ChecklistI've been working with SharePoint for over 8 years now, and worked with a lot of different clients and types of users. I've seen that there's one area that a lot of people either struggle with, or get flat out wrong. That is what they create in SharePoint to store content.  At the core of every SharePoint environment is the content, and more specifically how it's stored and displayed.  Over time we've seen a lot of people and organizations struggle with having successful SharePoint implementations, large in part due to poor adoption due to bad content.  Want proof? Check out our post where we discuss our 40/20/40 principle.  Think differently.

With great SharePoint permissions comes great responsibility … 

In today's post I'm going to give four questions to answer that should help drive what kind of content needs to be created. Why is this so important?  One of two things can happen:

  1. Too often, either too much structure is created (an entire SharePoint site is created that stores 2 documents) OR
  2. Too little structure (a folder in a library is created when an entire site is needed)

If you have ever been through a SharePoint upgrade, you might have had to review all the existing sites and content to try and get rid of all the unused or old content. Well, imagine departments went crazy and created hundreds of sites for just a little content. After about site #15, you wonder “why did they do this?”  You get where I'm going with this.  I’m here to try and guide you in making a good decision.

Let's Define "Structure"

Before I go into what the key questions are, I want to be sure we all have the same context and terminology.  To make smart decisions, it’s crucial to understand what each type of object is used for to be able to know when you should use it.

Site

Do I need a SharePoint team site?

A SharePoint site is the primary container of repositories for storing content like lists and libraries. The site itself doesn’t store any data; it stores the lists and libraries that actually hold the content.  The site also has certain aspects that apply to it like security, features, navigation and other settings that are scoped to the site and everything in it. SharePoint sites can also contain other child subsites.

Sites are used when you want to store different types of content that shares the same topic or subject. This can be for a department, a project or a similar group of people in the organization. For example, if you need to store files, calendar data, a list of to do tasks, contact information or lists of accounts all for that one department or project, you would use a SharePoint site.

List / Library

SharePoint stores & organizes content by utilizing lists and libraries. Sites hold lists and libraries, and those lists and libraries store the content itself. 

  • Lists store item based content, like a list of contacts or tasks or calendar items. 

Do I need a SharePoint list?

  • Libraries store file-based artifacts like Word/Excel files, PDFs, or web pages. Libraries can also store folders.

Do I need a SharePoint library?

SharePoint provides pre-built types of lists and libraries targeted for specific purposes, or you can start with a blank canvas and build out your own.

Page

Do I need a SharePoint page?

A SharePoint page is a type of content that is created in a library, as it is an actual file of sorts (a web page). There are different types of pages (wiki, publishing, modern), and I’ll only give the quick basics below.  A SharePoint page, of whatever type contains text-type content like text, images, video, or other features called web parts that shows other content (perhaps aggregated from other areas, a view of an Excel spreadsheet, etc.).

  • You can use a Wiki page when you have web page content that is subject to change frequently, and you don't need a consistent firm layout of the page. It's designed to be changed and updated easily.
  • A publishing page on the other hand is still showing the same text and images, but it has a fixed layout to ensure consistency. It's also likely that the publishing page would need approval before being published.

So think FAQ for Wiki pages, and internal news articles for publishing pages.

Folder

A folder in SharePoint is not really much different than your standard Windows folder since forever, or a file share you may use. It's a one-trick pony - a simple way to organize/segregate/group your files from other files. Generally in SharePoint however, folders are so 1995 and more importantly not the most efficient way to organize content. You want to use metadata (another topic for another day).  But there are a few (just a few) reasons why you might still use a folder in SharePoint.

  • SharePoint-based folders allow you to specify default metadata values on them so every file a user uploads into them automatically gets tagged with that metadata. Imagine a folder per year, and for the year 2016, tag every document with 2016.
  • Folders also allow you to put security on them. Say you have 10 files in a library that need to be secured slightly differently than the rest. You could set the security on each file, but who wants that headache? Put the files in a folder set the security on that folder - done.
  • Folders are crucial to use when you have very large libraries (libraries with 5,000 files and higher). Folders basically help the backend storage get broken up so that when you look at a list of files, you're not asking it to render 500,000 files at one time (30 files at a time). It would take 10 minutes for the page to load!

4 Key Questions

4 Key Questions to Ensure You Create the Proper SharePoint StructureI put together the following questions to ponder as you set out to start storing content in SharePoint. The big question is always, do I use a site, or just a library? Or a page?  Maybe you just always created a site because you didn’t know any better.  A lot of times there is no black and white / right or wrong answer, it's just aesthetics. But other times there are efficient and inefficient way to do accomplish your goal.

What do you need to store?

Do you have a PDF or Word document, a list of data in Excel or need a calendar of dates? Obviously from earlier we know we need a list or library then its just a matter of what type. But if you need web-based content then you need a page. If you have multiple or different types of content, you will need a site to organize the lists and libraries together.

How much do you need to store?

Do you have 1 terabyte of cat videos or picture assets you want to put in SharePoint? We need a library to store the files, but because it's so much content, like more than either 5,000 items or 200 GB in size there are other considerations to take in account. We might need to create a separate group of sites, then 1 site for the assets, then 10 different asset libraries to break up the content into manageable chunks. You can put millions of files into a single document library, but only if you plan that library very carefully and make heavy use of folders.

Conversely, you may only need to store 5 files. In that case I would see question 4 below – I would strongly encourage finding an existing folder or library in an existing site for that content instead of creating a dedicated and mostly empty site just for the 5 files.  How exactly you break that up depends on the content, and the questions below.

How does it need to be secured?

Who doesn’t love dealing with security and permissions?  Permissions and how things need to be secured play a big role in how you choose to store content.  From an administrative standpoint, you want to group content that has the same security together.  Security in SharePoint propagates top down from parent object to child object, site to library to folder to file.  Permissions can be defined at the top level and automatically be used at all the lower levels, making handling security easy in one place.

If you're storing 10 files and they need to be secure from everything else, you will likely either create a folder in an existing library or create separate libraries in an existing site. The point here is to avoid setting very granular permissions as much as possible, and group things together. 

There are times however when it can’t be avoided, and you have to break the permission inheritance and put unique different permissions on things.  I have a client for example that for their budgeting process, there is a single site with a document library for each department.  In each department there is a folder for each department billing code.  At library and subfolder permissions are broken as each department and folks charging to their code should not see anyone else’s budget file.  I had to write scripts to help deal with the yearly lockdown and release of the budgeting process.  Sometimes it just can’t be avoided. 

Does anything already exist to store anything related to this current need?

As you see in the other questions, a lot of times existing sites, lists or libraries can be used to store the new content. Or an existing site can host the new library or list that is needed. You should only create a whole new site if nothing exists on the same topic with the same security, and you need to store various types of content together for a single purpose.

You’re On Your Way …

My hope is now you have some insight and guidance on what you should be creating the next time you need to put something in SharePoint.  These same guidelines apply no matter what platform of SharePoint you’re running, but I will say that SharePoint Online is changing, with modern pages and other changes, including other aspects to consider like Office 365 groups.  You can check out my short video where I give you a walkthrough of the new modern libraries in SharePoint Online. 

We also offer other opportunities for you to dive deeper:

  • A live 1-day training course for Power Users on SharePoint 2013
  • Take a broader view and let us guide you in Building a Better Intranet in this 2-day live workshop!  This is very high-level and not just for SharePoint, but any intranet platform.

Please reach out to us if you have any questions!