Plus16 Webinar Transcript "Digging into SharePoint Navigation"

SharePoint navigation options: Managed Navigation offers upsides. But there still is a place for Structured Navigation that relies on your site hierarchy.

By Cathy Dew

Hi everyone. Welcome to our monthly Plus16 webinar series. Thank you for taking the time to join us. We know that you are busy – so our goal is to be focused and to pack meaningful data into an efficient 30-minute window. We’ll save time for Q&A at the end. 

My name is Cathy Dew and I am CEO + Information Architect for 2Plus2 Partners. I’ve also got Sally Dew our Creative Director and Anthony Baratta our CTO joining us. Let’s get started.

Your intranet navigation design

Today we’re talking about the implementation of your SharePoint Intranet navigation. With the newer versions of Microsoft’s collaboration platform there is more than one way to set up navigation. But we also want to talk about the design of that navigation.

Determining the best scheme for your Intranet is a process and one that is informed by and can benefit from considering the following:

  1. spNavigation_0012_02.pngWhat does the SharePoint platform have to offer – you need to understand what it is and how to use it.
  2. Standards and best practices for organizing Intranets.
  3. Perhaps most important, the characteristics of your organization – the size (number of employees); the complexity of your organization in terms of departments, services and products; your current SharePoint implementation (most of our projects include the migration and often an upgrade of an existing SharePoint instance) and the culture of your company

All of these aspects of the project will help guide the information architecture and technical implementation of your Intranet.

What does SharePoint offer?

As hinted at in the title of this webcast, there are two primary ways to set up your navigation in SharePoint:.

  • Structured (which follows site collection hierarchy) and
  • Managed (which is more of a roll your own approach) based on user-defined metadata.

Actually there is a third option called Search-driven navigation which has some advantages but requires customizing the master page, which is typically a strict “no-no” as it compromises ongoing support and rollout of new features and bug releases of SharePoint. At this point, we can’t really recommend it...

Structured navigation

Let’s start with Structured Navigation. This is the “out-of-the-box” option for navigation used by default. It is the most straightforward and is the appropriate solution in.

There are a number of advantages to this approach:.

  1. spNavigation_0010_04.pngIt is security-trimmed meaning that SharePoint looks at the individual permissions and then removes anything that the employee doesn’t have access to from the menu.
  2. It is automatically updated when new sites are added, nothing needs to be done when new sites or subsites are added – these will automatically be included in the navigation, with that same security-trimming.
  3. Under the covers, it doesn’t require any customization of the master page.
  4. Non-technical user can can make minor changes if needed.

The next out-of-the-box solution is Managed Metatdata Navigation.

Metadata recap

So, in the simplest terms, metadata is "data about data," or "information about information." It's data that can be associated with SharePoint assets—like documents and folders—to catalog it and make it easier to find. A good example of an often-used metadata 
term for Intranets is department. If you are working on a project for human resources, you might include the metadata tag of "HR" to make it easy to find for anyone in the HR department. In addition to tagging by department, you can use metadata to classify files based on document type, client, subject, project, or anything that is meaningful to the group accessing the information.

spNavigation_0009_05.pngMetadata terms and values are managed in the Term Store by defining groups and term sets. Term sets are the basic building block. When you create a term set you are creating a collection of related metadata terms. You can create term sets on both local (specific to a site) and global levels (across sites). Local term sets are typically used on a single site and would only apply to one department or team. Global term sets are more universal metadata tags and are typically used throughout your SharePoint ecosystem.

If some of the terms are unfamiliar, don’t worry. This is SharePoint speak for basic metadata concepts.

SharePoint vocabulary recap

Let’s clarify a few terms.

  • Taxonomy: A taxonomy is a hierarchical classification of words, labels or terms that are organized into groups based on similarities. A taxonomy may be defined and centrally managed by one or more individuals.
  • Folksonomy: A folksonomy is a less formal classification where users collaboratively apply words, labels or terms to content on a site. A folksonomy-based approach to metadata can be useful because it taps the knowledge and expertise of site users and content creators, and it allows content classification to evolve with the users’ changing business needs and interests.
  • Term set: Within SharePoint taxonomy is described by a term set is a group of related terms. Depending on where a term set is created, its scope can be local or global. Term sets can be configured to be closed, which means that users cannot add new terms when they are entering a value for a column that is mapped to the term set, or they can be configured to be open, which means that users can add new terms to the term set when they are updating the value for a column that is mapped to the term set. Important to note that we highly recommend that organizations have a tightly managed set of terms for global navigation and other terms that will be used across the intranet, for example, departments, service definitions, product groupings and other concepts that will likely be used throughout your Intranet.
  • spNavigation_0008_06.pngTerm: A term is an individual item within a term set, and it is a specific word or phrase that can be associated with an item in a SharePoint site. A term has a unique ID, and it can have many different text labels (synonyms). If you are working on a multilingual site, it can also have labels in different languages.
  • Group: Groups define security boundaries. A group is a set of term sets that all share common security requirements. Only users who are designated as contributors to a specific group can manage term sets that belong to the group or create new term sets within it. Organizations should create unique groups for term sets that will have unique access or security needs

So, what does this have to do with navigation – well you use the same term store structure to define the terms that will become your navigation. Let’s take a closer look.

Managed metadata navigation

Managed metadata navigation is another “out-of-the-box” method of setting up your navigation for your intranet. It can be used to recreate the same sort of functionality as structural navigation but the actual labels and links are based on specific decisions including the order of the menus. For a little background, in SharePoint Server 2010, by default, you could only base navigation on the structure of a site. To create a site navigation based on any data structure (that in many cases would greatly improve the user experience), you had to create a custom navigation that wasn’t easy to maintain and couldn’t be centralized.

Managed navigation lets you define and maintain your site navigation by using term sets. With managed metadata navigation, you can now break free from the physical structure of your content so that it no longer defines your navigation. Instead navigation is based on how you tag your content with terms from a term set. For example, in previous versions of SharePoint, if you wanted to add a new page under "About our company," you had to add that page under the "About our company" branch within your content. With managed navigation, you can add a page to the branch that makes the most sense to you.

spNavigation_0007_07.pngOne of the biggest advantages of using managed metadata is that it executes more efficiently than structured navigation, which remember is basically building the site navigation with each screen flip. To support security trimming SharePoint has to look at the entire structure to build a security-trimmed menu, based on the user's access.

A big disadvantage of managed metadata navigation is that there is no way to security trim the results so if an employee doesn’t have access to a given site, the link will show anyway. When the link is clicked an access error message is presented.

But remember, you have complete control of the links, the labels and the corresponding action. Links can include sites, pages, documents, pretty much anything. And you have complete control over the order of items. This is a big benefit especially for the top level or two of navigation in an Intranet ecosystem.

So let’s recap the pros and cons of each approach.

Comparing the options... Pros

spNavigation_0006_08.pngStructured Navigation
  • Sites are automatically added. When you add a new subsite to your site collection, it is automatically added to the navigation.
  • Easy to maintain, because it happens automatically.
  • Pages are automatically added.
  • The resulting site navigation is security trimmed for the specific employee. If a user doesn’t have access to a link, it won’t appear in the navigation.
Managed Metadata Navigation
  • By using managed navigation, you can design site navigation around important business concepts. It makes sense to your organization and employees.
  • Significantly faster page loads because the navigation is accessed via a specific location and doesn’t have to read the entire site structure to build the nav.
  • Pages are automatically added. The navigation term set is the backbone of the managed navigation feature. By default, as you create new pages in your publishing site, new terms are automatically added to the navigation term set which shows up in the nav.
  • Easy to maintain with more options to target search. Documents tagged with a navigation term show up in search results along with homepage of term resulting in a better search experience.
  • Managed navigation creates friendly URLs. In previous versions of SharePoint, the URL to a page contained a reference to the Pages library and any folders within that library, for example: With managed navigation, URLs are based on the terms in the term set that drives your site navigation, for example: for your intranet. This is huge for the overall usability of your site and search engines results.

Let’s move to the cons.

Comparing the options... Cons

spNavigation_0006_08.pngStructured Navigation
  • It can result in slower speeds when complex navigation structure is in use as it needs to make calls to the SQL Server database to get to a sub site that is buried deep in a site collection.
  • URLs can be hard to read and therefore hard to memorize.
  • Homepages belonging to structured navigation links do not appear in search when you type a search term.
  • Cannot tag a structured navigation link to a document that it may relate to resulting in a less robust search.
Managed Metadata Navigation
  • Not security trimmed, so if a user doesn’t have access to a link in the top navigation they will still see it but can’t get to it – the user gets a warning message.
  • New sites in the site collection are not automatically added to the navigation.
  • While it is true that you cannot use the managed metadata term set across site collections, there are ways to mitigate the impact. The short, and somewhat over-simplified description of the solution is that you define the navigation once and then subsequent site collections have a managed navigation that is “pinned” to the original “master” global navigation term set. We’d be happy to talk specifically about how to do this after the webinar…

This is a good summary of considerations for the two types of navigation. Structured works well with shallow less complex site collections. Managed metadata navigation is used when you want to diverge from the physical site structure. As long as the menu items are basically static, then maintenance effort is not a big deal.

In terms of the overall intranet navigation, the type of navigation is also impacted by how many site collections versus sites you have. Further if your organization needs multiple site collections, which it probably will, and you want some sort of “global” navigation, then you will likely need a navigation scheme that spans multiple site collections.

Before we dig into when sites versus site collections, let’s take look at the design of your Intranet navigation from a content and feature point of view. Let’s look at what makes an intranet information architecture and navigation design good.

Good intranet design

In practice, intranets are designed to solve for three types of internal business communication needs:

  1. Deliver one-way, top-down corporate news and HR information
  2. Offer a library of best practices, and process documentation
  3. Provide a space for employee-to-employee sharing and real-time communication

But your Intranet can be more – it can be a way for employees to connect and learn about other aspects of the organization. It can be a way to inspire and engage. In terms of getting to the best navigation for your organization, it is critical to approach theInformation Architecture with an employee-first mindset – not management, not an org chart and definitely not IT.

Basic tenets
  • Keep it simple, clear and concise, don’t be obscure or cryptic with labels.
  • Put Search front and center. Make it really good. Luckily SharePoint continues to improve and expand Search.
  • Feature news announcements to keep content fresh.
  • Make it personal by featuring employees, consider a way to let employees recognize each other with kudos and shout-outs.
  • Add feeds with latest search terms, frequently used documents, etc. Let employees benefit from site usage.
  • Provide an employee directory. This is a great way to have an extremely useful resource on the site and keep profiles current.
spNavigation_0004_10.pngAutomate business process

Be sure to support employees in their every day work efforts.

  • Employee onboarding checklist
  • Vacation calendar & approval process
  • Timesheet & notification to HR/Payroll
  • Anonymous suggestion box
  • Training material presentation & testing

This is a great way to make the Intranet not only a place for push content – news and announcements, but also make it a key part of an employees work day.

From the experts at NN/g

I’ve been following the UI experts at Norman Nielson Group since they started (1998). If you don’t know them I encourage you to check them out at In an article just last week, ”The Top Enduring Intranet-Design Mistakes: 7 Deadly Sins” Kara Pernice, Senior VP, discussed the fact that while Intranet tools and programs come and go, bad UIs linger for years, they negatively impact employee productivity and morale, and ultimately increase organizational costs.

Here is a quick recap of her points. Don’t let your intranet design get dragged into using any of these common design evils.

  1. Poor search results – SharePoint supports faceted search, powerful filters and a beautiful document preview triggered with a hover.
  2. Content in silos – the number one employee complaint with Intranets is that they can’t find what they are looking for.
  3. Poor visual layout – design still matters, with a focus on delivering a consistent User Interface.
  4. Illegible text – speaks to content. Quality content matters.
  5. Announcements and promotions that look like external advertisements – we are all trained to ignore anything that looks like a ad, even on an Intranet.
  6. Global navigation that disappears – on point with what we’ve been talking about today.
  7. Portal pages that only promise content – you’ve heard the phrase “content is king”

SharePoint Metadata be a powerful tool to address #1 and #6 in particular.

Earlier this year, NN/g had some specific comments related to SharePoint in an article titled “Design a Brilliant SharePoint Intranet.” spNavigation_0003_11.pngHere are some highlights:

  • Microsoft SharePoint is a platform for creating intranets. It includes many helpful features such as: search, CMS, news, employee directory, personalization, team collaboration spaces, blogs, wikis, and news.
  • Strong market adoption: The Radicati Group’s 2015 "Microsoft SharePoint Market Analysis, 2015-2019” report asserts that “Microsoft SharePoint continues to see strong market adoption across all verticals, and is projected to grow at an annual average growth rate of 20% over the next four years.”
  • Summary: SharePoint requires install plus in-depth UX design and development. Forge strong relationship with SharePoint UX designers and developers for successful intranets. And take advice from winning teams who have made SharePoint an effective enterprise tool.

Now let’s get back to implementation…

SharePoint sites vs. site collections

As you implement and maintain your Intranet you will be adding new “sites” on a fairly routine basis. Should these be sites or site collections? This will have a very direct impact on your navigation decisions. Having a set of guidelines is important not just in the 
initial design, but should be part of the ongoing management of your intranet ecosystem.

A quick recap of Sites and Site Collections…

SharePoint Site basically is a website. SharePoint allows you to create websites of specific types like Personal site, a Team Site, a social media site, a blog or a Wiki Site etc. Each site contains different SharePoint Web Parts like Document Library, Calendar, Task List, etc. SharePoint sites can have 1 or more pages to display content to the user. Sites can have subsites which can have subsites…

SharePoint Site Collection is basically a collection of SharePoint sites that share common features like Content types, Templates, Site columns, permissions, Web Parts etc. Each site collection contains a single top-level site and subsites below it.

spNavigation_0002_12.pngWhen to create a site in SharePoint
  • Leverage the same metadata, security or navigation as the existing sites (in the site collection)
  • You are a small organization and want to minimize administration
  • Leverage the site template, including the branding, automatically
When to create a site collection in SharePoint
  • There is a common administrative boundary or common branding. Users have the same permissions.
  • House all the sites and content for a business unit
  • When a single site collection gets too large to manage, and it must be split into smaller ones
  • Organize sites for a common purpose is another reason for a Site Collection, such as Enterprise Search Center or to host My Sites
  • External sharing should always be done in a separate site collection so that you can leverage special security

Scale and scope are key reasons to create a new site collection. The more recent recommendations from Microsoft are related to security and permissions. If you have completely different security groups, you should create a new site collection. This sets up a need for what some folks refer to as global-global navigation – navigation that spans across site collections. Managed Metadata Navigation is going to help.

In conclusion... our recommendations

To answer the questions of which navigation method to use, we recommend that both is probably the right answer. At the end of the day, unless your organization is small you are going to need multiple site collections and you will need to support these three flavors of navigation:

  1. spNavigation_0001_13.pngGlobal-global navigation exists across the top of all site collections in your SharePoint ecosystem, it is the same across “all” site collections, this is limited to six top level items.
  2. Local-global navigation is typically what you think of as the navigation for a division or business unit. There may be one or more site collections for that logical branch of the intranet.
  3. Local-local navigation is for the specific site, it shows important lists and pages on a site. The purpose is focused and detailed. Team sites and project site fall into this category.

Our recommendations:

Global-Global (top top nav) – we recommend using Managed Metadata Navigation
  • To deliver an integrated, fully functional Intranet you want the same global navigation across all site collections. This has some distinct advantages:
  • Better user experience by providing consistent navigation across the entire ecosystem
  • Since everything is exposed via the global navigation, there will likely be less duplication of content
  • One less structure for Admins to manage
Local-Global (top menu) – we recommend using Managed Metadata Navigation
  • For large organizations, it is likely that there will be another level of managed navigation required.
  • Support cross-site collections within an area (business unit or department) or top level section of the intranet.
  • Structured navigation within a site collection may still be overwhelming meaning that you will want to use a managed navigation approach to keep the number of items in a drop down reasonable (less than 12 is a good rule).
Local-Local (left) – we recommend using Structured Navigation
  • Once you are in a specific site, the structured navigation is a good scheme. As the specific site grows, the navigation is automatically created

That concludes the webinar. We currently have three different flavors of large-scale SharePoint implementation in progress. One client is using SharePoint Online/Office 365 exclusively for team sites; the main “global” portal is implemented on the Kentico platform. Another is using SharePoint Online/Office 365 for their entire intranet. Then we have a client that is using SharePoint 2016 on-premise for the entire Intranet – global public portal and team sites. We’d love to talk to you about your project.

Thank you. Any questions?

spNavigation_0000_14.pngQ: Is Structured Navigation supported by the new SharePoint Modern UI?

A: In the current phase of it's roll out, Modern UI does not support structured navigation. Microsoft states it has that support in the road map, and companies with access to the Beta Version of Modern UI have reported it now being available for testing. So we suspect that roll out to First Release participants first.

Q: You mentioned pinning for sharing structured navigation across Site Collections, how does that work?

A: Pinning Structured Navigation includes some additional overhead for set up and maintenance, and is something that is best covered as part of the evaluation of your SharePoint site and build out. The nuts a bolts of navigation pining is a great topic for a blog post look for one shortly!

We hope you will join us next year for our Plus16 on Tuesday, January 10 at 10AM PT, 1PM ET.
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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