the AJAX toolkit and UpdatePanels which unfortunately required a number of manual web.config modifications to get working. MOSS for internet sites required an enterprise license, so at least we had enterprise search.
SEO: Practically non-existent. Even targeting the most basic of generic techniques generally required custom development.
Accessibility: If SEO was bad then accessibility was worse. View source of a MOSS-hosted site and you’ll see table hell – I pity anyone who had the task of getting MOSS 2007 accessible.
Things were a little better in 2010, this is generally how it measured up:
Licensing: While we were no worse of in 2010, we weren’t really much better off either. Enterprise internet servers were still around the 40k ballpark although the external connectors were a bit cheaper. We did have the ability to purchase Standard licenses for internet sites which would be about 25% of the price – however there were a few caveats which often meant this wasn’t feasible, particularly the inability to host multiple domains on the server.
Branding: The Master Page and Page Layout story was the same, however there was far more information available plus the starter master pages had become widely used. jQuery had taken off and there were a number of blog posts regarding how to include it in SharePoint and a number of plugins which could be leveraged, and if you were still stuck with the AJAX toolkit then at least it was supported out of the box. We had the option of using FAST search for internet sites (for an additional license cost) which gave some flexibility around search. The custom error page story was much better – far easier to implement across the board compared to SharePoint 2007.
SEO: Unfortunately much the same – custom development was still required.
Accessibility: Thankfully much better – SharePoint 2010 launched with the goal to being WCAG 2.0 AA compliant and while it didn’t quite get there, the HTML rendered was much cleaner (aside from the tables generated by web part zones) and there was guidance around making 2010 completely compliant via the whitepaper I’ve mentioned above.
Definitely the best of the bunch which is no surprise considering I dedicated an entire presentation to it.
Licensing: While there may be no official licensing details available, a number of sources suggest that the licensing for 2013 will be far more affordable. No longer do we need internet server licenses – an enterprise license with internal CALs will suffice. FAST search is now also inbuilt rather than being an additional licensing requirement.
Branding: Has changed completely in 2013. While we can still use the tried and true method of Master Pages and Page Layouts in our VS solutions, we now have the Design Manager which puts the power into the Designer’s hand and removes the need to have SharePoint developers implementing branding. There is also webdav support to connect to the master page gallery directly with an ability to edit linked HTML files which will automatically update the associated master page. A custom 404 page is provisioned and editable straight out of the box in 2013 and the other error pages are just as easy to implement as 2010.
SEO: Finally the platform has treated SEO with the respect it deserves – a number of generic SEO requirements being available straight out of the box.
Accessibility: The HTML markup is cleaner again, web part zones no longer rendering out tables. I’m unsure if 2013 is completely WCAG 2.0 compliant however if it is not, it would definitely take less effort to ensure that it was.
New Features for WCM in SP2013
A large number of new features exist for web content management in SharePoint 2013 however these are the ones I believe will be the most useful for building public facing sites.
Pasting content directly from word: Previously the experience of pasting content directly from word was a painful one – embedded styles would remain and cause certain pages to look completely different from the rest of the site’s style. This new ability will remove the need to use notepad as a go-between when pasting content from word to SharePoint.
Image renditions: This feature is getting a lot of airplay currently over the web and for good reason – it’s a great new feature. Essentially allowing you to upload one larger image and create different ‘renditions’ of the image at different dimensions, this feature will be great for mobile versions of websites which will allow a smaller file-sized image to be downloaded for rendering. Requires the BLOB cache to be enabled.
Cross-site publishing: Another highly useful feature in SP2013. Allows content to be published from one site collection to another. Many practical uses include separating editing/publishing environments, variations and particularly relevant for myself and government departments who host multiple sites – being able to share content between them while maintaining the individual branding of each department’s site.
Managed navigation / friendly URLs: My favourite feature of the lot – managed navigation is a step away from the structured navigation we’ve grown accustomed to. Allows you to define a taxonomy hierarchy which will drive navigation. Most importantly it allows you to implement friendly URLs which users have been crying out for for some time but also allows you to decouple structure from navigation ensuring you no longer have to create numerous sub-sites just to position a particular page at a given URL.
Design Manager + Device-specific targeting: While I mentioned the Design Manager previously, another great feature is device-specific targeting. This allows you to use the same pages and content but recognise the device accessing it so you can use different master pages and styles to render that content – highly valuable for mobile sites.
SEO features: Some search engine optimisation techniques are now available out of the box which is fantastic news for those building public facing websites on SharePoint 2013.
WCM Feature Demos
Refer to Building public facing websites on SharePoint 2013 – Part 2 for a run through of the demonstrations which were performed in this session and some of the comments surrounding them.
Questions? Comments? More info..
While no questions were asked on the day it probably had as much to do with the session running its full hour and lunch having already been served rather than the presentation being so comprehensive that no questions were necessary! If anyone has any questions or comments feel free to leave them on this post or get in touch with me directly.
Thanks for listening
And thanks for reading! It was a pleasure being able to present this session on such a great day at such a well organised event, Brian Farnhill and the team did a great job putting everything together, the sponsors came on board to offer a great venue, food and prizes for the day and I look forward to being a part of it sometime again in the future.