Learn SharePoint Online: Best practices, tips, and tricks

How to use SharePoint Online

What is SharePoint, and how can you use it to make the most of your Microsoft 365 experience? Microsoft MVP Benjamin Niaulin covers best practices, tips, and tricks for SharePoint Online.

According to our benchmark report, State of Microsoft 365: Migration, Modernization, and Security in 2021, more companies are embracing the cloud-based productivity tools required for a distributed workforce—performing fewer on-premises SharePoint migrations while increasingly moving to cloud-based SharePoint Online/Microsoft 365.

This trend has been reflected in our own customer data, which helps solidify a feeling we’ve been having for years: the cloud is no longer an eventual possibility for businesses—it is the default solution. 

Whether you’re migrating to the cloud from SharePoint Server or entering the Microsoft universe for the very first time, these best practices, tips, and tricks from Microsoft MVP Benjamin Niaulin will help you use SharePoint Online effectively in your organization. 

What is SharePoint Online?

SharePoint is a collaboration and communication platform that can be used to build an organization’s intranet. It also powers file collaboration across the entire Microsoft 365 ecosystem.  

It’s very important to understand that SharePoint is not a tool, like Word or Excel. It’s not something you install, and everybody gets the same thing.  

When I ask people this question, the most common answer I get is: Well…I don’t really know

SharePoint contains a built-in cloud storage system that is included with your Microsoft 365 subscription. With it, members of your organization can access files anywhere, safely, and collaborate with others in real time. 

For example: every time you create a team in Microsoft Teams, a SharePoint site is also created—a team site to collaborate on shared files. This is one way SharePoint can be used as an instead of just being an intranet. 

The modern SharePoint experience is all about adaptability. Compared to Classic SharePoint, the structure is much more flexible, meaning that it can easily be molded to fit the needs of your organization today, and as those needs change over time. 

SharePoint’s structure 

Because SharePoint plays such a big role in the Microsoft 365 universe, I just wanted to quickly recap the basic structure to make sure everyone is on the same page. 

It’s important to understand the difference between: 

  • SharePoint sites: boxes that are used to organize and store information 
  • SharePoint pages: space used to display content within a SharePoint site  
  • SharePoint web parts: web applications designed to store specific types of content  

What are SharePoint sites?

If you want to keep it simple, a SharePoint site is basically a box. And inside of this box—inside your SharePoint site—are all your lists and document libraries.

The next thing you need to make sure you understand is: what is a site collection? 

Remember that box, the site, that’s holding all your lists, pages, and libraries? Well, now you have a few boxes that are linked together by a structure, a hierarchy. 

You can think of those boxes collectively as a site collection, because they are all connected through the same superior site—what we sometimes call the root site. 

When you create security groups in SharePoint, they’re shared by the entire site collection—the structure of sites or boxes that are linked together.

In the modern SharePoint experience, all sites are site collections and are typically connected to a hub (more on hub sites below).  

Everything within a site collection will also share some things, like the list of SharePoint groups. You can also choose for them to share other things, like databases or a style library. 

When you create security groups in SharePoint, they’re shared by the entire site collection—the structure of sites or boxes that are linked together. 

It’s worth noting that many of the Microsoft’s new features—like Microsoft 365 Groups, Teams, and modern group-connected team SharePoint sites—are designed to work with one site at the top level. 

SharePoint team sites are for collaboration. Ideally, each team should get their own site collection. This happens automatically when you create a new group in Microsoft 365 Groups, or a team in Microsoft Teams.  

This means you’ll likely have lots of different team sites dedicated to projects or work teams within your organization. Don’t panic–this is a good thing. The more specific the purpose of each site collection, the easier it is to apply the appropriate governance policies.  

SharePoint communication sites are for communication. Whether that’s content, a major announcement, or your weekend plans, communication sites enable you to broadcast your message to a wider audience. Typically, only a small amount of members have the privilege to post in communication sites, and most users have read-only permissions.  

Permissions for communication sites are derived from SharePoint groups, whereas permissions for team sites are based on settings in Microsoft 365 Groups. 

For more guidance on when to create a team site vs when to create a communication site, refer to the official Microsoft documentation

What are SharePoint pages? 

SharePoint pages are used to present content to end users. Generally, you’ll use two different types of pages: 

Navigation pages act as a jumping off point for end users to navigate your site. For example, the home page of your intranet is a type of navigation page that presents different categories and potentially some high-level information.  

Think carefully about this page, as it will affect how your users are able to move through the rest of your intranet and sites and find the information they’re looking for. 

Need some inspiration? Check out Microsoft’s lookbook for more ideas of how you can set up your homepage for maximum impact.  

Destination pages contain the bulk of the content users are looking for, and are usually built around a specific topic. For example, you create a team in Microsoft Teams for Employee Success. A dedicated SharePoint site is automatically created to store content related to this team. Your home page might include links pointing to multiple destination pages, such as annual reviews, where users can find everything they need to conduct a review.  

A successfully SharePoint information structure is made up of a carefully planned combination of both navigation pages and destination pages that takes into consideration the end user experience.  

What are SharePoint lists?

If we know that a site is a box with lists and libraries inside of it, then what exactly is a list and what is a document library?

It’s just like creating a table in Word or Excel: each column you create means more information contained in each row.

A SharePoint list is essentially a table on the web—easy to create, easy to use, and accessible from every browser.

It’s just like creating a table in Word or Excel: each column you create means more information contained in each row. The only difference is that a list has all the features of SharePoint for versioning, for content approval, and for work flows.

What are SharePoint libraries?

Document libraries are essentially the same thing. They’re a table, but instead of being just regular tables for managing content or data, the table is actually for the documents themselves. 

Instead of putting your document straight into a file folder in File Explorer, you put them in a document library. Then you have columns that let you classify, manage, and tag your content—making finding your document that much easier.

What are SharePoint hub sites?

The key to creating a site structure that’s physically flat but logically top-down? Hub sites.

Whereas many organizations used sub-sites in the past to create connective tissues, sub-sites don’t adapt well to change. That’s because sub-sites are actually a physical construct reflected in the URL for content. If you reorganize your business relationships, you break all the intranet relationships in your content. 

The modern SharePoint experience uses site collections, which allow for greater flexibility and adaptability. As your organization changes, so too will your SharePoint. 

Hub sites are the connective tissue for organizing families of modern SharePoint team and communication sites. They model relationships as links, rather than hierarchy or ownership, so it’s much easier to adapt to organizational changes. 

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