The Ins & Outs of SharePoint Navigation

How do you make SharePoint look like one integrated site? It is a bunch of loosely coupled silos and you need a design pattern that ties them all together.

By Cathy Dew

Out of the box what are you getting?

SharePoint’s primary construction blocks are Site Collections and their child sites. These software pyramids are self-contained and only loosely tied in bundles via associations with the Tenant Level Term Store and the Content Syndication Hub. Even when customizing Search, you’ll find that the Site Collections have their own set of Crawled and Managed Properties that can override or be updated by the tenant level properties. Under the covers SharePoint is a very decentralized configuration, so how do you create the look and feel of an integrated site with each site collection wanting to “go its own way”?

Site Collections versus Sites

The old way was to build a monolithic site collection and have everyone build a subsite for every conceivable need. With SharePoint Online, you want to avoid the monolithic approach and “go flat”. The rule of thumb is new security model, then build a new site collection. Now this is not a hard and fast rule, but if you plan on breaking inheritance more than twice within a site collection, you definitely want to make a new site collection either at the first or second break.

These changes in design are important within the SharePoint Online world to make sure your SharePoint experience is as fast as possible. The less SharePoint Online has to calculate your security rights the better the performance.

Design & Governance

The first step is to build out a standard navigation that can be shared among all your public site collections. Does your company revolve around locations, or departments as key organizational units? Do you want to be Corporate Focused? Local Focused? Or Employee Focused? Do you have Business Applications and Online Services that need to be available within 2 clicks?

The key here is to identify the high traffic / high visibility areas inside and outside of your SharePoint Environment and build out a navigation structure that is clear, concise, and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance once designed. Also, it’s important to understand that the standard / shared navigation is not security trimmed, and all visitors will see all menu options.

The you need to aggressively enforce this master navigation with your Site Collection Admins. There is always the desire with Admins to tweak, update, and rework navigation to suit the local Site Collection needs.

Build out of the Master Navigation

In order to make sure the master navigation is centralized, we always recommend putting the corporate wide navigation within the SharePoint Term Store. You can create a node called “navigation” and build all your term sets there, setting up the parent and child relationships. We also recommend that you don’t go deeper than 2 or 3 levels and nor more than 5 on top and 8 – 10 per child. While MegaMenus are nice, SharePoint doesn’t support that design out of the box.

The next part is tedious but necessary you need to create a “pinned” Term Set for each Site Collection that uses the Master Navigation as its source. As we discussed above, each Site Collection is stand alone and because of this you need to have a Navigation Term Set for each Site Collection. When you create a pinned Term Set, you have a Term Set that is read-only, and when the Master Navigation is updated, all the pinned term sets are also updated.

Once you have the Term Store navigation built, you need configure each SharePoint site collection to use that as the new pinned term store navigation via Site Settings :: Navigation. Yes, you have to touch each site collection individually, but this only needs to be done once. And you need to have these steps in your setup documentation for each new Public Site Collection you build.

We did a webinar last year "You Say Managed, I Say Structured -- Digging into SharePoint Navigation" that talks about concepts and rationale. Or you can check out the transcript for that webinar.

Taking into account the local navigation needs

Now that you have a standard navigation at the top, the side navigation becomes the local site navigation. With the side navigation (SharePoint calls it Quick Links), the auto-generated items are security trimmed and only show those links the current visitor is allowed to see. The local Site Collection Administrator can manage the side navigation so that it reflects the needs of the departmental or project site.

The current challenge with SharePoint Online is the display of the site navigation, which is different depending on the interface type, Classic or Modern UI. With Classic, the side navigation is collapsed by default. With Modern, it’s expanded. Large side navigations will have display complications when moving / using the Modern UI.

There will always be a couple of Site Collection Administrators that use the side navigation as a bucket for all possible local navigation and important documents. You will need to monitor your site collection and help your Site Collection Administrators keep their side navigation under control. Surfacing these items on a well-designed landing page will help.

Here are a couple of earlier blogs on this very topic:

Bread Crumbs, gone but not forgotten

As of 2013, bread crumbs have been removed from SharePoint and SharePoint Online. The only way to get them back is to edit the master page and return the missing module back to the page. Editing the Master Page is definitely not a best practice, especially with SharePoint Online. So, until SharePointFx is production ready and you can create a client side web part to replace the missing bread crumb web part.

Going Home, Sort of

One of the most confusing aspects of SharePoint navigation is the automatic link associated with the logo in the upper left corner. The logo will always return you to the top of the current site collection. This can be confusion because you expect it to return you to the “root” or master home. But there is no master home concept because of the multiple silo design. The only way to fix this behavior is to add custom Javascript that on page load hijacks the link and rewrites it to go to your master root site. Custom Actions are not yet supported with the Modern UI but will be available via SharePointFx in the near future.

Do you need help implementing a managed navigation system—either at the site level or the site collection level? 2Plus2 can help you build the configuration you need. Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.

Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.
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