What’s the difference between a site and subsite in SharePoint?

Posted: July 3, 2018

I often get asked this question, although it’s usually framed more like this: “when should I set up a site instead of a subsite?” or “Isn’t everything a site, anyway?” or “why should I care whether my site is a subsite or not?”  The first thing to note is there is only one top level (root) site in SharePoint – that’s the Home site.
Because SharePoint is hierarchical, every other site is a subsite of that original Home site.  Of course, your Developer or Administrator could shuffle the display of your Home site and set up the navigation so that users always land on a page or site that is anything but the top level site.  Just remember that underneath the hood SharePoint always has a top level site, and most Admins tend leave this as the Home landing site.  So that means every site that’s not Home on your SharePoint is in fact a subsite.

Does this matter?  Well, not really – only if you care about the permissions, navigation and access to your site.  Generally, end users don’t care whether they’re working on a site or a subsite, or a sub sub subsite (yes, there is such a thing) – they just click on what they need to work in, and all that matters to them is that the navigation to get there makes logical sense.  And to that purpose, many of us that work in SharePoint as developers and admins refer to all sites as ‘sites’, subsite or not.

Site (and subsite) Hierarchy

To the Management team, or to your SharePoint Administrator, the hierarchy of sites is more important because it enables segregation of data and information, which sets up the navigation for end users, and it also allows them to segregate sites using permissions to manage access.

It’s useful to note that you don’t have to set permissions for every sub site that you create, just the segregation alone will help users to navigate and find the information they need.

Typical SharePoint Site Hierarchy

The example below shows hierarchy based on roles and departments in a typical organisation.  The 3rd level subsites (such as Admin, Finance, H&S Committee) may have some permissions set to ensure employees can (and can’t) access the right information.  The 4th level of subsites (AP, AR, Personnel, Recruitment) would very likely be locked down so only relevant staff can access them.

SharePoint site hierarchyFinance may remain an open site where any employee can visit to find key forms and templates like an expense form, but only the Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable teams can access their respective sites.

HR would likely remain an open site where any employee can view a calendar of upcoming events like the social club outing, or what date payday falls on, as well as other relevant HR info like policies and staff induction.  But the subsite Personnel would no doubt be locked down so only HR team members (and possibly Management) can access the confidential information stored in there.  However, perhaps Recruitment has more relaxed access, so that supervisors and middle management can easily access guides to interviewing, applicant forms and any other pertinent content related to new hires for the organisation.

Home Site should be accessible to all users

When I develop SharePoint sites for my clients, I always ensure Home site is an open site where all users can quickly find the stuff they need to perform their everyday tasks, as well as links to less commonly accessed info like templates, company policies and useful resources.

Regardless of how your SharePoint site hierarchy is set up, you can always create quick links to key information on the Home page, and I recommend you do.  In my example, IT Support is a 3rd level subsite, but ensure you consider how a user thinks and works – it’d be sensible to provide some quick links to the Support phone line or email, and a link to the help desk log a job system on the Home page.  This avoids users having to click through the Technology department site to get to the info they need on the spot.

For information on how we can help you with SharePoint training and intranet development please contact us.  We also offer training in Microsoft Office, Office 365 and OneNote. 

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