SharePoint for Public-facing Websites
Because SharePoint is a platform, orgs mix and match features to best satisfy their website requirements. SharePoint has too many features to list in a summary. We commonly see orgs utilizing many of these features for their public-facing websites and member communities of all types.
SharePoint has powerful and user friendly ways for authoring your website. SharePoint is search engine friendly. Proper implementation and SEO discipline can achieve search result rankings with Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Keeping the readers’ attention is up to your content authors, and SharePoint can’t help you write interesting things. SharePoint does, however, make it very easy to publish interesting content to your website.
Analytics provide tools to track and report on trending information related to basic website analytics. Use Advanced Analytics to track and report on sophisticated usage related data such as “who’s doing what, when and where” (at least on your website).
Personalization targets the right content to the right users using tags and SharePoint Audiences.
Workflow automates business processes such as Page review and approval cycle. Define roles that honor existing AMS or membership database roles. Author content from anywhere with distributed content authoring.
Embed videos on your website or member community by dragging and dropping them from a video Asset Library.
Create and edit content using a browser-based content management interface which mimics Microsoft Word with full WYSIWYG capabilities.
Allow users to experience a top-notch search experience with the powerful SharePoint Search algorithm and related capabilities.
Integrate and surface information from your CRM, ERP, AMS, membership database, or any other third-party business systems with Business Connectivity Services.
Allow users to post comments on articles, videos, images or any other content located on your website or member community. Allow users to start participating by rating your content. Display related articles, videos, podcasts, or any other related content from SharePoint or external systems.
SharePoint supports all major browsers including mobile device based browsers. Provide a consistent user interface experience using master pages and templates. Easily manage your website navigation to keep it highly useful and user friendly.
Web Content Management (WCM), also referred to as a Content Management System (CMS), is perhaps the most underutilized capability of SharePoint. Your org can use SharePoint for the creation, management, support, and sharing of your public-facing website(s).
One SharePoint environment can support multiple public-facing website URLs such as your org Site, foundation Site, a dedicated annual conference Site, a dedicated community Site. On the other hand, these could all be components of a single, top-level URL.
Public-facing websites can be open to everyone and can allow anonymous users. These Sites can also have “members only” content, Pages, blogs, videos, downloads, etc. In the past few years, orgs have also started supporting “registered users” who fall between members and anonymous users. Typically in such scenarios, a person can create a new account (register) on the website to receive access to more information and functionality.
Before we delve into the specific SharePoint tools which enable WCM, we should describe a high-level methodology for planning and implementing a public-facing website.
This methodology is simple and has five stages: Discovery, Design, Technical Planning, Implementation, and Assessment.
We’ll go out on a limb and say your website has only a couple of high-level objectives: Education and Revenue. If we were to use traditional business terminology, we could state your website supports Content, Commerce, and Community (though for many orgs community is largely about education).
Your website serves to educate your audiences at various levels. What are the issues your org is involved with? What is your org doing related to these issues? Is your website aggregating relevant information from all appropriate sources, including external sources? Does your website focus on professional development, credentials, certification, or personal development? Do you provide information not available elsewhere? Does your org provide analyses, standards, expertise, commentaries, subscriptions, or other products? Does it facilitate knowledge sharing between likeminded individuals?
Your website is also used to generate revenue. Before you cringe in disgust, realize we are referring to Membership, Event Registrations, Subscriptions, Donations, Bookstore sales, Advertising, Career Centers, Conferences, and any other revenue-generating activity your org focuses on.
As you begin your WCM project, you should clearly articulate your objectives. Remember to Capture, Clarify, and Confirm these objectives.
It’s for them to learn about you. It’s for them to communicate with you. It’s for them to communicate with each other – about you. It’s for them to learn, contribute, teach, and share. Your website must serve many masters, but the master it should serve first and foremost is them.
Clearly define your core audiences. Just because your website is public-facing does not mean the entire world is your audience. Your defined target audiences will dictate your content, functionality, presentation, marketing, and structure.
Remember they will use the website only if it is convenient for them. They will use your website only if they can find what they want, when they want. They will use your website only if it works for them on whatever device they happen to be using when they find it.
Your users do not care about your technology. They don’t care about your AMS, CRM, CMS, Financial Package, servers, widgets, or ACME parts.
Your users do care about you. They care about your content. They care about the Page, the file, the audio, and the video. They care about what you say, and they might care even more about what the other users say on your website. They either want Content, Commerce, or Community.
It is never too early to perform a content audit. A content audit should actually be an ongoing effort of your org. You should have a handle on your content and the way it is managed. The sad reality is most orgs don’t. The content audit can seem overwhelming, but it really is a simple task which just happens to be time consuming.
Content is king, has been king, and will continue to be king for the foreseeable future. If your website has irrelevant or just bad content, your website will not be successful.
In most cases, your top-level website content is actually marketing copy. Put your salesperson hat on when you write your content. On your website, your content is one of your products. Your audiences are your customers. Think about how to sell your product to your customers.
Train your staff how to write better content for your website. Have a genuine interest in providing the best possible content for your audience(s).
Remember to start with configuration and resist customization. Leverage the power provided out of the box as much as possible.
Your planning team needs to be aware of SharePoint capabilities. They need to see it in action and be able to use it. They need a sandbox so they can try ideas during the design stage. Remember, SharePoint provides a lot of configurability through in-browser configuration. Use it.
The wireframe should be kept simple, but should serve these very important purposes:
Suggest the overall structure of the website.
- Suggest the relationship among Pages.
- Suggest the relationship among areas on a single Page.
- Suggest the necessary templates that will be used throughout the website.
- Suggest the global and secondary navigation.
Wireframes can be used for initial usability testing, link prediction testing, and most importantly, for communicating website and Page structure.
SharePoint provides two tools for managing navigation. First is a Navigation manager. This tool makes it very easy for an authorized user to update the navigation.
Navigation should not be static. Continuously revisit and update your navigation based upon the behavior of your users. If new trends appear that demand significant attention; your users should be able to easily browse to that content.
Second, metadata driven navigation provides users with the ability to rapidly browse and discover information in Document Libraries using metadata filtering and views.
How do they find your website?
We are talking about Google and Bing here. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art of optimizing your site and your content to ensure that search engines list your site as the top results for particular searches. SEO drives users to your site to find you.
Here are seven high-level steps to ensuring your SharePoint public-facing website is ready for the Internet search engines.
SEO Step 1: Search Terms
Make a list of the search terms you want people to find your website with. Start with the broadest terms and then get more specific. These should be terms which describe the overall theme of the site.
SEO Step 2: Competition
Identify and research your competition. Your competitors include any site which ranks in the first ten slots using the above search terms. Now that you have identified your competition, it’s time to research. Determine the keyword density of the page which is ranked well.
Keyword density is the percentage of times a keyword or phrase appears on a web page compared to the total number of words on the page. You do not want to publish a page with a keyword density much greater than the site which is ranked number one. You want your pages keyword density to pretty much mimic it. How long have they been around? What exactly do they offer and why do people go to their site? Basically, you are sizing them up to see what you are up against. Document these findings for each search term in your list.
SEO Step 3: Analysis
Analyze your website. For each search term, identify which page is most suited or relevant. Determine its keyword density, and add or subtract content accordingly. Again, you want to have about the same keyword density as the page ranked number one. Always tailor your content for users, not search engines. Once your page is ranked within the top positions, you can almost forget about keyword density and focus on fresh theme, relevant content.
SEO Step 4: Confirmation
Ensure your website is being crawled. This can be determined by searching for your domain name. If it’s not automatically being crawled by a particular search engine, manually submit your site. Do not pay a so-called “SEO” company (online or otherwise) to submit your site to “thousands of internet search engines.” Use some good old common sense on this one – how many search engines really matter? Hint: you care about the ones you have actually heard of, which is likely something less than “thousands.”
SEO Step 5: Site Map
A SiteMap is a way to describe the Pages of your Site to a search engine. It also provides the mechanism for letting search engines know when your Pages have been added, removed or modified. A SiteMap file is an XML formatted file containing an entry for each Page of your Site. Each entry contains the date/time the Page was last modified.
There is a unified “SiteMaps protocol” used by the big three internet search engines (Google, Bing, and Yahoo!). This means one SiteMap file can be used by all three major internet search engines.
Create a sitemap.xml file, register it with the major search engines, and keep it up to date. Keeping the sitemap.xml file up to date can be a daunting task with even the smallest of websites. For this reason, it is recommended that you automate this process. You want your sitemap.xml file to be updated every time a page is published/approved as well as moved, removed or otherwise modified. SharePoint automates the sitemap.xml file for you.
SEO Step 6: Links
Secure quality in-bound links to your site. These links should come from sites that are theme relevant and ranked better than your website pages. Do not participate in “link exchange programs”, or other shady short-cuts. Pick up the phone and make some calls after figuring out what you can offer in return. You want the in-bound link to originate from text describing the page on your website it is linking to, which should be the relevant search term. More quality in-bound links equal higher rankings.
SEO Step 7: Monitoring
Keep watching your rankings and continue adding fresh content. Continue trying to secure quality in-bound links to relevant pages. Do not get frustrated and try to cut corners, you will undoubtedly regret it, especially if your website gets blacklisted. Mostly, continue tailoring your content for your intended audiences. Proper SharePoint WCM site SEO is handled at the page level, not the site level. In other words, let your content authors do their jobs and ensure they understand the rules.
Regardless of how they arrive at your Site, there are several features are important to your website users.
Beyond the benefits of a response design, SharePoint has native support for mobile browsing. Lists, Libraries, and Web Part pages all have native mobile views that are configurable. SharePoint supports personalized mobile views which allow your power users to determine what they need to display on their individual mobile views.
How much time and effort should you spend on the mobile experience? It depends. In order to make this decision, you really need to understand your audience and your metrics.
A good place to start would be to determine how many mobile visitors your Site currently receives. This information is located in your website logs, Google Analytics, WebTrends, or whatever package you are using today. If you don’t have analytics, install Google Analytics. It’s free, takes a few minutes, and in the next few weeks you’ll at least have some metrics.
Trend this data across the past 18 months to infer some basic predictive forecasting. At what rate are mobile users increasing? What will this number look like 12 months from now?
What are mobile users looking at? How long do they stick around? At what page are they most likely to exit the site? This information will help you determine which areas of your site need special mobile attention, and which are fine with native SharePoint mobile compatibility.
Why do you want to integrate your website with Facebook? What’s the business objective? How does this objective serve the overall mission of your org? Ask the same questions about every integration: Why and What?
Provide a simple way to share your content on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Make it easy to locate these social media assets from any page of your website.
This can easily be done with free services such as ShareThis.com or AddThis.com. Do not reinvent the wheel by using custom development to achieve this goal. Make it easy and keep it simple.
Video, audio, PDF, PowerPoint files, and web content are all capable of being rated with SharePoint. Rating content is actually a gateway drug into broader interaction and participation. People like to passively chime in, so let them. Before you know it, they might even be an active participant in your member community!
Commenting allows discussions to take place at exactly the right time and place. SharePoint 2010 provides full commenting using the Note Board.
SharePoint supports a template approach for applying user interface consistency across your site. Branding begins at the top level with a Master Page. The Master Page is the global template through which content will be displayed in.
A typical Master Page will define the header, footer, global navigation, and sometimes the right and left navigation, depending upon the design you have chosen. The Master Page generally includes references to your cascading style sheets (CSS) and any global scripting Libraries that you may be using (such as JQuery).
In addition to the Master Page, SharePoint supports Themes. Themes are a way to change the basic style components without changing the physical layout of the content.
Themes change the font, font sizes, text colors, link colors, calendar colors, and default navigation colors. Themes are useful to designate different site areas (departments, silos, chapters, committees, etc.) without changing the overall user experience.
Navigation needs to be clear and concise. The grouping of your content needs to make sense to them (not you).
Your various web properties need to have a global branding. Your entire ecosystem should be consistent. Everything you broadcast to the world should be easily identifiable as your brand. All of your web assets should have your orgs “feel.”
If your website user clicks a link to an article on your magazine site, the branding or color scheme can change, but the entire user experience (navigation, UI, search location, taxonomy, feedback tools, etc.) should not change. The user needs a familiar and consistent interface in order to experience a sense of location.
SharePoint supports consistency, within and across websites, with templates. Utilize SharePoint Site Templates and Page Layouts to preserve consistency.
Technical planning also defines the system boundaries. SharePoint does not exist in a vacuum. It will have integration points. It may connect to your network, your membership database, CRM, AMS, financial system, job board, subscription site, commerce site, or any number of other systems.
Define system boundaries. Define which systems will do what. Define what SharePoint will do and not do.
For example, you may already store all of your user information in your AMS or CRM. You may already have a membership database where you store your user profile details. Continue storing all relevant user information in your database. Store your usernames, passwords, addresses, email accounts, demographic information, expertise, product purchases, event registrations, and all other user information in your membership database. All of your member information will be in a central location. This simplifies your marketing, analysis, and reporting.
Do not limit your membership database to only members. All of your registered users should be in the same membership database. Community users, donors, volunteers, and members should all be in the same database with different (or multiple) designations.
The technical planning stage should provide at least the following:
- Plan for configuration of all SharePoint components
- Plan for any required customizations
- Plan for integrations like authentication and ecommerce
- Plan for Single Sign On details
- Plan for implementation management
- Plan the work breakdown of all tasks
A single username and password should grant your site users access to all of your properties through a Single Sign On (SSO) mechanism. A user should be able to authenticate one time in one location, and be granted (or denied) access to various site features based upon their roles and status. SharePoint provides a framework to leverage your existing usernames and passwords.
SharePoint provides a mechanism to leverage existing roles. If the membership database/CRM/AMS already has designations for membership levels, committees, councils, or any other working groups, SharePoint can leverage those “Roles” to associate with security.
SharePoint may be integrated with other business systems using the Business Connectivity Services (BCS). The BCS functionality is one of the most powerful features of the entire SharePoint platform.
BCS allows a business user (you really don’t have to know how to write code) to define an external database and use that data within your SharePoint site. You can use the BCS to display information from a Membership Database, or to display your products, event details, member profile details, financial information, order processing details, and any other data which you have access to in a backend database system – whether you are hosting it yourself or not.
Continuously improve your website. Improve the content, structure, design, and capability. Roll out new features and continuously give users reasons to revisit your website.
Hopefully you now understand how to implement a successful pubic-facing website project. Now we’ll review some of the features which make SharePoint a solid choice as a CMS platform.
Browser-based content management
Content authors (staff, volunteers, bloggers, and web gurus) are able to use a browser to create and manage content. They are not tied to a desktop tool.
Content authors are able to update your website from the road, from a hotel, from a phone, and from an iPad. They can create and edit content in SharePoint from a browser.
Content authors will see things non-authors will not see, like the Edit Page link. Authors can type new text, format existing text or paste content (including pictures) right into the page. SharePoint will cleanse and format the content to match the rest of the site.
The interface has an uncanny resemblance to Microsoft Word. Content authors who are familiar with Word should feel right at home using the SharePoint interface to work with and manage content on your website.
Content authors can see what the Page is going to look like in the context of navigation and design as they are authoring and editing the Page.
No single web page exists in isolation. Every page created is in the context of the website with other Pages, videos, images, Comments, Ratings, etc…
Many orgs utilize SharePoint’s built in Workflow to automate the review and approve processes associated with publishing content to the website. Typically, multiple people will create content for your website. Content should go through the appropriate approval process and ultimately get published on your Site. Authoring, editing, and approving content involves multiple people working on many different Pages simultaneously, and should be managed automatically using Workflow.
Perhaps your communications guru will be promoted to CEO and no longer be the one managing the website every day. You need an easy way to give the next communications guru the same permissions that the first one had. Just add the new guru to the same role. Voila! The new person in the role can now do EVERYTHING on the website that the other person was doing last week.
Some workflows need to be time based. Perhaps if a particular web Page is old, it’s time to update it or remove it. SharePoint Workflow may send the author of the Page an email reminding her to update the Page.
Some workflows need to be person based. For example, one particular content author needs their manager to approve the Page before it goes live.
Some workflows should be content based. For example, the annual report needs three levels of approval before it goes out to the board of directors.
SharePoint workflows can be configured by a business user – not a developer. It’s easy to create new workflows, update workflows, review workflows, and even copy existing workflows.
Your website should recognize Jill Member and offer something of value to Jill. Jill logs in and expects a personalized experience. Your website should recognize Jill is a new member or that Jill’s membership is about to expire. It should be able to see that Jill bought a certain widget or that Jill went to the annual conference last year. Jill wants to feel special. Jill has come to expect that your website will treat her as such.
SharePoint satisfies these types of website requirements with Audience Targeting. An authorized administrator can create Audiences based upon user profile properties. These profile properties can map to your existing database (like CRM, AMS, or AD) or you can add properties directly in SharePoint. Examples of Audiences may include: members from Texas, new members, or anyone expressing an interest in a particular topic.
Audience Targeting can surface relevant content to specific Audiences. Web Parts can leverage Audience Targeting. For example, you can create a new web page about the benefits of going to this year’s annual conference. You can then ‘target’ this page to any user who went to last year’s conference but has not yet registered for this year’s conference.
SharePoint provides these analytics – including search usage analytics. What are they searching for? What are they NOT finding?
You can also use Google Analytics, or other third-party package simply by inserting the tracking code in the SharePoint Master Page.
Variations are used in SharePoint to represent multiple versions of content in different languages. If you want your website to be available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish, and English, Variations allows you to create, link, and manage the content in each of these languages (and more).
To be clear – SharePoint does not TRANSLATE your content automagically into another language. If you have ever used automatic language translation software, you already know it’s not the way to go. SharePoint supports multiple Variations of a page for each of the languages that you wish to support. Your org may have an About Us page in English. Variations allow your site to support the About Us Page in any other language that you wish.
SharePoint also has out of the box Workflows that support translation management. If your content author creates a version of a page in English, SharePoint can assign that page to your Spanish translator for conversion to Spanish.
The translator would then key in the Spanish version of the Page which would then be the Spanish Variation of that page. Many orgs rely on translation service companies to perform the translation. In this case, SharePoint can be used to automate the process of packaging the content, sending it to the translation service company, and receiving the translated content back.
Orgs use SharePoint for their public-facing websites; and have logins to their SharePoint-based member community, a place rich with content and interaction which really drives home the orgs’ value proposition.
Orgs use SharePoint’s blogging capabilities, wikis, discussion boards, search center, ratings, comments, newsfeeds, and email- and SMS-based notifications. They use the RSS capabilities, dashboards, calendars, announcements, content scheduling, personalization, and content targeting.
Orgs use SharePoint workflows to automate content review as well as approval cycles, event registrations, and submitted abstracts. They integrate SharePoint with their membership databases and keep track of metrics like conference attendance, renewal rates and subscriptions.
Orgs use SharePoint to surface information from external data sources like AMS and accounting systems. They mix and match capabilities from a seemingly endless pool of possibilities; and they do this without developers ever being involved, using the familiar Microsoft Office interface.