Building your SharePoint Intranet in 2020

Matt Weston


SharePoint Online is badged as the Intelligence Intranet, and in this eBook, we will look at the key features which you should be aware of within SharePoint Online which can really help you.

With the advances that we have seen in SharePoint over the last few years, it is the perfect platform to build out your company intranet, particularly if you don’t have the budget to buy any of the established Intranet in a box products.

What you want from an intranet is completely down to you and your organisation. It could be that you want to use it for only communication, collaboration, or a hybrid. Whatever your definition of an intranet is, SharePoint Online can help you.

SharePoint Online is badged as the Intelligence Intranet, and in this eBook companion to the Global Conference Q1 session, we will look at the key features which you should be aware of within SharePoint Online which can really help you.

A Quick Walk Down Memory Lane

In order to really appreciate where we are now with SharePoint Online, it’s worthwhile taking a look at the previous versions to see how the product has evolved, and ultimately to illustrate how the product has changed very much for the better.

SharePoint 2003

Why are we starting with 2003? Purely because this is the earliest version of SharePoint that I have used to try and build intranet pages on. It was really a big step forward in the concept of creating a space to support collaboration on documents, bringing with it the foundations of SharePoint document management and the promotion of metadata.

For an intranet, we had a small number of basic web parts which we could use to create content, but if we wanted anything richer then we would be writing a lot of HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007

Next came MOSS, which took the basics that were provided by SharePoint 2003 and started to mould the product into a platform that was becoming more mature in terms of its collaboration abilities. Intranets were being built using master pages, and page layouts which always required developers who could write HTML and CSS to create the desired effects.

Next came SharePoint 2010.

SharePoint 2010

For me, SharePoint 2010 was the beginning of the SharePoint intranet. The development of the SharePoint REST APIs began to allow more modern web development practices to be used on SharePoint pages. JavaScript injection started to become more of the normal way of customising SharePoint, placing it inside Content Editor Web Parts to give us the effects we needed. We could stylise more of the SharePoint web parts but needed to be familiar with XSLT (I still have nightmares about this!).

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After SharePoint 2010, the platform has a huge user interface overhaul which became SharePoint 2013.

SharePoint 2013

SharePoint 2013 was really the birth of SharePoint Online as we know it now. It was the start of what is now referred to as “Classic” SharePoint, with the suite bar across the top, the site configuration now available from the cog in the top right corner, and the increase in the number of REST endpoints available for developers to use.

JavaScript development became much more support, although JavaScript injection still existed, we were given the opportunity to utilise JavaScript to transform fields, views, and even search results using JSLink.

At this point though, it was still extremely difficult to have a truly responsive SharePoint page without spending lots of time and money changing the master page and the relevant CSS. It did, however, start to shift the balance of only developers creating rich content for the business users. Even today, I still see the Promoted Links list created to give a tile-based interaction on the SharePoint site.

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The code for SharePoint 2013 was rebased and then branched to become SharePoint 2016 and SharePoint Online. This was the birth of the cloud-based SharePoint Intranet.

SharePoint Online

SharePoint Online has seen the biggest advancement in intranet technology ever in SharePoint products. We have seen the shift from using applications such as SharePoint Designer, to doing everything purely in the browser. We have seen the shift from something which needed a lot of work to make a mobile responsive site, to a site that is mobile responsive from the word go.

If you combine the responsiveness with a whole host of fresh-looking web parts with design options, then you have the grounding for a modern, engaging Intranet. Add into the ability to bring in personalised content, then you are making something which you users will come back to time and therefore improving the engagement with your content.

The Landing layout

SharePoint Online is designed to bring a personal touch to your intranet, allowing you to configure web parts to display information that is contextual to the logged-in user. Using the Microsoft Graph API, some web parts are designed to display documents and sites related to the user, and this can be extended to the news.

What is now rolling out is the ability to audience content, by selecting an AD group to which the content relates to. This again makes the intranet more personal to the person who is browsing.

SharePoint Look Book

Quite often the hardest part of getting started with SharePoint as an intranet is being able to visualise what you can create. The “Art of the Possible” isn’t always visible just by clicking around and playing with the web parts. Microsoft, therefore, provide us with an interactable catalogue called the SharePoint Look Book.

The Look Book provides a downloadable PDF that can be used as a catalogue, but what gives a lot more help is the ability to go and look at a number of pre-built sites which are categorised by function. If you want a communication-focused site, then you can look at templates for that, or if you want a project-based site then there are templates for that.

When you view a template, you not only see the site itself, you get a breakdown of each web part that has been used on that page so that you can rebuild it yourself. Clicking on the web parts will also take you to the Microsoft support documentation for that web part so that you can get the most detailed information about it.

The really nice feature of the SharePoint Look Book is the ability to provision your favourite templates directly to your own SharePoint tenancy. Using the SharePoint Patterns and Practices provisioning engine, the branding, the web parts, pages and demo content are all provisioned into your environment so that you can then start interacting with the web parts and changing the design to suit your needs.

When provisioning, please keep in mind that this can take approx. 5 minutes.

Communications Sites

Communication sites are designed to be the intranet working areas within SharePoint. Unlike Team Sites, they do not have an Office 365 group associated with them, so they are very much geared for support communications rather than collaboration.

If you’re not sure if you’re looking at a Communication Site or a Team Site, then you can tell by observing the basic layout of the site. If your site has the main navigation across the top of the screen, and it uses the full width of the page for content, then you are using a communication site.

Both Communication Sites and Teams Sites are responsive in design, so we can easily create content using the browser which we know is going to work seamlessly when viewed on a mobile device. This content can be created without writing any code, simply by clicking on the screen and configuring either the sections or the web parts themselves.

Home Sites

Home sites are the way of now promoting one of your sites to be the top of your tree. All of our sites are now part of a flat structure, being side by side, however, we can virtually put one site to be the “home site” so that this then sites at the top of your intranet structure.

Not only does it become the top of your structure, but it also has an extremely close relationship with the SharePoint Home page, the page which is displayed when you click on SharePoint from the Office 365 portal or from the app launcher.

Without a home site defined, this page is fairly isolated from the main bulk of your content, showing primarily the sites and content that you have interacted with. Defining a home site, however, makes this page part of your intranet.

To define a Home Site, we need to revert back to PowerShell as we can’t yet promote a site through the SharePoint Administration Centre. Before we try to run any PowerShell, however, we need to install the SharePoint Online Management Shell.

SharePoint Management Shell:

Once we have that installed, we can load up our preferred editor, whether that is the Shell prompt that replaced the traditional command prompt, PowerShell ISE, or VSCode.

Once we have our editor open, we only need to run two commands, the first to allow us to connect to the SharePoint Online service:

Connect-SPOService -Url “<your admin URL goes here>”

The key thing to remember is that when you use Connect-SPOService, you need to supply the URL to the SharePoint admin centre, which will be the name of your tenancy, with “-admin” appended to it.

Secondly, we can call one of the new commandlets which is “Set-SPOHomeSite” which allows us to nominate a site to be promoted to the home site. The only parameter we need to provide is the URL to the chosen site.

After a few minutes of the commandlet completing, you will see some small changes appear on your SharePoint home page, and also on your SharePoint site. In your SharePoint site, you will have an additional link appear in the navigation called My SharePoint. Clicking on this link will return you to the SharePoint home page.

The biggest changes, however, appear on the SharePoint Home page, which will inherit the navigation, the theme and also the footer from the home site. This then gives you consistency across the sites that you are building, and on the out-of-the-box pages which we’ve never been able to modify in the past.

The navigation configuration also appears on the SharePoint home page, so If you have configured your home site to use the mega menu then this will carry through.

Hub Sites

One of the issues that we’ve had in the past is to maintain consistent global navigation across site collections regardless of whether they are communication sites or team sites. In the past, we would always need to resort to sub-sites, so that we could manage the navigation at the top level and then all of our related sites would use the same navigation bar.

As we have now moved to a wider flatter structure in our information architecture, we again had no way of being able to create that consistent navigation, until the release of Hub Sites.

Hub sites are designed to group sites together, but there are a number of other advantages for using them beyond just navigation. A single site is defined as The Hub, and then any other sites are associated with that hub. The process of the association will push the navigation to the other sites but will also apply the theme from the Hub so that you then have branding consistency across your sites.

To make a site a Hub Site, we need to be a SharePoint Administrator and access the SharePoint Admin Centre. From there, we can view our active sites in order to select the site we want to promote.

When we select the site that we want to create as our Hub, we click on the Hub menu running across the top of the sites list and then select Register as a hub site. This will prompt you to enter the name of the hub and give you the option to enter a list of users who can associate sites with the hub.

If you are using your hub to group sites within your intranet, you may not want all of your users to be able to add sites into the hub, therefore you can lock this down to specific people within your organisation. You also have the ability to use Power Automate to implement an approval process.

The effect on the hub site is the appearance of a navigation bar above the title bar on your SharePoint site. The editing experience for this menu is identical to that of the standard navigation, and due to a recent update, you can also create this as a mega menu.

The process of associated sites to the hub is extremely simple and is done on a site by site basis. The option to join is actually part of the Site Information blade which is available from the cog. When the settings blade appears, there is a drop-down for the Hub site association.

Selecting the site and pressing save will then begin the job to inherit the branding, menu and any site designs which are associated with the hub.

It’s nice to know, that if your Home Site is also the Hub Site, then your hub site navigation will then propagate to the SharePoint home page. It can take up to 24 hours for your hub site navigation to appear on the home page.

Organizational Assets

Organization assets have been around for a while, but I believe them to be an important part of an intranet as it allows organisations to have a centrally managed supply of content. This could be image, document or media-based, but it will allow your users to select the content that has been approved and supplied by the organisation.

The first step of this process is to create a document library to host your content. This content will become the endpoint for a Content Delivery Network (CDN), a store of content that is optimised for consumption in terms of the way that it caches.

For us to create an Organizational Assets library, we need to return to PowerShell. Just like with the Home Site, we first need to connect to the SharePoint tenancy using Connect-SPOService. Once our connection has been established, we can use “Add-SPOOrgAssetsLibrary” to define the URL of the library which is hosting our content, and also the URL of the image which will be displayed when we try to access it.

The result is that when we try to add an image to a news article, as an example, then we will have the additional option to select from “Your organization”. This will then give us a way to select content from our organizational asset library.

Other Services within Office 365

We should always consider the other services that we have available to us, within Office 365, when building our intranet. There are native web parts available to us to allow you to embed the likes of Stream, Yammer, Forms and Power Apps into your intranet pages.

Stream will allow you to take videos and channels and embed them into your pages.

Yammer will allow you to take the conversations, or Q&A from Yammer and make them part of the engaging experience of your SharePoint site.

Forms will allow you to create surveys and quizzes which make your pages more interactive and allow your users to feedback. Even something as simple as the ability to leave a rating will make users feel more engaged.

Finally, you can also use the Power Apps web part to embed your apps directly into the site to improve the ways that your users can do their job and interact with their data.

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