In only 10 years, websites have greatly evolved from their beginnings as simple sites. "Gone are the days of static text, flat images, and broken links," as Eric Riz wrote in his article, SharePoint: Should you use it for your public website? And as the landscape continues to change and people do more and more business over the Internet, todays Internet visitor demands more from their website experience. They not only want a website to be informative and to look good, but they also want it to provide real-time information, dynamic content, social interaction, and an immersive interface. In other words, todays sites must be interactively pleasing, not just aesthetically pleasing.
So what about SharePoint 2010? Just like any technology platform, there are pros and cons and debates over whether SharePoint is always a good fit. But with its extensibility, audio and video integration, and social capabilities, it can be a very powerful and strategic option. In fact, if you have SharePoint already within your organization, another benefit you can realize is that there is little or no duplicated staff training necessary, no separate systems required for your Intranet vs. your external-facing website.
But before we go further, let's do some foundational work. Many are unaware of SharePoints public website capabilities although many already use SharePoint. So, if this idea is new to you, stop over at a site called, WSSDemo. This site lists many public-facing SharePoint sites, and even categorizes them by industry.
In addition, many of Microsofts sites are built on SharePoint and serve as good examples. (Tip for spotting SharePoint sites: When looking at the URL, if it has /Pages/ and the webpage ends in .aspx, then its likely a SharePoint site.)
So, is your business considering SharePoint for your public website? In this post, we will review 6 key things to consider when planning a SharePoint public website project.
1. Licensing and Support
In order to use the full SharePoint Server product for your Internet website, the server licensing comes in 2 flavors, Standard and Enterprise. However, theres no client access licensing. Only the for Internet Sites server licenses are required, but within your production environment, you will need licenses for each running server instance.
Another nice thing to note is SharePoints support community. Beyond Microsoft and its partners, there are many third-party developers of management tools, web parts, and templates. In addition, there is a thriving SharePoint developer community on CodePlex with many downloadable open-source tools.
It's essential to have a well-developed game plan for your new SharePoint site. As with any website project, you are likely to plan a website face-lift. Thus, you will want to take time to define and approve your brand strategy and the look and layout of your site. Do you plan to stay closer to the "out-of-the-box" look, or do you want to significantly customize? In SharePoint, the key to remember is the more Master Pages and Page Layouts you have, the more time is involved in the design and the building of the site.
In addition, SharePoint website projects often require planning and strategy regarding development. In a well planned development process, you have separate environments for development and testing. While Microsoft licensing often allows for these additional environments, hardware resource requirements still need to be planned and allocated.
Publishing information on a public website should always involve a staged process, that includes SharePoint. This is an important consideration regardless of whether youre a small business or a large organization. SharePoint includes powerful publishing features from simple approval workflows to multi-farm content deployment paths. So be sure to plan out your content approval process and then utilize SharePoint to complement, or even enforce, your plan and process.
4. Web Standards and Accessibility
SharePoint 2010 is WCAG 1.0 and 2.0 compliant out-of-the-box and Microsoft has put a lot of work into interface enhancements such as in-browser dialogs, keyboard support, and tab access. In addition, attributes such as labels, descriptions, and tooltips, are built into SharePoint. So, as you customize and brand your SharePoint site, think about accessibility standards and ensure that added content and pictures maintain those same brand standards.
5. Custom Development
As you plan your project, you will likely customize your sites branding and layout and will probably look at extending functionality to include powerful e-commerce functionality, such as customer order entry, order status, etc. Happily, there are some great resources to help you with SharePoint enhancements and development.
To start, check out the Patterns & Practices SharePoint Guidance project on CodePlex. It includes a hands-on lab and good reference material. Next, theres a great SharePoint Dev Wiki at Nothingbutsharepoint.com. And finally, enlisting the help of an experienced consultant company such as Pinnacle, can be valuable to you in reaching your customization goals.
As with any website project, security is a key item to address early in your sites architecture discussions. For most public websites, many visitors will simply browse. Thus, anonymous access is all thats needed. However, if you are looking into an online store with checkout, a vendor or dealer portal, etc., the major benefits come from interactions after login.
SharePoint can use domain logins through your Active Directory, but most companies dont want to be limited or exposed and choose to configure Forms Based Authentication or use a third-party authenticator such as Live ID or Facebook. SharePoint offers significantly better support for these options compared to its predecessors, so its important to think about which authentication method you want to use, how you want visitors to login, and how you want to manage user accounts.
Planning and strategy is key. As a platform, SharePoint has truly grown since its first release. Todays latest SharePoint 2010 sites work well on Firefox, Safari, Chrome, iPads, and more. So while the features are there, the strategy must support your online and business goals. The result of that combination is a site your visitors can easily use and navigate to find your content.