Is SharePoint a Good Platform for Building a Public-Facing Business Web Site?
Yesterday, a client of mine asked me a question that comes up often in the conversations with my IT students, business customers, and user group meetings: Is SharePoint a good platform for building a public-facing business Web site? As a consultant, my answer usually is…..you guessed it right…..”It depends.” In this article, I will share my opinion with you on this subject. I will also discuss other platforms for creating public-facing Web sites.
I have worked with SharePoint since its inception in 2001. Over the years, my experience as a SharePoint instructor, SharePoint consultant, and a SharePoint MVP, has made me a SharePoint aficionado. Needless to say, my tendency is to use SharePoint for everything I possibly can. In other words, I live, eat, and breathe SharePoint. But is it a good platform for building public-facing Web sites? Before I go into more detail and answer the question, notice the key words in the title of this article are: public-facing and business. Therefore, I am not talking about private intranet sites and I am not talking about personal sites. I am also not talking about Microsoft Azure because Azure is not SharePoint. Azure supports several platforms that can be used for public-facing Web sites, including WordPress and Drupal. However, Azure is too expensive for small businesses to host public Web sites. Keep all this in mind as you read the rest of this article.
Is SharePoint a Good Platform for Building a Public-Facing Business Web Site?
As usually is the case. There is no simple yes or no answer to this question. The answer depends on many factors, such as the size of your business, what type of public Web site are you interested in, who will manage and support the site, are there any budgetary constraints (I know that’s a rhetorical question), etc. Do you want a simple Web site with not much customization and branding or you are interested in a large e-commerce site with lots of bells and whistles? Is your organization a small business or a large corporation? The needs and requirements vary depending on the industry and the purpose of the Web site. A good platform to me is the one that is affordable, simple, flexible, and provides easy content management. It is also easy to use, manage, support, and secure.
In the past 20 years, I have a lot of experience building and hosting Web sites internally on my business network, as well as hosting them externally at a hosting provider. I do not recommend using SharePoint for building public-facing Web site to an average small business. I say “average’ because there are always some exceptions to the rule. For example, technology companies often have the know-how and resources so they can fall under the exception to the rule. At one point I was using SharePoint to host some of my own public-facing sites. In fact, for various reasons, my Seattle IT Pro User Group site is still running on SharePoint, but I am planning to move it off of SharePoint because of the limitations. SharePoint was not designed to host public Web sites and is therefore not a good platform for it. Now you could argue that there are lots of businesses running their public-facing sites on SharePoint, and you will be correct. I would even tell you that some of the most beautiful Web sites I have ever seen were built on the SharePoint platform. However, they mostly belong to large corporations, government agencies, educational institutes, financial giants, and businesses that have lots of resources, in-house developers, and plenty of support staff to do a tremendous amount of customization and branding. Which proves that you too can have a public-facing Web site build on SharePoint platform as long as you have the infrastructure and budget to support it. I discuss this in more detail later in this article in the section about SharePoint on-premises.
Office 365 and Public-Facing Web Sites
In early days of Office 365, Microsoft used to allow businesses to create public-facing Web sites using SharePoint Online. Just like other business owners, I too experimented with it and quickly discovered it was not ready for prime time and therefore not a good idea. Some of you may recall that Microsoft pitched the idea of creating public-facing Web sites in Office 365 to small businesses. However, that turned out to be a big flop and Microsoft stopped supporting public-facing Web sites completely. Why? Because SharePoint Online was never designed to host public sites.
NOTE: On March, 9, 2015 Microsoft removed the ability to create a new public Web site. Customers who had already created a public Web site were given two years to move their Web sites to a different hosting provider. Microsoft has been very generous and fair to its customers and have given them ample time to make the move. If you currently have a public Web site in SharePoint Online, I encourage you to read the article Information about changes to the SharePoint Online Public Websites feature in Office 365.
For various reasons, Microsoft Office 365 is a work in progress. I am not criticizing Microsoft, I am just pointing out the fact. Office 365 is very popular, affordable, and useful, but its also very different than any other Microsoft offering. Because it’s not a “pre-planned” product, Microsoft constantly adds and removes features and functionality to see what works and what doesn’t. Office 365 is a software gymnastic where features are added and removed at a dizzying speed, usually without any advance notice to the end users. The Office 365 admins can see what’s on the horizon and which features will be added or removed, but they don’t always share that information with the end users. Either because they don’t have the time or, in case of small businesses, they don’t have the IT staff to keep up with all the changes. It’s not just the features, even the user interface (UI) user experience (UX) can change overnight. So you can see why building your company’s public-facing Web site on SharePoint Online would be a bad idea. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why Microsoft dropped the idea of offering that functionality. Another reason is the high cost of maintenance and support. I don’t think Microsoft could have kept up supporting millions of business customers with all the issues on their public sites hosted by Microsoft. I always thought Microsoft made a big mistake to become a “Web hosting provider.” They should have left that to others who are well-equipped to offer that service, like Godaddy.com. Talking about Godaddy, Microsoft eventually partnered with Godaddy, which was a smart move, and is now referring customers to them for public Web site hosting.
NOTE: On September 1, 2017, all existing public site collections in SharePoint Online will be deleted. For more information see Information about changes to the SharePoint Online Public Websites feature in Office 365.
Is SharePoint On-Premises Better for Hosting Public-Facing Sites?
SharePoint on-premises can be used for hosting public-facing Web sites and blogs. Unlike SharePoint Online, which is controlled and hosted by Microsoft, you have total control over your SharePoint on-premises environment. In that sense, it would be easier to host a public-facing Web site on SharePoint on-premises, compared to SharePoint Online. After all, SharePoint is a good content management system (CMS). But don’t get carried away. SharePoint is still SharePoint and it was primarily designed to be a collaboration solution that is good at integrating other applications into its platform. There are thousands of companies hosting their public-facing Web sites on SharePoint, but most of them are large corporations and practically all of them are hosting their sites on either SharePoint on-premises or at a hosting provider. Check out topsharepoint.com to see lots of public-facing SharePoint sites. You can view the SharePoint sites by industry, or explore some of the most popular public-facing SharePoint sites. Some of the well-known SharePoint sites include Port of Seattle, Chicago Public Schools, City of London, Central Michigan University, Mary Kay, and my favorites Hawaiian Airlines and Ferrari.com.
Any business can build a public-facing Web site on the SharePoint platform, as long as it has the resources, budget, and support staff to manage such an environment. Why? Because it requires a lot of custom coding, branding, scripting, and third-party tools to support such complex environments, like the ones I have just mentioned. That’s the primary reason why I do not encourage small businesses to host their public Web sites on SharePoint. Another challenge with the SharePoint platform is that it is not based on simple HTML, which makes it difficult to manage and customize it. There is a reason why Microsoft stopped supporting public Web sites on SharePoint Online…….it was simply too cumbersome and expensive to support and manage. If you want a Web site similar to Ferrari.com that is based on SharePoint platform, I can personally build it for you for less than $300,000 :-). What a bargain, eh?
What About Hosting Public-Facing Blogs on SharePoint?
That will be another bad idea. Been there, done that! It’s not a bad idea because there is a flaw or deficiency in SharePoint, it’s a bad idea because SharePoint was not designed for hosting blogs. Yes, SharePoint offers a blog template, which is hardly ever used. For some businesses, it could be useful to host a private blog and that’s why that functionality is built into SharePoint. A public-facing blog requires much more functionality, flexibility, plugins, and the ability to easily backup and restore the blog database. SharePoint does not meet these requirements.
A senior SharePoint expert at Microsoft once wrote an article saying for years he has been hosting a blog on SharePoint and has finally decided it’s time to move on to something that works, and he switched to WordPress. I have hosted a blog on SharePoint for a while. As an instructor and a consultant, I have to experience these SharePoint offerings so I have a better understanding of the inner-workings and functionality of different features. Well, I too finally switched my blog to the WordPress platform.
Are There Any Web Platforms That are Free?
Yes, there are several popular, free solutions out there for building public-facing Web sites. WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are some of the most popular platforms. WordPress is by far the king of all the Web building platforms in the world and according to some interesting statistics posted on this site, WordPress is most popular with business Web sites. WordPress’ Web site claims that it powers 27% of the Internet. WordPress is an open-source content management system based on PHP and MySQL. It is a simple and flexible platform. It’s relatively easy to use, manage, and secure. Did you know that Microsoft supports installing WordPress on Windows Server? I installed WordPress on Windows Server back in 2013 to host one of my blogs. For more information, read my article WebMatrix and the Support for WordPress on Windows Platform: Like, Wow!
Joomla and Drupal are fairly popular open-source, CMS platform, with Joomla being the easier of the two. By the way, Microsoft’s partner Godaddy supports all of these platforms. There are plenty of plugins and support available for these platforms so you can’t really go much wrong with any of them. Drupal is considered to be a little more challenging than WordPress and Joomla. A lot depends on your technical background, experience building Web sites, and the type of Web site that you want to build. Wix and Weebly are also well-known free platforms.
In 2009, when President Obama embraced the open government, open data, and open source Digital Government Initiative, the White House decided to move its Web site to the open-source Drupal platform. That gives Drupal some well-deserved bragging rights. Here are some popular sites based on Drupal.
WordPress showcases hundreds of famous Web sites on its Web site. Some of the famous Web sites hosted on WordPress, include:
Microsoft, NASA, CNN, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Chicago Sun Times, Time.com, Forbes, Mercedes Benz, Xerox, Coca Cola, Ted, LinkedIn, NFL, People Magazine, National Geographic, Reuters, BBC America, Ebay, Canada.com, General Motors, The New Yorker, Harvard, Business Review, The Next Web, People, IBM, The Rolling Stones, Samsung, Nikon, WNBA, AngryBirds, The Herald Sun, MTV News, Google Ventures, Fortune, Flickr, Mozilla, Riverdance, 007, FiveThirtyEight, Best Buy, Beyonce, and many more.
WordPress has only 449 employees, gets more unique visitors than Amazon.com, and is the most used CMS in the world, with 59.4% market share. You will find more interesting facts about WordPress here and here.
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