Saturday, May 14, 2005

SharePoint areas and topics for newbies

When you start implementing a SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (SPS) solution for the first time, you soon begin to wonder what is really the difference between areas and topics. SPS contains a top-level area called Topics out-of-the-box, which contains several areas and that allows you to add even more areas to Topics. So how are topics and areas related to each other ?

The answer lies in the art of Information Architecture (IA), which is one of the main strengths of SPS, in addition to the indexing and searching functionality provided by SPS. As your solution grows to tens of thousands of WSS team-sites and your SPS areas gets filled up with an abundance of content, and your users have a hard time of finding the information they need, then your SPS portal is in great need of IA (actually IA was needed a long time ago, before stuff got out of hands).

Information architecture typically has these aspects (L. Rosenfeld, P. Morville):
  • The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system
  • The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content
  • The art and science of structuring and classifying web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information
Information architecture (IA) is a very important part of implementing a SPS portal, i.e. determining how to customize the portal to fit the needs of an organization.

Thus, you need to device how to organize your SPS content and your site directories to help your users find their way around the portal without always resorting to searching. IA defines a set of typical ways to organize content known as the LATCH acronym:
  • Location (region, office, etc)
  • Alphabetical
  • Time-based
  • Classification (a.k.a categorization, taxonomy, and a whole lot of other terms)
  • Hierarchical (by issue, product, price, size, etc; any measure that allows for ranking content)
Organizing content in SharePoint is actually based on the principles of LATCH.

If you look at the metadata that SPS by default allows you to enter for new SPS areas and for WSS team-sites that you register in a SPS site directory, you will see that the metadata fits into LATCH. Then you should look at the different views provided by SPS for a site directory, and even make your own view that uses the metadata for e.g. grouping the team-sites. What you now have done is to provide your users with a new structured way of finding the WSS team-site they are looking for, much like finding books in a library by using a card catalog. The same way of organizing content applies to SPS areas and their content; metadata is used by SPS topics to give the users different views of the content stored within SPS.

In short, SPS have two main IA mechanisms for organizing content: areas and topics. Areas are the physical way of structuring and classifying information, while topics are logical views of the information (like SQL tables and SQL views). Thus, areas define the navigation structure of the portal, while topics organizes the content by structuring the information space of the portal. Use areas to make it easy for content contributors to add and maintain information assets in the portal, and use topics to make it easy for users to find and use the available information.

Another central aspect of IA, in addition to navigation and structuring content, is helping users find information. One of the most important aspects of SPS is the indexing and search scopes. SharePoint search should be configured according to your identified IA categories to enable and drive findability of information and documents stored in the portal and in all the WSS team-sites, in addition to selected external web-sites and information sources.

A final, commonplace advice on planning that holds true for all kinds of architecture and design: IA is important before adding stuff to SPS as it is most likely that a site design that starts with well-designed information architecture will be easier to implement and maintain and will be less likely to need an extreme makeover in the near future, leading to lower maintenance costs in the long run.

A good introduction to IA in general is found here:


Anonymous said...

After Googling a lot for
"area vs site",
this is the best explanation i've found yet.

A Dutch Sharepoint user.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, not a soul on the internet can tell me about best practices. Lots of sites admonish me to do my IA homework, and that IA is important, but nobody can give me an example, or bring it down to earth.

So what do I tell my client when they ask: "So, for 'content item xyz' should I use an area, a topic, a category, a sub-site, a page, a list, or a web part?"

It seems that nobody knows.