SharePoint Hub sites: a primer

Microsoft has released another SharePoint site type to help people organize content across SharePoint sites, but how much value does it provide?

What are Hub Sites?

Hub sites are a new type of site that allow you to associate SharePoint Team and Communication sites with a parent. For simplification purposes, let's imagine a scenario where you have many intranet team sites, each in a different site collection, that are related to one another because they all have content from the same function within your organization. Right now, there isn’t an easy way to tie those sites within your Sharepoint intranet together in a meaningful way so your users can easily discover content across them. Chances are, you have a web part with some links on each of those sites linking out to the related sites. This is less than ideal, since each of those sites is probably managed independently and they aren’t pointing to one another in a consistent and easy to understand way. In my experience, this just causes more confusion about where to find the things you need. Hub sites are meant to solve this problem with some clever and useful tools.

How do Hub Sites work?

Administrators create hub sites and then associate existing team and communication sites with the hub site. You can also associate with a hub while creating a new team or communication site. The newly created hub site propagates it’s navigation to all the associated sites. This should help make the information architecture a bit easier to build out, since you won’t have to worry about creating a perfect parent/subsite relationship beforehand; it does it for you.

In addition to the common navigation, associated sites will also inherit the hub site’s theme and icon automatically. You also get rollup web parts that can surface content from all your associated sites in one place. Once again, the trend here is towards making it easier to group your sites without having to plan out the site collection architecture beforehand. What matters more than anything is having the flexibility to shift your content and associate it where it makes the most sense, so you’re not stuck with a rigid hierarchy.

Finally, search will automatically be scoped so that the results include only content from your hub and its associated sites. That should also help in trimming the junk from search results, and make your users a lot happier (assuming, of course, they are searching for content in the right hub).

Advantages of Hub Sites

The biggest advantage to using hub sites, and what’s most impressive to me, is how easy it makes it to move sites and content from one logical grouping to another without the use of expensive third-party tools or complicated PowerShell scripts. Anyone who has ever had to migrate documents, lists, and site pages between site collections knows how arduous this process can be, even with the help of automation. Now, all you need to do is detach and reattach your team and communication sites between hubs as needed.

The second big advantage is search scoped strictly to associated sites. In all my time working with SharePoint, nothing has served the perpetual headache of poor search results better than limiting the bounds of what I’m searching. Searching across 10,000 documents dedicated to a subset of sites is more likely to get you what you need than searching across every site and all 2,000,000 documents your organization has stored in SharePoint.

Where do Hub Sites fall short?

Despite significant advantages, Hub sites fall short in a few key areas. First, team and communication sites can only be joined to one hub site at a time. While this makes sense from an information architecture perspective, I am consistently getting requests from customers to show content in multiple places.

Second, hub sites may be rolling up content from multiple related sources in a single view, but that isn’t terribly new in the world of SharePoint. Every SharePoint customer has bought or built a rollup for this express purpose, and has probably built in more sophisticated logic to share content across site collections and farms.

Finally, SharePoint is still missing key functionality like targeting of content and personalization that’s richer than what they give you out-of-the-box. Hub sites don’t address the problem of delivering the right content to the right user at the right time in any new or interesting ways.

Final thoughts

I think hub sites have the potential to be extremely helpful for the long struggling information architect, and they might even make finding content within a smaller scope easier for users. Hopefully we’ll get more details soon on the roadmap for hub sites and see what other goodies this new information management tool will deliver.

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