close up of the hub and spokes on a bicycle wheel
PHOTO: Robert Couse-Baker

Microsoft has officially released SharePoint hub sites and is gradually rolling them out to Office 365 customers — but what's all the hub-bub about?

Hub sites were first announced at the Microsoft Ignite conference last fall. A Hub is basically a new site template for a specific type of SharePoint site. The feature is currently only available for SharePoint online, although Microsoft has said it will consider including hubs and other site templates and features in the SharePoint 2019 on premises edition due later this year.

So the SharePoint Online environment now offers templates to create team sites, communication sites and hub sites to tie them together. One of the big problems I've seen with on premises SharePoint environments was the proliferation of site collections, and the massive proliferation of sub-sites within them. Such architectures often cause problems when migrating sites and content, and definitely cause hiccups if you move from on premises to cloud. 

SharePoint Online allows you to have site collections, with a top level parent site, and child (sub) sites beneath them, but Microsoft and its partners have been touting the benefits of a flatter hierarchy for a while now. In this case, the number of sites doesn't necessarily change, but the architecture shifts to a grouping of “top level” sites instead of a deep hierarchy of sub-sites.

Add last year's release of the new communications site templates with the release of hub sites, and it becomes clearer what gaps these new templates are meant to fill.

Related Article: Hub Sites Raise SharePoint's Intranet Potential

What Does a SharePoint Hub Site Do?

The clue is in the name.

A hub site is a central place to link to other sites, creating a global navigation layer for the connected sites. Hubs are also a place to aggregate and display information from those connected sites. Microsoft summarizes it like this:

  • Cross-site navigation: Increase visibility of and navigation among associated sites.
  • Content rollup: Read aggregated news and discover related site activities.
  • Consistent look-and-feel: Establish a common theme to improve visitor awareness of connected sites.
  • Scoped search: Focus on finding content that resides within the hub site’s associated sites.

You can add team sites and communication sites to your hub site, but you can only connect a site to one hub, and you cannot cascade hubs by connecting them to each other. This makes sense, since a hub site pushes down the settings for a common look and feel (color scheme, logos, etc.) to connected sites, so if you could connect a hub to another hub, programmatically something is going to get confused.

Diagrammatically, it looks like this:

SharePoint hub sites

In this instance, the three top level site collection sites would (or could, but don’t have to) navigate across their own sub-sites, but any links between these top level sites and their sub-sites would have to be manually created and managed. Adding them to the hub site will:

  • Include the top level site collection “parents” to the hub site's global navigation (and their child sites too, in a hierarchical menu structure),
  • Surface the news articles published on all the communications sites via the content roll ups and
  • Add all the sites (parent and children) to the “associated sites” webpart, which looks like the Office365 SharePoint Home, with a “pane” for each site.

Related Article: Mark Your Calendars: Microsoft Announces Mid-2018 SharePoint 2019 Release

Pros and Cons of Hub Sites

Microsoft has suggested in videos and articles that the hub is not a portal, rather that it will exist alongside your existing portal sites. However, if we think of the term portal as describing a “way in,” then this is definitely a portal (a mini-portal?) providing a way to find a group of sites that have something in common.

Microsoft suggests an advantage to the hub site is the ability to connect and disconnect sites from various hubs. This will provide some flexibility to your intranet’s information architecture and will allow you to change things up quite easily should you go through a major organizational change.

My only quibble with the hub sites is the way the global navigation for connected sites is added as a layer above the hub’s own site-level navigation:

sharepoint hub site navigation
 

No doubt user interface experts who are far better qualified than I am will weigh in on this navigation design, but it is going to have to grow on me.

What I do like is the ability to push branding elements down from the Hub site to connected sites. Common branding provides an element of “information scent,” which helps business users understand a group of sites are connected due to the shared color scheme, logo, etc. Microsoft made this a simple configuration, with no need for coding, which makes it easy for anyone to enable. So if a site needs to be moved from hub A to hub B for whatever reason, the change in look and feel should make it immediately obvious that it is now part of a new organizational grouping.

Alongside team sites, communications sites, and custom configured or custom built portals built on publishing sites, hub sites add a tool which at first glance might seem more valuable to large enterprises with complex intranets. However I would suggest the simplicity of actually connecting sites and the ability to provide a “global” navigation element and content roll-up via a mouse clicking configuration will make them a useful addition to smaller intranets too.

If you are one of the early adopters, let us know what you think of the hub site experience so far.