Microsoft has crafted the latest edition of its Web Content Management platform to make it more appealing as a solution for building public websites. SharePoint has long been the go-to platform for intranets and document management solutions for small to large businesses.But now SharePoint 2013 is poised to make dramatic inroads as a WCM for internet sites.

So What Makes SharePoint 2013 Good for Websites?

Microsoft has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for designers into SharePoint projects. The most profound change in SharePoint 2013 is the untethering of Master Pages and Layouts from SharePoint Designer, and the introduction of “Design Manager.”

Until now, the de facto requirement for SharePoint developers to be involved in implementing web design was stifling.But now designers can build robust HTML prototypes, complete with CSS and JavaScript, and convert them directly into Master Pages – no developers required.

Furthermore, the “Snippets Gallery” will allow designers to know what SharePoint generated markup will look like, allowing them to plan for it in their prototypes.This clear separation of responsibilities between designers and developers will reduce a lot of development friction and smooth the way for exciting, new and creative looks to SharePoint sites.

That’s enough to create a rapid increase in the adoption of the SharePoint platform by developers and designers alike but, of course, that’s not all.SharePoint 2013 also brings with it a variety of other improvements that will accelerate designing and developing quality internet sites:

  • SEO Friendly URLs
  • Improved default JS/CSS/HTML structure
  • Device channels
  • A search that just works.Formerly a separate component (FAST search), SharePoint Search is an enterprise quality engine that’s now fully integrated and configured to hit the ground running
  • SharePoint Online for Office 365, aka SharePoint Online (the SharePoint service in the cloud does not yet have feature parity with on-premises SharePoint 2013, but Microsoft has promised a rapid catch-up)

Most of these improvements were “nice to haves” for successful intranets, but are “must haves” for public-facing websites.Essentially, SharePoint 2013 is catching up to other WCM platforms that have had similar functionality for years.

Furthermore, Microsoft already has a launching platform in many businesses via SharePoint intranets (so development and administration will be familiar) and the Office suite (which enjoys tight integration with SharePoint 2013).SharePoint 2013 also integrates well with Microsoft’s other line of business and point solutions (CRM, Dynamics, etc.), so Microsoft is in a great position to take advantage of those existing software relationships to push more internet sites. 

Now for the grain of salt …

Contribution Experiences Still Leave Much to be Desired

While these improvements represent a great leap forward for the platform, they won’t translate into long term success as an internet WCM without substantial improvements to the contributor experience.Content contributors don’t care whether the master page is easy to edit, nor do they care about any of the other aids to developer productivity.They care about getting content onto a page and published.And in this regard SharePoint 2013 offers little improvement.

For now, while the contribution experience issues are not insurmountable, they tend to create a lot of friction in both day-to-day contribution experiences and contributor training.

Here are some top of mind examples:

  1. While Microsoft has added drag and drop for images in the document and asset libraries, it hasn’t been implemented in other contribution contexts (once I can drag an image into an HTML Text area, I’ll be a happier man!)
  2. The Web Part administration panel is still terrible!It’s slow to load, confusing, frequently breaks layouts, and it’s impossible to control what configuration settings are accessible.Configuration properties for nearly everything else have moved to the ribbon -- why not web parts?
  3. A contributor can’t create put a Contacts List Web Part on a page without first creating a Contacts List Library -- a task no contributor should be asked to do.
  4. The entire business of creating pages and sites -- and what to do if you chose the wrong one -- makes training contributors to do anything but edit existing pages a nightmare.(Microsoft is shilling for the no-sites solution by implementing navigation by taxonomy, but navigation paradigms aren’t going to change overnight, and automatic hierarchical navigation is unlikely to be made irrelevant anytime soon.)
  5. Still no version control for Web Parts.I might be in the minority on this one, and I acknowledge that there is no simple solution.However, for public-facing websites with financial or legal accountability, not being able to use Web Parts severely hinders the flexibility of a SharePoint implementation.

Sure, the new Content by Search Web Part will make it simpler to reuse content in smart and sophisticated ways – a definite win for contributors – but is that it?No other concessions to contributors?

Is SharePoint Getting Less Expensive for Public Sites or Isn’t It?

Ok, maybe there’s two grains of salt.

Learning Opportunities

It’s clear that Microsoft wants us to believe that some of the more prohibitive facets of SharePoint costs will go away with 2013.There are two ways they’ve tried to address it -- first, by providing a cloud option and second, by changing the on-premises license structure.

SharePoint Online is still a mixed bag. It’s too early to provide confident guidance to customers -- specially those building large or complex sites -- as to whether the cloud-based solution is advisable.

Despite Microsoft’s stated desire to achieve feature parity with the on-premises version of SharePoint 2013, there’s been no timeline provided for bringing critical new features to the cloud.The most glaring current example is the Content by Search Web Part, which is integral to SharePoint 2013 but isn't available in SharePoint Online yet.This puts implementation professionals who need to make architecture recommendations in a tough spot.

The big news in on-premises licensing in SharePoint 2013 is that all licensing includes rights to use it for public Internet sites. This was previously a very costly add-on.But before getting too excited, the list price for SharePoint 2013 has been increased by an average of 38 percent over the 2010 version.

In other words, depending on your current licensing situation and needs, the costs may decrease or increase. (At least one scenario looks clear:customers who have already made SharePoint license investments with Software Assurance appear to be in line to save some major bucks.)

In Summary

Taking into account all of the above, there’s a strong likelihood that there will be huge increase in the number of public websites build on SharePoint 2013 over the coming 12 months. The magnitude of the increase depends a great deal on how quickly Microsoft can achieve SharePoint Online parity with its on-premises counterpart. On the cost front, the combination of the new licensing model and cloud options should spur substantial new investment in even more SharePoint internet sites.

That said, Microsoft has a lot more work to do if they want customers to stay. The next iteration of SharePoint is going to need some dramatic improvements to the contributor experience if SharePoint truly wants to stay competitive as a WCM for public internet sites.

Until then, it’ll be up to competent development partners to continue layering custom WCM improvements on top of SharePoint -- and we’ll all keep our fingers crossed that Microsoft is listening.

Editor's Note: Interested in more of Rob's thoughts on using SharePoint for Web CMS? Read Six Ways to Improve the Content Contributor Experience in SharePoint